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Ben Fogle: I owe everything to my dog Inca

Fri 15th Apr 2016

Ben Fogle with Inca (black) and his wife Marina's dog, Maggi (brown)
Ben Fogle with Inca (black) and his wife Marina's dog, Maggi (brown) Photo: REX FEATURES

Most people who have had animals in their lives know how devastating the loss of their dogs, cats or any pet can be. These animals become part of our lives and are much-loved family members.  In many cases, they are our best friends. Losing animal friends can be for many people as traumatic and distressing as losing a parent, sibling, or anyone close, especially when their pet is the only presence in their lives.

It is important to recognise this because there are people who just don't "get it" and can seem very callous and uncaring when they say things like "well it was only a dog" and don't understand why you are so upset and unhappy.

I came across this article written in 2012 by Ben Fogle the TV presenter, writer and journalist at the time he lost his beloved dog Inca.  Ben is happy for me to use his article on my blog. Ben eloquently puts across how important pets are in our lives and how utterly bereft we feel when they die.

In my work as a counsellor, I see clients who are mourning the loss of a pet and it is a very painful and difficult time for them.  I am an animal lover myself and empathise with that feeling because I know how it hurts and how much they are missed when they are no longer beside us. I think Ben's article will help you to understand that it is perfectly OK and natural to feel that way.

"Breathe deeply." I keep repeating it to myself as fear and panic begin to well up within me. I feel physically sick. "Breathe deeply, Ben."

Time waits for neither man nor dog, and one of the brutal truths of the natural order is that man outlives most other species. I always knew it would happen, but nothing really prepared me for the sudden shock.

Earlier this month I was on the Isle of Wight on a family holiday with our dogs, Inca and Maggi. Inca’s deterioration had been rapid. At 12, she had lost full control of her back legs and even walking had become difficult. She would often collapse while eating or, worse, while relieving herself; frequently I found myself holding her while she did her business. I had to carry her in and out of the car, and soon she couldn’t even get up from her bed.

I called Dad, and told him about her decline.

"What do you think?" he asked. 

There was a pause. Not because I was thinking, but because I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

"Then we know the answer."

I burst into uncontrollable tears.

The 24 hours following that phone call were probably the most painful of my life. The knowing. Inca, my beloved Inca.

"Breathe deeply." I am panicking again just thinking about it. Tears are streaming down my cheeks as I write this because it is so raw. I want to try to express the complex tangle of love between man and dog.

Yet with Inca, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

In 1999 I had been selected to be part of a ground-breaking social experiment that would see 36 people marooned on a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides for a year, beginning in January 2000. The project, Castaway, was to be filmed by the BBC and would later become one of the first reality shows to be broadcast in Britain.

Each of us had been asked to choose a luxury item. One couple had chosen a bed; another asked for a piano. Someone even opted for a home-brewing kit. I’d settled on a puppy.

Dogs have always been an important part of the Fogle family. I had grown up with dogs, and Honey, my mother’s late golden retriever, had even brought my parents together – she once swallowed a balloon and was rushed to the vet… who just happened to be my father.

As an expert in all things canine, Dad offered to help me find my perfect puppy. For more than a week, we toured the country looking at litter after litter. Too thin, too fat, too noisy, too boisterous. None was quite right.

But there was one little dog, from a semi-rural farm next to Heathrow airport, that had stuck in my mind. She had been the last in her litter of black Labradors to be picked, a rather scrawny-looking thing with a large swollen eye.

"Wasp sting," the woman explained.

I examined her carefully.

"No thanks," I said rather heartlessly, handing her back.

As we pulled away from the yard, I caught a glimpse of her sad, dark eyes. Why was I turning my back on this lone pup? Suddenly I wasn’t sure – but as with love, I wanted to be certain. How would I know she was the one?

For the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about her. It had been more than a week and I was certain she’d be gone.

"She’s still here," said the woman down the phone.

I raced back. We pulled up to the house and were led into the living room, where the puppy was alone. She had been weaned from her mother, which meant separating the dogs. Immediately she ran up to me and licked my face. The swelling on her eye had subsided and, away from her greedy siblings, she was now much rounder, with a bulging pink belly.

She gazed up at me with her hazel eyes as I ran my fingers through her thick black hair. I nuzzled my nose behind her ear and inhaled her scent. It was instant love. I had always been told that I’d find her, and now I really had found 'the one’.

I held her close as we walked out into the crisp winter night, but as we walked to the car I heard a commotion in the background.

"Get back here!" cried a voice.

The puppy’s mother had broken free and came bounding over. She jumped up and licked Inca clean across the face, then lifted her ear. I am not one to over-anthropomorphise our animals, but I swear she was wishing her luck. She was whispering something into that little dog’s ear, and I’d like to think she was telling her to look after me.

