Potcakes are the indigenous mixed breed dogs of the Turks and Bahamas islands. Dogs were traditionally fed the hard chunks of residual rice, peas, fat, and meat from the bottom of a stew pot that’s been cooked over open flame. These hard chunks are called potcakes, and the dogs became known as Potcakes by association with their food.
Over the past few hundred years, a “stew” of dogs from many breeds brought by voyagers from all over the world have been tossed into the island melting pot to become today’s Potcakes. Though they can vary quite a bit in size and color, there’s a “Potcake look” that one comes to recognize after spending time in the Islands. They are recognized as a distinct breed by the Royal Bahamian kennel club, but still are considered “mixed breed” in the U.S. Despite a long career in pet care and nutrition, I had never heard of a Potcake dog.
This story, however, is not just about adopting a strange dog in a strange land; it’s about the spiritual cycle of love, loss, and renewal that is inherent in the love of dogs. The unlikely twists and cosmic convergences that led to our becoming “Potcake parents” may suggest to some that there are spirit hands, or perhaps a billion invisible paws, helping to drive the life cycle forward.
Taylor Bay’s trip from the tropical sun of Turks and Caicos to a Connecticut snowstorm really started as a conversation with Isis, our then seven year old Golden Retriever. By “conversation”, I don’t mean the usual chatter that we humans inflict on our dogs as an antidote to our own loneliness and boredom; I mean a genuine conversation, in which Isis transmitted thoughts and images to me with a clarity and intensity that was startling, even disturbing.
After finishing work late one night in January of 2011, I tiptoed into our bedroom, hoping to wake neither my wife, nor Isis and our other Golden, four year old Ozzy. But while getting ready for bed, I felt an urgent mental tug from Isis that compelled me to lie down next to her.
A rush of thoughts and images came to me from Isis. Of course it sounds insane, but the things coming into my head didn’t sound like my own thoughts, and the message was clear: Isis was afraid of dying. I saw images of our departed dogs, Carly and Charlie. Isis had lived with both of them as they grew old, with everything that entailed, including their eventually leaving us. She wanted NOTHING to do with the aging process and its embarrassing loss of mobility and control. And she was worried about all of us, especially her mate Ozzy. She didn’t want to let us all down by dying.
This was craziness. Isis was a healthy seven year old with many great years ahead of her, right? So I tried to send out waves of formed thoughts and images, like pictures within clouds, pictures of happy things like swimming, chasing balls, romping with Ozzy and the kids; things of which I felt sure she had so much more to experience.
Shortly after our late night conversation, Isis started making an occasional scratchy sound in her throat, and after a few days of this we took her to the vet. We found out that she had advanced cancer, which had spread to her lungs, and that there was little we could do for her. On one of her last nights, she rallied and played with Ozzy like old times, and I was optimistic. Two days later, Isis died in our arms while we lay with her on blankets covering the floor of the vet office.
Amanda and I sunk deeply into grief. Watching Isis die so quickly when we had no idea she was even sick was a sharp sword to our hearts. And I couldn’t really grasp the truth that she had TOLD me she was dying.
Months earlier, we had planned a first ever family vacation to Turks and Caicos, in part to celebrate my parents upcoming 60th Anniversary. That trip was now two weeks away, and we almost canceled, but it would have been selfish to do this to our children and parents. Isis would want us to go, we told each other.
So as our family flew towards the Caribbean, I thumbed through the official Turks and Caicos tourist magazine publication in the seat pocket. My “dogdar” led me to an article about Potcakes and Potcake rescue foundation. It was weighing on us that Ozzy was grieving as well, and that after being with Isis his whole life, he needed company and would not thrive as a solo dog. We touched down in Providenciales, known as Provo by both locals and tourists. Potcakes were forgotten as we landed and dove into exploring. We would wait until we returned home to methodically search for a new companion for Ozzy, to keep the cycle turning.
However, the universe works in strange ways. The first time we drove down the remote beach road looking for our rental house, located between Sapodilla Bay and Taylor Bay, just 3 houses down from our destination we passed a house with a wrought iron gate sculpted as a dog’s profile. Again, my “dogdar” perked up, and doubly so, when I saw that the house had a name-“Maison de Chiens.” even with my rudimentary high school French, I knew this meant “house of the dogs”! What were the odds that my wife and I, both pet nutrition business veterans, would randomly rent a house online, and wind up so close to a fellow dog fanatic?
But even after that nudge, we had no more thoughts of banging on the gates of Maison de Chiens, or of looking more deeply into the Potcake situation.
Or so we thought. On a visit to a restaurant near the rental house, we happened to meet a wonderful man named Lovey Forbes, who turned out to be one of the most well-known and best loved musicians in the islands. As a musician myself, I was thrilled to meet him. After we had discussed the music, Lovey asked us the fateful question: “What do YOU do?”
