It’s one of those ironies of life. Sometimes people bring the most joy to others are themselves tortured artists. Stephen Huneck, 60, was an author and artist who depicted canine whimsy and devotion as few ever have.
On Thursday, January 7, according to his wife Gwen, he shot himself. She noted that Stephen had been despondent and was being treated for depression. Gwen added that because of the economic downturn, the couple feared losing their St. Johnsbury, VT home and mountain-top farm, dubbed Dog Mountain. Huneck was also upset about being forced to lay out off employees at the couple’s art studio and the Dog Chapel, which Huneck opened in 1999.
Imagine a picture two Labrador Retrievers each with one end of the same rope toy in their mouths, and the caption reads “Life is give and take.” Or another one of a dog sniffing another dog’s posterior end (as dogs do) with the caption reading “Greetings.” Simple – yet just right.
In his first book “My Dog’s Brain” Huneck revealed the anatomy of a canine brain a few have ever seen it. The front lobe is call “food,” further back a section of the brain is called “chasing cats,” and another section is “getting petted,” and still another is simply called “love.” This 1997 release was an instant top telling book, followed by “Sally Goes to the Mountain” “Sally Goes to the Beach,” and “Sally Goes to the Vet.”
His big break(s) occurred in 1995, Huneck was lugging a 125-lb wooden carving of a dog down a stairway when he took a tumble and broke some ribs. At the hospital he contracted an infection, and slipped into a coma.
In an interview from March, 2001 Huneck told me, “Well, it was very restful.” Of course, he had no idea how to close he came to dying. He recalled that he was too busy “talking” with dead relatives to notice. His recovery wasn’t instantaneous, and included a stay in a nursing home. A place he calls “pretty sad,” but his spirits were invigorated whenever a therapy dog came to visit. His voice drops, and Huneck is darn serious now, “I can’t tell you what a difference dogs can make. I learned how spiritual dogs are. They have a power within them to heal that I don’t believe mere people can yet understand.”
In his book “Sally Goes to the Vet,” Sally – based on his beloved real life Labrador, Sally trips over a tree root while romping with her pal Bingo the cat. In an interview from 2004, Huneck told me, “Veterinarians are amazing, they have to figure out what’s going on with patients who can not speak to them. You sure don’t become a vet to make big bucks or for glory; you do it because you are all about animals. I think being a veterinarian is one of the best things you can be.”
Unfortunately, even his own veterinarian could not save Sally in real life. She began to have seizures without warning. Huneck happened to be right there, and ran to his friend to hold her. “She died, in my arms as I was hugging her,” he said and began to weep. “At least the other dogs were there – I think they were curious and in some way understood. And I’m grateful I was there to say ‘goodbye.’ But, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”
Sally is among the thousands of pets memorialized at the dog chapel in St. Johnsbury, VT near Huneck’s Dog Mountain home. He built and designed the chapel as a spiritual refuge for anyone who wants to visit to remember and celebrate the life of their own pet. When I asked him what the fee was, he acted surprised and responded, “It has to be free.”
Sally was only 9 when she died way too early, a brain tumor. Of course, Stephen also died far too early. Many have called The Dog Chapel a little bit of heaven on this earth. Clearly, it took an angel to build such a place.
Of all his many art pieces, Huneck once told me his favorite is a lithograph of an Angel Dog – a canine angel with complete with wings – flying toward the stars, holding a shoe in her mouth. The print includes the words: “Dogs Have a Soul.”