As quickly as she had appeared, Inca’s mother vanished back into the darkness. Her owner looked on in astonishment, a tear in her eye.

And so began a friendship that would change things for ever. Little did I realise then how much this little dog would form, shape and create my life. She would change it in ways I never thought possible. The story of Inca is, ultimately, the story of me.

Inca and I became inseparable. She coincided with my last few weeks before Castaway, when I was still working for Tatler magazine, and I would take her into work each day. Suddenly I found myself more popular with the girls.

Then on Boxing Day morning, my parents drove us to Victoria coach station, where we would embark on the journey of a lifetime. I can remember waving as the bus pulled away, my mother in tears. But I didn’t feel so sad saying goodbye. For once, I wasn’t alone.

Inca enchanted everyone she met on the Castaway island of Taransay and soon became an integral part of our community. Having her was not without its mishaps, though. Just a week into the project, she had to be helicoptered off the island to the local vet in Stornoway after cutting her foot open on a shard of glass. Months later, she was caught in flagrante with a visiting shepherd’s dog and once again was helicoptered away for the morning-after pill.

We largely kept to ourselves. Without Inca, I’m not sure how well I would have fared for the whole year. She was my reason – and excuse – to go off and explore the island; indeed, we rechristened one of the hills Inca Ra because she and I spent so much time there.

Castaway thrust me into the public eye. Stripped of my anonymity, I suddenly became a household name, but not without Inca. While I never set out to create a career in the media, my time in the spotlight – and the addition of a cute puppy – undeniably helped cement my name in people’s minds. We were a team.

I can still remember my heartache when the time came to leave Taransay. It wasn’t just the loss, but also the fear of the unknown. What worried me, too, was how Inca would cope.

She had spent the first year of her life in this wonderful environment. She had never worn a collar or been on a lead. She wouldn’t remember what a car was or what it was like to live in a centrally heated house. She had adapted to island life. Her paws were toughened to the rock and bog, her coat was like a polar bear’s, thick and curly to keep out the cold wind. She was a Hebridean dog, not a London one.

There is a photograph that was used on the front page of the Times on the day we left Taransay; I have a copy of it hanging in our bathroom. It is of me with three other castaways and Inca. I am opening a bottle of champagne while a helicopter hovers behind. It was the first time Inca had been in a collar and lead, and she had contorted it so it was pulling at her neck. It is a sad photo.

The month following Castaway was a maelstrom of interviews and TV appearances, and Inca came to every single one. She was even part of a fashion shoot for Vogue magazine. When I was a guest on So Graham Norton, Graham pleaded with me to bring Inca. As promised, we turned up together, only to discover that the other guest, Sophia Loren, was absolutely terrified of dogs so Inca was consigned to her own dressing room throughout.

Shortly after returning to London, I found myself an agent to help deal with the tidal wave of requests. They had a smart office in Covent Garden and I used to take Inca in with me.

"Is that the famous Inca?" asked a pretty woman one day holding a young child’s hand. "Can I introduce my daughter?"

"Sure," I replied with a smile. It was only later that my agent pointed out that Inca had just been cuddled by Kate Winslet and her daughter. Not bad going for a castaway dog.

Soon after this I met with the then-controller of the BBC, Lorraine Heggessey, who took me to lunch. "You have a dog," she said, "and you seem to love animals. Would you like to present some shows about them for us?"

Apart from being an offer I couldn’t refuse, it was proof that Inca had helped me get a job. I have often wondered if I would have even been noticed on Castaway had I not had Inca. I certainly doubt my career would have taken the twists and turns that it has.

Inca had helped find me a job, a career and a best friend. However, I’d argue her greatest achievement was finding me a wife.

The Fogles have always walked their dogs in Hyde Park. I love it there; a little bit of the country in the middle of the city. Inca and I would have our hour-long set loop through the park, seeing the same people. One day I spotted a tall, hot blonde running with an athletic, agile brown dog. She was soon christened "Park Girl" and I became rather infatuated.

I hope I don’t sound like some dreadful stalker now, but I would look out for her in her familiar red tracksuit. I learnt to recognise the gait of her run from a distance, and Inca and I would redirect our walk accordingly. The problem was that Marina had what I call "pretty-girl radar" and would alter her course to avoid a potential stalker like myself.

For more than a year we would watch in awe as this beautiful blonde and her dog dashed across the horizon in a blur. Occasionally our paths would cross and I would get butterflies, but I was always too shy to talk. If Inca would only "talk" to her dog and start playing, then it would be the excuse I needed. The problem was that Inca had never really liked other dogs. I put it down to her lack of socialisation during our year on Taransay.

