We found Sgt Pepper in a trashcan, rummaging through garbage looking for something to eat, only 3 weeks old. He was the sweetest, most gentle little thing and even though his belly was swollen from hunger, ticks and wounds were covering his body and he was so weak he would lift a leg to walk and immediately fell over, he had life in his eyes. I took one look at his little face and knew it was love. Unconditional love. My boyfriend took some convincing, however. We had only known each other for a few weeks at the time, and getting a dog together is usually something you do after a few years. I was on my way out the door when we found him, spent an hour cuddling and feeding him, and left him in a crate before I ran off to my appointment. I knew Dennis would be home just a few minutes later so I wrote a note that said “Don’t be mad – I’ll explain later”, taped it to the crate and left. Dennis said he came home, saw the crate and got so upset he didn’t even look inside. “How could she have gone to the shelter and chosen a dog without consulting me, just like that??” he thought. He didn’t know I hadn’t been to the shelter but that the little creature sleeping in the crate was meant to find us all along. I knew. All it took was one moment with him, and Dennis knew, too. We went back and forth with his name for a while. What do you name an all-black dog with bright blue eyes that refuses to sleep in his own bed, chews on anything he can find, chases imaginary lizards and howls like a wolf anytime he hears a high-pitched sound? Dennis wanted to name him Black Dynamite. I wanted to name him Yogi. We settled for Sgt Pepper, from our favorite Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As he got older his eyes went from bright blue to dark brown and he grew into a big, muscular, Labrador-looking bundle of absolute joy. Pepper became the center of our world, and it wasn’t until we got him that we became a family. I already had Quila, a stray dog I’d picked up off the street in Costa Rica, and Dennis had Laika, a beautiful but somewhat feisty 2-year old that he’d gotten from the shelter and who had had been living with Dennis’ mom. Together, the five of us became a tribe. A few years later we were busy traveling a ton and got Ringo, a small pup, to keep us company on the road. Six was the magic number!
For two years the six of us lived in a small house with a big garden, at peace with life. Dennis ran a skate shop and I was busy teaching yoga. Every afternoon we’d take all dogs to the north shore for a long walk, and every weekend was spent on the beach playing catch, swimming and chasing crabs. We had agreed that Ringo would be our last dog (four dogs in a small house is a lot!), but I was still taking dogs in from the street and caring for them, trying to find them homes. This was a very risky thing to do as finding homes for strays is never easy. Dennis had a two-week rule; meaning I had two weeks to find any dog I brought in a new home. Apparently, he thought having four dogs in the house was plenty…! Every time I brought a dog home I would exhaust myself trying to find him or her a family. If for some reason I wasn’t able to, I’d have no choice but to take the poor thing to the shelter. The shelter is often full, due to the overpopulation of strays and many unwanted litters on the island. Many of these animals end up in the government funded “kill cage” and are euthanized.. Luckily, we have managed to find every stray a loving family thus far. Working for animal rescue was something that always came naturally to me, but I didn’t have the means or the ability to help as many as I would have liked to.
When Dennis and I got engaged we knew we could never get married without having Pepper there. We planned our wedding in Sweden, June 28 of the following year and arranged for a tuxedo and a top hat for Pepper and Ringo to wear. The wedding was magical. Pepper walked down the aisle together with Dennis best man but refused to sit down during the ceremony, confused as to why he wasn’t right next to us. He started barking and pulling to stand in between Dennis and me – we simply had to shuffle some things around so that Pepper could be right there with us while we exchanged our rings. After the wedding weekend we spent a week staying at my dad’s house, paddle boarding on the lake, going for long runs enjoying time with the family. Pepper was a little low during this time, and as he had been sick with stomach flu the previous month and an ear infection just before that, we took him to the vet. They couldn’t find anything wrong with him so we figured he was probably tired from all the excitement of the wedding and the long trip over. We headed off on our honeymoon, leaving Sgt Pepper and Ringo with my dad to enjoy the Swedish summer weather, the lake and the forest for a few weeks. When we were gone, Pepper again seemed a little down, still eating normally and excitedly going for walks, but in between, he was tired. My father took him to the vet but again, they found nothing wrong with him at all. We saw four different veterinarians over the course of six weeks for what we thought were minor things, but none had anything to say other than “ear infection” or “stomach flu”, giving us ear drops or telling us to feed him rice and lamb for a few days. My father told me “I guess he just misses you so much when you’re gone” and I believed the same. We returned from our honeymoon, flew back home to Aruba and geared up to teach a yoga retreat the following week. When we came home, Pepper seemed to be back to his usual self. A few days later we woke up in the morning, and noticed something was wrong with his eye. It was bright blue, the same color it was when he was a puppy, and he didn’t seem to be able to see. We took him to the veterinarian in Aruba who drew his blood, and knowing what to look for, told us he had tick disease. His blood count was so low he was surprised to see him standing up, let alone going for runs and eating big bowls of food. He had probably gotten it before we left for Sweden, and little by little gotten worse as we were away without letting it on.
