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Corey Ledwell plops down in the light gray sandy dirt, drawing lines to nowhere with a twig. His German shepherd Hilda is nearby, squeezed into a slice of shade edging this clearing in the middle of a budding recreational development in Livingston. Ledwell's workers are a half-mile down the trail, working on a dam. It's blazing hot, and even the dense patches of East Texas trees don't provide much relief. That doesn't matter. Ledwell has a sad story to tell, a tale of betrayal and loss, a story that should not be hurried out of its details, and it will take pacing and Hilda to help him get through it.
On Thursday, June 28, Ledwell returned home around 8:30 p.m. from his son's baseball practice to be told by his wife, Chrystal, that his dog Gerda wasn't acting right. "At first we thought it was a joke. She ran right into that door panel," he says, jumping up and running his own body into a tree to demonstrate. They were laughing at first -- look at that silly dog -- but soon they weren't. "She spent the rest of the evening running into walls," he says sinking back down.
He got out his medical journal, a Reader's Digest one. It was for humans, but he's figured out that dogs and humans are a lot alike. "I thought it was some kind of cerebral thing. She throwed up once." She also went to the bathroom in the house, something, Ledwell says, Gerda would never do.
Next morning, he called the vets at Texas A&M and told them he was coming. Gerda, who was always ready to go for rides, hung back. He picked her up and set her in the truck. He carried her into the vet clinic and laid her on the floor. "She wasn't back there three minutes when they came out and asked, 'Has this dog got into any antifreeze?' " Ledwell told them no; he doesn't keep any at his place.
The vet came out saying more tests were needed, but they might cost $400 or $500. Ledwell said sure, whatever you need to do, do it. They ran an ultrasound test and the doctor said she'd have to do a biopsy on Gerda's kidneys to be 100 percent sure it was antifreeze. Ledwell asked her how sure she was already. She said 99 percent, and he called a halt.
That's when the vet told Ledwell it was too late, that she couldn't do anything for his dog, that Gerda, two and a half years old, needed to be euthanized.
"I went outside. Me and Hilda was outside. They brought her out. We took her home. We built a box out of plywood. We buried her in a grave in our backyard."
But, of course, that wasn't the end of it. Ledwell wanted to know where Gerda had gotten into the antifreeze. The day before, the two dogs had accompanied him to a job site. So he and his boy, Eric, set out to retrace their steps. "We backtracked anywhere we'd been that day." The vet had told him that based upon the time when Gerda started showing symptoms of poisoning, she would have had to be poisoned during the daytime. They'd been doing some work in the Cedar Point subdivision in Onalaska, along Lake Livingston. So they started walking there. Ledwell asked Eric to check the house across the street from where they'd been working.
"He came out with a bowl in his hand. It had green, oily-looking fluid in it. I got my knife out and stirred it around. There were chunks of meat inside." The bowl had been sitting in the cool shade under the deck of the home.
And Corey Ledwell, a man who loved his dogs so much that when his pedigreed Hilda gave birth to a litter of six AKC-registered puppies, he couldn't find it in his heart to sell even one of them because no prospective buyer was judged good enough, was filled with a consuming rage.
He'd lost his dog Gerda -- truth be told, his favorite of Hilda's litter -- and was left holding a $799.25 bill from A&M and a bowl of slimy death.
Somebody was going to pay. Somebody besides him and Gerda.
Most people would say something like "I took my dog, Hilda " Not Ledwell. When he says, "Hilda and Gerda and me went to A&M," it takes a minute to register that there's only one human in that sentence. These dogs (Hilda, Gina, Duchess, Jaeger, Shadow and Bubba) are his companions and creatures he greatly respects. He's trained them and in return for their obedience, it would be unthinkable to him to not let them in his house, not take them to work with him, not take them to his son's baseball practices, his daughter's softball practices, not bring them along on family camping trips.
Not that he's lost all reason. The male German shepherds don't go to work with him because they're too macho, Ledwell says. He doesn't take his dogs to actual games because he doesn't want people to be intimidated.