“We own a company called Clear Conscience Pet, and we manufacture healthy dog treats”, I answered. This reply prompted a huge smile from Lovey. “You’re kidding, Mon, my wife is the head of the Potcake Foundation.” My jaw dropped. When we asked Lovey where he lived, we hardly needed to listen to the answer. Of course, it was Maison de Chiens! Lovey’s wife, artist Heather Simpson-Forbes, was the Founder and Chairwoman of the Potcake Foundation, the only charitable organization dedicated exclusively to bettering the life and health of Potcake dogs in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Now if one is looking for signs of that invisible force at work, this was a persuasive example. What were the odds that of all places in the world, we would wind up in front of this man, at this moment, on this island thousands of miles from home? How could this all be chalked up to “coincidence”?
We were graciously invited to Heather and Lovey’s Bayfront villa that evening, where we met our first four Potcakes dogs, the current pack in the Forbes home. They were friendly and fun. Potcakes were pretty cool!
By the end of the night, we were set up to meet Susan Blehr, the Director of the Turks and Caicos SPCA (TCSPCA). Our goal was still only to visit the facility, to make a donation of money and treats to support the rescue efforts. We most CERTAINLY were not going to look at puppies to adopt!
We and our two boys made the trip to the TCSPCA office and met Susan. After some general discussion, she said, “now aren’t you really here to look at puppies? We have some who are ready for new homes right now.” My hands got clammy and Amanda and I looked at each other. “Uh, well, we really couldn’t possibly bring home a new puppy,” I said. We explained about our recent loss of Isis, our concerns about introducing a semi-wild dog to our family, and of course worries that Ozzy would reject a strange new dog so soon after losing his lifetime mate.
We also had concerns about the long term health of Potcakes, about whom we had known nothing only days before. And what about the practical considerations of traveling for hours on an airplane and going through customs with a non-housebroken puppy? Impossible!
Susan reassured us on all fronts. The TCSPCA has placed thousands of puppies in homes in the U.S.A. and Canada, and has the process down to a science, she told us. Health certificates are supplied for travel, all puppies ready for adoption have had complete veterinary care including all required shots, and the puppy would be given to us in a pet carrier at the airport on our departure day with all appers. We would only need to take the puppy’s paperwork to the airline counter and pay a $100 fee to take the puppy in the plane for the trip home.
Reluctantly, we followed Susan from the TCSPCA office to the Pampered Paws kennel, knowing that leaving the office and going to the kennel was a huge step. The kennel was very clean and well-run, and the dogs were in large runs with plenty of running room rather than confined to kennel cages.
It was here that we first saw three puppies, two females and a male that had been rescued in late November at less than two weeks old as part of a litter of six from an area near the beach. Their survival had been doubtful, but the pups received excellent veterinary care, and they pulled through. By the time we visited, three had been adopted and the remaining three were about twelve weeks old. They needed homes very soon or they would get too big to fit in a hand held carrier for the flight back to the USA. Without off-island adoption, their future was uncertain. So this was the moment of truth. Would we form a bond with a Potcake puppy and cast aside our fears?
One of the females was very shy and frightened, but she went to my older son and nuzzled him. The others were more playful, but when this little girl looked right at me with her beautiful brown eyes, I knew I was in trouble. We were told that this puppy might not be our best choice, as she was very fearful and might have a harder time adapting. But I saw something in those eyes that anyone who has ever rescued a dog will understand; it was a plea for life and an offer of unconditional lifetime love. And maybe something else; a twinkle that felt like Isis saying “yes, she’s the one”! My heart melted along with my resistance, and we made a family decision to take a leap of faith and rescue this little girl, making her a part of our family.
The next day, Susan brought the puppy to the airport to meet us. We decided to call our new baby “Taylor Bay”, after the location where we rented our island house. She behaved beautifully during the flight, barely making a peep. Her first experience in Connecticut was stepping out of the car and into over two feet of snow! Not exactly Caribbean weather, but she surprised us by being more curious than concerned!
Ozzy, our Golden boy, was a little shocked at first that we had brought this strange looking creature home with us and was no doubt still in mourning for his mate. But after a few days, he warmed up to her. Since then they have become inseparable. Her shyness melted away with the snow by spring, and she has become a vibrant and loving 40 pound adult. Her personality is cautious with anyone new, and she’s an alert watchdog, but she loves people and warms up to strangers quickly once she feels safe. Fe can resist her unusual “dingo-like” appearance and her winning personality.
We hope our story can give some comfort and hope to those wounded by the grief of losing a beloved dog. No dog “replaces” another, of course. You’ll grieve as hard as you must, and you’ll cry as many tears as you think you can produce and still find more. But keep your heart open. Somewhere, out there, whether on a faraway island or in a shelter a mile from home, is THE dog that is supposed to come next in your own cycle of life. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the dog you think you lost forever is right there in the spirit world, helping you to find the next doggy love in your life.