On August 1, just four days later, Sgt Pepper passed away. He was only four years old.
Moving on after Pepper died was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do. I felt extremely guilty for not having taken his symptoms more seriously at an earlier stage, and for not noticing how even though he was active, he wasn’t his usual self. The months that followed were awful. We had a big hole in our family, big holes in our hearts… And nothing could fill it. All I knew was I owed it to Pepper to do something good for the world, and to keep his legacy alive.
I was invested in the world of Instagram since long, and having over 2 million followers in social media meant a lot of influence. It wasn’t until Pepper died that I realized just how I could use it to make a change in the world.
During a yoga retreat in Thailand in February of 2015 I came across a pit bull chained to a pole. It turned out his name was Omelet, and his “owners” kept him chained to the pole at all times, letting him live in his own feces with only a small concrete perimeter to move around in. I was heartbroken. Pepper’s death was still fresh and every dog I saw reminded me of how he came into our lives. It was the day before our departure, and knowing we had no means of bringing this neglected pit bull out of the country I turned to Instagram for help and posted a photo of him to see if there was anyone available to help. I got over 500 emails – within a few hours! People wrote from all over the world wanting to adopt him, and we were lucky enough to get people in Thailand looking to help and adopt as well. My first thought was: “Wow. What if we had 500 dogs ready for adoption?? Imagine the change we could be making!” We did everything we could, but in the end we couldn’t save him – the family that “owned” him refused to give him up. Omelet was a big catalyst for change, and after the experience in Thailand I started an Instagram account with the sole purpose to use social media for animal rescue. I named the account Sgt Pepper’s Friends, in honor of Pepper. “What other way to make him proud than to use this influence to save as many animals as I can?” I thought.
The moment I came home from Thailand a stray puppy walked into our garden. He was so dehydrated he almost couldn’t walk, and had cuts and scrapes covering his body. We took him in and named him Sammy. Sammy would turn out to be the very first rescue made by Sgt Pepper’s Friends. I posted his photo to the Sgt Pepper Instagram account and hundreds of requests started flooding in. It worked! Social media really is an amazing way to connect people – and apparently, animals as well. We knew that to make Sgt Pepper’s Friends a proper foundation and to make a real change on the island, we were going to need some serious support. We partnered up with Melanie and Dayenne, long time animal rescue workers, established ourselves as a legal foundation, and before we knew it we had a team! Together with Dennis, Amelie, Dayenne and our fosters and volunteers, Sgt. Pepper’s Friends is now saving lives and rescuing animals every single day. Animal rescue is so much easier when you have support from your community. Luckily for us, our community is filled with compassionate people from all over the world and there are plenty of people out there looking to open up their hearts and homes for a new pet!
Losing Sgt Pepper was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to go through, but I know now: it wasn’t for nothing. I miss him every moment of every day, but knowing that we are making a difference in the world in his name makes it all a little more bearable. Pepper inspired something profoundly beautiful and we are so grateful for the time, however short, we had together. I think he would be proud. Actually, I know he is. I see him in the eyes of every dog we save.