For the past seven months, terminally ill golden retriever Theo Leech touched the hearts of strangers and taught them invaluable life lessons, among them: be kind, cherish each moment and do what makes your tail wag.
Theo died Friday in the company of his foster owner, Jenny Leech of Crystal Lake. His enthusiasm for slow walks and good food never wavered. He even polished off a breakfast of shredded chicken and vegetables that morning, Leech said.
The 14-year-old rescue dog was cremated with his favorite toy – a stuffed blue octopus. For the better half of a year, Theo and his octopus captured hearts across the country as Leech documented the pair’s “bucket list adventures” while the dog battled terminal cancer.
“I heard from people with a chronic illness that getting out of bed every day was tough and they were living through his adventures,” Leech said. “He meant a lot of different things to different people for whatever they were going through at that time in their life.”
Theo was found in a Walmart parking lot in Joliet earlier this summer and turned over to BAARK dog rescue in Barrington Hills. He arrived at Leech’s home on May 27 and was diagnosed with cancer shortly after, Leech said. A Chicago-area nonprofit called The Live Like Roo Foundation has sponsored some of the cost of Theo’s cancer treatment and helped inspire the bucket list.
Highlights of Theo’s 61-item list included meeting puppies at an animal shelter, devouring Starbucks “pup cups” and collecting donations with Salvation Army bell ringers. In a span of 205 days since his cancer diagnosis, Theo experienced a lifetime of fun.
From being sworn in as an honorary Crystal Lake Police Department K9 officer to going on a blind date with a German Shepherd, eating pizza or riding on a boat in a sea captain’s hat, Theo wagged his tail at every stop on the list, Leech said.
“Almost everything we did, it had some element of something he loved,” Leech said.
On Aug. 29, he even re-connected with his original owner, a now-college-aged man who was separated from Theo (known then as Rocco) after his parents’ separation years earlier. The man and his mother only learned Theo was missing when they saw the familiar-looking golden retriever on the news, Leech said.
“After one of the news reports came out, I got a Facebook message from a lady that said she believes Theo was the family dog,” Leech said.
Still, Theo’s original owners saw he was in good hands and arranged a meet up to say goodbye so he could remain with Leech.
“They knew he was happy, safe and loved and that’s all that mattered,” Leech said. “To take him away from that – I don’t think they felt like it was the right thing.”
Since Theo’s passing, Leech and her other pets have sensed a void in their Crystal Lake home, she said. Leech’s elderly cat Izzy used to snuggle with Theo nightly as he settled into bed. The cat only recently revisited the upstairs room where Theo slept after spending several nights away after he died, Leech said. Theo’s bed, the largest and most comfortable in the house, has remained untouched.
“There really is a void without him being there,” Leech said.
A clay impression of Theo’s paw print will serve as a memorial to honor the time Leech spent with her famous rescue animal, but the good deeds he’s inspired will live on, she said.
“It’s a sad story, but he’s still inspired kindness,” Leech said. “There’s been this trickle-down effect of him experiencing good from other people that has inspired others to want to do nice things.”