26 Feb 2020

Puppy love: Ben Moon - Denali

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 26 February 2020

American photographer and filmmaker Ben Moon grew up in remote communities, in Michigan, and without a lot of social contact with friends, he describes the family dogs as sidekicks.

When he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer aged twenty-nine, his dog Denali helped him pull through.

“I definitely just spent a lot of time outdoors, alone and in my thoughts and later developed a lot more confidence and got behind the camera.

“Dinali really brought me from being a guy in my 20s who didn’t really know where I was going in life, to building a career as a photographer and a filmmaker, just kind of showing me to a different level of growth as a human being.”

Moon’s ex-wife convinced him to go to the dog shelter one day, he wasn’t expecting to see Denali.

“I remember seeing Denali just sitting there all by himself and he was adorable and he just kind of looked at me, cocked his head and I walked by trying to ignore him because I was like oh man, he’s adorable and he gave a little bark and put his paw through and I just melted.

“It was kind of like he chose me, in many ways.”

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Photo: Supplied

Moon and Denali went on the road after his divorce, living as he puts it, ‘the dirtbag life’.

Moon spent a lot of time rock climbing, with Denali patiently waiting at the base.

“He gradually became so athletic and agile that he could follow me almost anywhere and I got him to the point where he would trust me and stay on my shoulder and I needed to go down an area where it was critical that he didn’t jump because we would both be critically injured.”

Moon started to send photos to magazines, and getting published gave him a sense of accomplishment.

Then, aged 29, Moon was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“What I’ve come to learn is what a killer colon cancer is and how lucky I am to be alive.”

Having a colonoscopy done was key to getting the diagnosis, he says.

In order to ensure the tumour would not come back, Moon has to have a colonoscopy bag for the rest of his life.

“It was very challenging emotionally to go from being a man in my prime athletically and physically to suddenly have to learn how to live my life and do all the things I love, to surf, to climb, practice yoga, run, bike, everything I did was active, and to learn how to manage this new thing that was completely foreign to me…”

He continued to surf and climb throughout his illness.

“I needed those things to keep myself positive, for me, fresh air, being in the ocean, being outside, it’s my meditation, it’s what keeps me happy and grounded and a counter-balance to all the work and busyness of life.”

It was Denali helped him pull through, he says.

“I’m not sure if he was allowed in the hospital but they somehow got him up to my room and when I was really down from all of the surgery and procedures, Denali climbed up into my bed and that’s one of the most memorable moments to me, was how gentle he was and how aware he was that I was in pain…”

When Moon started chemotherapy, Denali was right by his side, he never took his eyes off him.

In remission, Moon was completely drained. A lot of his friends didn’t understand how to be there for him but Denali was always there when no-one else could be.

In a twist of fate, his beloved Labrador pit-bull cross was also diagnosed with cancer and their roles were reversed. Moon decided to make a short film.

The film had two million views in the two days after it was posted and Ben decided to elaborate in the book Denali - A friendship that transformed two lives.

Moon had no idea how devastating it would be to lose Denali.

“I’d never felt that sort of loss, even in losing friends, I didn’t realise how much he had meant to me until he was gone.”

The breakdown of his marriage and colorectal cancer were two incredibly challenging experiences but ones that shaped his life today, Moon says.

“Life can knock you down but it’s all about your attitude and how your friends can pick you up and how you can use those experiences to grow into a better human being and just keep hopeful and move forward.”