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antifreeze, tragedy and a girl's mission

The following true story of genuine evil and tragedy is shared by Ginni Ham, in no small part because of the tremendously courageous response it prompted in her daughter Haley:

Sam came to live with us in 2003 when he was only 8 weeks old.  The memory of my daughter Haley holding this soft, furry bundle is so clear.  She was seven at the time.  Sam's head was tilted back and his puppy eyes, round and brown, were looking adoringly up at her.  It was as if he knew this was his girl.  And in that moment I knew these two had formed a bond that was unbreakable.

We didn't take getting a dog lightly.  Haley was asked to do chores and show responsibility before we agreed to a puppy.  And she sure worked overtime!  This was to be Haley's dog, and she wanted a golden retriever.  Haley was lonely being the only child at home, and she needed a friend.  She wanted a puppy she could grow up with, a dog who would be around during her teen years and possibly beyond.

The joy of that day remains fresh in my mind: bringing home that puppy was like bringing home a new member of the family.  We marveled at the softness of his fur, and curiously examined his coloring.  And we were prepared.  Just as a new mother prepares a nursery, we had prepared a puppy-proof home, or so we thought at least.

Sam grew by leaps and bounds, and Haley fell even more in love.  Together they would lay on the couch.  Sam really treasured his toys, and his favorite was a blue rope monkey with a squeeky tummy.  He never tired of his monkey.  House training was going well, and we kept puppy pads down as well.  Occasionally, as with all puppies, he would have an accident.  But Sam recognized the error of his ways mid-pee, and if we were nearby he would look us square in the eye, as if to say: "I can't be perfect all the time."

A snow fell early in February, only a couple months after we brought Sam home, and we couldn't wait for him to see it.  So we bundled Haley up, and out into the soft white flurries we went.  What a joyful sight to see Haley and Sam playing in the snow.  We would pull Haley on her sled, and Sam followed in hot pursuit, sliding and falling in the snow and completely covered in white, his brown eyes shining.

That was the day we met the dog we would later know as Jessie.  A very large black dog with extraordinary long ears came walking toward us from the woods.  He looked healthy, so we assumed he lived in the neighborhood.  We shooed him away, and he retreated into the woods a little bit only to take advantage of a clearing in the trees, so that he had a great seat to watch all the fun we were having.  He made a great audience and didn't tire of watching; he seemed content just to be a spectator.

It turned out Jessie belonged to a building company near our house, and when the workers went home Jessie came to our house.  Haley grew to love this big, protective boy.  And he followed her around everywhere.  Jessie had chosen Haley to be his girl.

Sam grew by leaps and bounds, and as Spring arrived we learned of his love for water.  His new favorite toy was a daisy-shaped water sprinkler attached to the end of a water hose.  He jumped, ran and put his face right into the water stream.  Our water dog was jubilent. Trips to the lake ensued.  We laughed so hard at his swimming, because he seemed to swim in an upright position with his front paws slapping the water.  But nothing brought him or us more joy.

Somewhere along the line Sam become known to my husband as his "son buddy," and Haley referred to him as her brother.  I worried about humanizing him, and said as much, but inside I had done the same thing.  Sam seemed to be a boy trapped in a dog's body.  Jim would joke that he had his eyes and my hair color, and why didn't I remember having him!  This became a constant joke around our house.

Haley and Sam grew together every day, and shared so much.  She entered him in every dog show, and was always so proud.  He became obsessed with playing fetch, and always had a ball in his mouth.  We were blessed.  Three years passed quickly, and there are so many more stories I could tell ...

In the early morning hours of March 27th, 2007, Sam barked to go out.  This was unusual for Sam.  He always slept through the night, but this early morning was different.  Sam was sick, he was throwing up and seemed to be in pain, and he was confused and disoriented.  The vet diagnosed Sam with antifreeze poisoning.  She said that it appeared he had consumed a poisonous stew: a concoction of antifreeze, onions and rawhide.  Sam had been intentionally poisoned.

Of course we wanted the vet to try everything possible to save Sam.  Haley asked constantly if he would be ok.  She worried herself sick, and we took her to visit him every day.

We received a call very early on April 1st.  The sun was shining and flowers blooming, in such sharp contrast to the sadness in our hearts.  I had to wake Haley with the news that it was time to go tell Sam goodbye.  Her grief was immense, and she was inconsolable.  Her loud sobbing and heartbreak were almost more than my heart could take.

