'I Feel Blind':Devon's Death Leaves Big Paws to Fill
By Tom Embrey
Step inside the Aberdeen office of MIRA Foundation USA, a non-profit organization that places guide dogs with blind or sight-impaired children, and images of Devon the Bernese Mountain dog are everywhere.
As the face of the organization, the gentle giant with the striking black and white coat with brown accents is on posters, photographs, promotion fliers and life-size cardboard cutouts. His image even appears as a screen saver on a computer.
But as the office reopened this week after being closed 10 days for vacation, Devon, the big burly ball of joy who had a love of life and a passion for food and people - especially pretty girls - is conspicuously absent, and his MIRA family is mourning.
"It (office) is empty. There is a big, big hole," said Bob Baillie, founder of MIRA Foundation USA and Devon's owner and companion.
Devon, who was three weeks shy of his seventh birthday, died Aug. 2, just two days after a veterinarian discovered he had bone cancer in his hip, pelvis and spine. He had been Baillie's constant guide and companion for the past four years and the face of the organization since it opened here in 2009.
Devon's loss has been profound for the organization, which raises money to pair dogs with children at no cost to families. In the past three years the organization has placed guide animals - all Bernese Mountain dogs - with 12 families.
Founded in Canada in 1991, MIRA is the only organization that gives guide dogs to children ages 11 to 17.
"This whole thing was built around Devon's ability to show what guide dogs can do for children and for all people," Baillie said of MIRA Foundation USA.
Since word of Devon's passing has spread, sympathy cards, letters, phone calls and voice mail messages, Facebook posts and flowers have flooded into the local office.
"I've never heard of a dog getting flowers," Baillie said. "Who sends emails to dogs?"
But Devon was much more than just a dog. As a well-traveled fundraiser and celebrity, he was a poster dog for empowering the blind and a local celebrity who served as a 100-pound security blanket for Baillie, who lost his sight four years ago after he had heart bypass surgery.
Devon gave Baillie confidence to allow him to treat his blindness as an inconvenience rather than a disability
"I am so lost right now," Baillie said. "This morning I came up the street with a cane. I haven't used a cane in four years."
Baillie says walking with a cane without Devon takes three times longer.
"When I walk with a cane, I have to look for obstacles and know where the danger points are. With the dog, you don't know the obstacles are there.
"The best way to describe it is, without Devon, I feel blind."
Devon's death came suddenly. In July he began having sporadic bouts of lameness, but an examination then revealed nothing significant, Baillie said.
"We went to Cary on July 31 and thought his knees were the problem," Baillie said. "But after they ran some tests, Dr. (Jack) Gallagher said something was seriously wrong."
Devon was given medications, but Baillie said his trusted companion and friend deteriorated quickly, and two days after his diagnosis, Baillie was faced with a difficult decision.
"That Thursday morning we left the house and he was not very sharp because of his medication," Baillie said of Devon. "We made it a few steps down the driveway and he sat down and refused to move."
Devon was humanely euthanized later that day.
"He was more than a dog, or a pet, and I refused to let him suffer," Baillie said.
Those who knew him say Devon was special because of his intellect, his boundless energy, his compassion for people and his ability to be unfazed by even the most hectic situations.
He was equal parts gentleman, guardian, ambassador, office greeter, clown and chow hound.
"He was a bundle of joy," said Beth Daniels, executive director of MIRA Foundation USA. "He always knew what role he was in."
As a testament to his smarts, Devon mastered more than 50 commands - in both English and French - and could unflinchingly navigate his way through large crowds and unfamiliar places like PNC Arena at Carolina Hurricanes hockey games, or shopping malls.
"He just never failed to make your jaw drop with what he could do for Bob," said Sandy Stringer, who also works at MIRA USA.
Baillie said it often took Devon two times to get down a new route and then flawlessly navigate it with just the slightest command.
When Baillie was around stairs, Devon always stayed between Baillie and the top of the stairs so he wouldn't fall, and Devon always pushed Baillie to the hand rail. He would protect Baillie from traffic and determine the safest routes to regular destinations like the post office and restaurants in downtown Southern Pines.
"He never ever missed a step," Baillie said.
He also never missed an opportunity to eat.
A notorious food mooch, Devon's penchant for dog biscuits and his not-so-subtle powers of persuasion are legendary. First he would come to Baillie and place his paws in Baillie's lap, and if that didn't work, he would work the room, heading over to Daniels' desk and placing his large head on her keyboard.
"I can't tell you how many Word documents on my computers have had 'zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz' in them," she said.
He loved ice cubes, bacon and licking the ankles of female flight attendants.
Baillie was seldom alone in public with his faithful sidekick.
"Devon was the biggest chick magnet. If I had known what it was like, I'd have gotten him when I was in my 20s," Baillie said.
Baillie said he is grateful for all the condolences he and the MIRA Foundation USA have received since Devon's death. He is hopeful to have Devon's successor by the end of the month. He will then go through a two- to four-week training program with his new companion at the MIRA Foundation International headquarters in Canada before the two can return to Moore County.
Baillie knows his new companion is going to have some big paws to fill.
"I am hoping a new dog can fill that hole, fill the void," Baillie said. "It's like losing a family member. Nobody is going to replace them, but the work goes on."
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 693-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story