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Dog stayed at dead owner’s side

South Boston News
Pierre / October 11, 2012
Lost for the past month, Pierre the poodle is back home.

His elderly owner, though no longer missing, is dead.

Pierre, a miniature chocolate poodle getting up there in the years himself — family members say he’s 10 or 11 — belonged to Ruzie Suggs, the 94-year-old Burlington, N.C., woman who met her demise in Halifax County after becoming disoriented and lost while driving home from Greensboro a month ago. Suggs’ body was discovered this past Saturday by hunters who came across her body beside her Cadillac Deville, stuck and abandoned on a farm road about a mile off Buckshoal Road.

Close at her side – still alive – was Pierre. The last time anyone had seen the dog and his owner was Sept. 8.

“I think he’s a hero, personally,” said Shayne Suffern, Suggs’ nephew. “He was her guardian.

“When the detective told me [Pierre was still alive] I was amazed.”

Suffern’s sister and her husband made the drive up from Greensboro yesterday to retrieve Pierre from the county animal shelter, where the dog has been kept since his discovery by the hunting party. Ruzie Bonderant of Greensboro — she’s named after her aunt — acknowledged that no one will ever know what happened to Pierre and her aunt in her final days, but she believes this much: “He protected his mother.”

And Suggs doted on him in turn. Among the items that were found near the vehicle was a pillow, apparently set out as Pierre’s bed for the long nights spent outdoors. “She always thought about Pierre. Being as he was her baby,” said Bonderant.

Suggs often took Pierre along when she went out for drives, and her daily routine kept her on the road regularly, said her nephew, Suffern, an Alamance County, N.C., resident. She provided rides for her brother, also in his 90s, with Pierre as her “co-pilot,” added Bonderant. The family says Suggs was a good driver, and if she was prone at times to lose her focus, it wasn’t very noticeable: “If you met her, you’d be convinced she was fine, no dementia, none of that,” said Suffern.

But those close to Suggs could tell: “There were signs developing and we noticed, and the family discussed it,” said Suffern. Still, she kept up a busy lifestyle, helping her brother, who is hard of hearing and needs frequent rides to the doctor. And then there was taking care of her beloved dog. “Pierre is spoiled,” said Bonderant.

On the day she went missing, Suggs offered a ride home to Greensboro to her 75-year-old handyman, known affectionately by family members as “Mr. Robert.” After dropping him off, she took a wrong turn and wound up on Route 29 pointed north. It wasn’t the first time that she had become disoriented on her drive home to Burlington, say police. Suggs made her way into Virginia, finally stopping in the eastern part of the county on the outskirts of Mecklenburg.

Stranded in the countryside with her dog, Suggs apparently tried to use her cell phone to dial for help. Two of the digits she punched in matched up with her niece’s home phone number, but the call was never completed. Other attempts to dial a 1-800 number were similarly unsuccessful. The calls, uncovered by the police investigation, gave some indication of Suggs’ general location, but she remained missing until Saturday.

It may never be known how long Suggs survived in the woods; an autopsy is pending, say Burlington police. When Pierre was found, he was suffering from mild dehydration and was covered with dirt, said Animal Control Officer Todd Moser. But the dog was uninjured and in basically good health. Moser speculates the dog may have survived on a diet of insects or maybe an occasional rodent.

He isn’t surprised Pierre stuck close to his owner: “Animals are very loyal to their owners, I don’t care if it’s a dog or a cat,” said Moser. Dogs in particular “have that instinct to go home, and they have that instinct to stay with their owners.”

Given his situation, Pierre could heed only the latter.

As she prepared Wednesday to depart the animal shelter with Pierre in tow, Bonderant recalled the love that her aunt harbored for poodles (she had been a poodle owner for at least four decades, said Suffern, her nephew, who remembers meeting her first such pet poodle when he was only seven. He’s now 48.) An avid gardener, Suggs liked to keep a manicured and groomed lawn, and the same sensibility informed her choice of pet companions. She enjoyed the fussy pleasures that came with being a poodle owner.

“She’d get out the nail polish, she’d do the foofy hair, the clothing,” said her niece, smiling at the memory. Pierre owns a raincoat, and “when he goes out in the winter he has on snow boots,” she said. His favorite meal is browned turkey burger, with cottage cheese lovingly mixed in by his owner. Ribbons in his hair, rhinestones on his collar — all help to define Pierre’s high-flying lifestyle. “She liked for him to have that bling,” said Bonderant.

Emerging from the animal shelter on a leash — a hindrance he never suffered in Suggs’ care; she trusted him to stay at her side — Pierre stamped around energetically on the grounds of the animal shelter, seemingly no worse for all the days and nights spent in the woods. (The same goes for his half-week at the county pound. Suggs’ family members have nothing but praise for Halifax County Animal Control; they’ve been “a blessing to us,” said Bonderant. She and her brother also gave thanks to police who’ve worked the case and the hunters who located their aunt.) What happens next is for Pierre to find a home among family members, who can take comfort in the link he provides to their lost loved one.

Bonderant and husband Billy plan to keep Pierre for a while, and other family may take him in for extended visits, but Bonderant said she’s been thinking that Suggs’ 94-year-old brother, the one who is hard of hearing, might provide the best home for Pierre. Not so he can take care of the dog, but more the other way around. At Suggs’ home, whenever the doorbell would sound or the phone would ring, Pierre would respond with incessant barking. Maybe it would be a helpful thing for an elderly man who has almost lost his hearing.

“It may be that Pierre would be a good partner for him now,” she said.

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Dear Family, I have had Miss Ruzie and her dog in my thoughts since she was reported missing. I am so saddened to hear of her death, but happy to know she was with her loyal companion. What a "way to go" for a mutual animal lover. I have 2 Bish-Poos that are my trusted loving companions. May Miss Ruzie and Pierre meet in heaven. Peace, Claudia

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