As we entered the room Sam tried to stand up.  He couldn't, but he still managed to wag his "happiness monitor" tail.  He looked up at us, with his face swollen because his kidneys were shutting down, and we could see the happiness in his eyes that we were there - his family.  I believe that our boy instinctively knew that his time on earth was coming to an end.

Haley knelt on the floor beside Sam and buried her face deep into his fur.  And with tears streaming down her face, she tried to comfort him as her own 10-year-old heart was breaking.  "Sam," she said, "I love you, I love you so much.  I will always love you ...  Sam, there will be thousands of balls in Heaven, and I promise one day I will see you again."

"Jessie, I need to hug Jessie.  That will help," Haley said as we left.  But when we arrived home we couldn't find Jessie.  We searched the woods and the log home company that claimed him.  One of the workers who also loved Jessie joined in the search.

"Jessie!" Haley yelled, running through the woods.  The worker found him by the creek bed, lethargic and staggering, and clearly sick.  He too had been poisoned.  "No!" Haley cried, "This can't be true!"  But it was true.

After a trip to the vet, it was confirmed.  Jessie could not be saved, and had to be relieved of his suffering.  Jessie had a family of workers from the log home factory, so we brought Jessie back home.  That evening they all came to tell Jessie goodbye, these grown men who were so tough shedding tears for a dog who had won their hearts.

Haley came to terms with the reality that Jessie would have to be euthanized.  She didn't want him to suffer.  Jessie's last night on this earth was spent with us, and that night a most violent storm came.  The thunder was so loud it shook the Earth.  It was as if Heaven above was angry at the injustice of it all.

A child's heart is fragile, innocent and loves unconditionally.  When you lose a dog prematurely, and suddenly, the pain is massive.  And all the logic in the world falls away.

Haley was two months shy of her 11th Birthday, and she had no idea what antifreeze was.  She decided to find out for herself.  She quickly learned that it was a colorful, sweet, toxic fluid which killed more than 10,000 animals a year, and that up to 1,400 children accidentally ingested it each year as well.  She also learned that California had a law in effect to make antifreeze bitter.  She came to me and said, "If we lived in California, I would still have Sam and Jessie."

My daughter decided that no other child's pet should suffer the way that her best friends did.  She used antifreeze for her project in 4-H that fall, and she carried a petition around the fairgrounds asking for signatures to make Tennessee antifreeze taste bitter.  I printed out the names and addresses of all our state legislators, and she wrote each of them letters.  One day she received a letter back from a wonderful, Christian Senator who said he wanted to meet with her and introduce a bill in the Senate.  She was thrilled - it was justice for Sam and for Jessie.

Once the Humane Society of the United States found out, they were also 100% on board with her.  In fact, our state director worked right alongside her at the state capital.

It is a 4-hour drive to our capital building in Nashville, and we made the trip too many times to count.  Haley attended each committee meeting, in the Senate and the House.  She lobbied each legislator, walking and walking throughout the building until she had worn blisters on her feet.  She also spoke with the press from newspapers, magazines, and tv.

On January 1st of this year, the "Haley Ham Law" went into effect.  My daughter, now 13, took her heartbreak and turned it into something positive, something that will save lives.  As her mom, I am immensely proud of Haley's perseverance and faith.  My heart still aches for her pain, but is also filled with memories of the time Sam, Jessie and Haley had together.

You can find out more about Haley's story in the Humane Society's posts "Humane Hero: Haley Ham" (which includes a video of Haley's efforts) and "From Tragedy to Triumph", and at WBIR, Nashville.

(A sincere thanks to Ginni for her grace and courage in writing this story for us (including the pictures), and a huge commendation to Haley for all she so selflessly and bravely made out of her own loss.  You are both examples of faith and perseverance to all of us.  Content and photos copyright Ginni Ham.)

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Reader Comments (3)

Ginni, Thank you for sharing this. Even though I had a chance to read it before, it is just as heartbreaking now that I am reading it again, and I feel so proud of Haley. What a wonderful young woman she is.

Mar 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDenise LaChance

Ginni: in reading this story of injustice for the first time, my heart aches, my soul hurts and my spirit soars that you and your daughter took something so wrong and made it so right. The pain is no less for our beloved pets, who are a part of our family and who love unconditionally, the way God made it to be. Thank you.

May 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterColleen Moceri

Denise and Colleen, thank you so much for your comments on Ginni's moving post, and I made sure to copy her on both of them. best wishes - Ben

May 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterBen DeVries

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