RUSKIN – Paleontologist Frank Garcia and his best friend, Webster, went through much together the past 14 years. The dachshund-terrier mix, who doubled as faithful companion and research assistant, actually helped discover a huge local cache of fossilized giant tortoise shells in 2008, despite being partially crippled and plagued with health problems.
The longtime partnership ended sadly on Aug. 28, when Webster died.
“Our relationship was beyond words,” Garcia said. “He taught me about living and he taught me about dying. He was an incredible dog, an incredible spirit. There will never be another like him.”
Garcia got Webster as a puppy and the two were virtually inseparable, whether at home or work. Webster became invaluable as both a friend and “colleague.”
In 2004 the dog suffered a herniated disc, which left Garcia with two options: either put him through an expensive, five-hour surgery with no guarantees or put down the dog. Garcia didn’t blink. He took out a bank loan to finance the operation.
Disabled after the surgery, Webster had little use of his legs and had to drag himself along to follow Garcia. His vet said he’d probably never walk again without some kind of carriage on wheels.
“But I knew my dog,” Garcia said. “I knew he had it in him.”
So Garcia took a bath towel and cut two holes in it to hoist up Webster’s hind legs as the pair tried, ever so gently, to rehabilitate the little dog’s condition. Within six weeks Webster was walking on his own, albeit crookedly.
“It was so funny,” Garcia said. “When he’d get excited he looked like an out-of-control (hook-and ladder) fire truck and when his tail wagged it looked like a broken windshield wiper.”
Webster’s body may have been broken but never his spirit, said his veterinarian Bob Encinosa, who took care of Webster since he was 8 weeks old.
“For two-thirds of his life he was a bit of a paraplegic. Despite that he never seemed to take it badly,” the vet said. “Over time he improved much more than I thought he would. He was always happy, go-lucky. He got sweeter and sweeter as time went on.”
Four years after the surgery Garcia and Webster headed to the Caloosa shell pit in Ruskin to check the latest pile of excavated shell.
While Garcia was off sifting through the pile, he noticed Webster was fixated on a long row of fill dirt.
“I kept calling and calling him but he just didn’t respond,” Garcia said. “He was interested in something and just kept sniffing.”
So the paleontologist went to see what had so captivated his dog.
Webster’s nose had found some barely visible chocolate black bones, which turned out to be 2,000 pounds of large pieces of fossilized, giant tortoise shells mixed with elephant teeth and a woolly mammoth skull.
Garcia was amazed.
In all his years of work, he had never seen so many pieces of giant tortoise fossils in one spot.
In 2006, he had found a similar pile of fossils in another part of the same shell pit, but the find was much smaller, he said. At the time, he thought it would be the last of its kind.
“What Webster found was one of the most important giant tortoise fossil sites in the world,” he said. “I decided to call the spot Webster’s Site.”
Garcia had a shell reconstructed from the bones and incredibly it was 51 inches long, 42 inches wide and 21 inches high. It was the much larger ancestor of the Galapagos tortoise and probably weighed 700 to 800 pounds, said Garcia, adding the reptile lived 500,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, a time when the Ruskin area was most likely a vegetative paradise and home to an astonishing array of prehistoric creatures.
“Webster was a fossil finder,” Garcia said. “He had a nose for bones.”
About four months before his death Webster was diagnosed with diabetes. He went blind, his heart murmur worsened and his legs finally gave out.
The day came that all pet owners dread. It was time to let Webster go.
“He was in my arms when he died,” Garcia said. “When he left he took my heart with him.”
Garcia has written a book in Webster’s voice called “Don’t Say Good-bye Just Yet,” which will be published later this year, and he plans to do a concert in Webster’s memory in the fall at the Firehouse Cultural Center to benefit the Critter Adoption and Rescue Effort shelter in Ruskin.
For more information on the man and his dog, visit Garcia’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/frank.garcia.79230?fref=ts.