One day I set a trap. Inca and I lay in a bush (I promise, I wasn’t a stalker) and waited until she appeared. I booted Inca from the bush into the path of her sleek brown dog. Inca growled, the brown dog ran faster, and the pretty blonde carried on oblivious.

It took a chance meeting at a party to finally say hello. Out of her running kit, I barely recognised her.

"You’re the man with the dog," she smiled. That smile was so sexy.

I discovered her real name was Marina and that her dog was called Maggi. Maggi had been bought from a rescue centre in Henley and was in fact half-Lab, half-collie. She was a beautiful dog. Fast, agile, sleek and very, very funny.

I like to think it was love at first sight, but it could never be true love until we knew the dogs liked one another. Love me, love my dog. I was terrified that Inca would try to attack Maggi when we first got together, so we organised a neutral ground, the Ladbroke Arms pub in Notting Hill. Apart from a little grumble, they loved each other straight away.

A couple of years later, Marina and I married. We tied the knot in Portugal, too far to take our matchmakers, so the dogs were immortalised as figurines on top of our wedding cake, and also in a letter I read out to our guests purporting to be from the dogs.

To make up for them missing the wedding, we devised our honeymoon around them. I had organised for us to spend a week on Taransay. It was important for me to show Marina the island that had changed my life, but subconsciously I wanted to take Inca back, too, and allow her to share it with Maggi.

The two dogs had become thick as thieves and were inseparable. I’ll never forget the excitement in Inca’s behaviour when we leapt from the boat on to the shore. She was home. She raced around the island to all her favourite spots. She knew where the fence was high enough to crawl underneath and where the gates were. How could I have dragged her from this paradise and taken her to London?

As the years rolled on, Inca and Maggi grew older and greyer. Inca developed epilepsy, the cumulative damage of each seizure taking a toll on her brain. But then the arrival of our two children had an unexpected effect on her.

Although Marina and I were both delirious with excitement about bringing some little Fogles into this world, we were also slightly apprehensive about the effect they might have on the dogs. After all, for more than a decade the dogs had effectively been our surrogate children. They had been loved and doted on, but suddenly they would lose their place – not in our hearts, but in the pecking order.

Yet Inca loved both of our children, Ludo, two, and 13-month Iona, and having them around seemed to spur her ailing body on. Ludo would squeal with delight whenever he saw her, placing his face close to hers and staring into her eyes. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than seeing the children and the dogs together.

But two weeks ago, on that Isle of Wight holiday, her body finally failed. We took Maggi and Inca to the beach one final time. I carried Inca from the car to the shore so she could lie with her paws in the water. Here we were on a beach again, just as we were on Taransay when her life was beginning.

I watched as her ears flapped in the wind and she lifted her nose to smell the sea air. Then, her belly covered in sand and seawater, I carried her back to the car and we began that torturous journey back to London. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. In the rear-view mirror I could see Inca’s snout on Maggi’s back.

Dad was waiting when we arrived home. I lay on the floor and sobbed uncontrollably into Inca’s fur.

"One more night."

I carried her up to our bedroom, put her bed next to mine and lay there listening to her deep snoring. I didn’t sleep. I felt sick with panic and in the morning my pillow was stained with tears.

At 6am I carried her downstairs and fed her, then picked her up and took her into the garden.

"Give Inca a big hug," I said to Ludo, who threw his arms around her.

"Where’s she going, Daddy?"

"Up into the sky," I said, turning away to hide the tears falling down my cheeks.

I carried Inca to the car, taking Maggi with us too, and drove 10 minutes up the road to my parents’ house. I don’t remember much about that journey except that I cried uncontrollably all the way.

"Thank you, Inca," I sobbed as we drove through the empty streets of Notting Hill. "Thank you for being my best friend. I owe everything to you."

I carried her from the car into the house, burying my face into her fur, and laid her on the kitchen floor. Mum, Dad and my sister were all there.

I lay on the floor, hugging Inca while Dad injected her. Her breathing became heavy. I could feel her heart pounding and the warm blood beneath her skin. I breathed the familiar scent of her fur as I nuzzled into her thick coat. I have never sobbed like that in my life. It was a primal, uncontrollable, guttural sob as I felt her heart stop beating.

I lay there on the kitchen floor clutching my best friend, unable to move. Wishing, hoping it was a dream, I held her lifeless body.

Maggi came and sniffed Inca. I wanted her to sense that her friend had gone.

"Where’s Inca?" asked Ludo as I returned home with Maggi.

"She’s gone up into the sky."

"Hello, Inca," he says now, waving to the sky each time we leave the house.

It’s been quite a trip, Inca and me. That little dog with the swollen eye has helped mould my life from something into everything. Whatever the future holds, and whatever course my life takes, I will always be thankful for Inca, the best friend I ever had.