Pluto was only Vera Oliphant’s second dog. After tragedy befell him, he was her last.

She left him in Toronto under the care of neighbors when she and her family picked up and moved to San Diego in 1965 (her husband’s doctor had suggested a warmer climate would better suit his arthritis).

After settling into their Mount Helix home, she sent for Pluto. But her neighbors told her the Dalmatian had wandered into the street and been killed. It was a tremendous blow for the woman whose love of animals had turned her vegetarian at age six.

“She could never own a dog after that because she said it would be too painful for her to lose another one,” said Kimberly Morin, Oliphant’s granddaughter. But she had a favorite among the several that lived at her daughter’s house, one her family called “Nana’s dog.” His name was Willie.

Oliphant died Nov. 9 at the age of 84. On the day after her family and friends gathered to celebrate her life, Willie, a young and otherwise healthy Pomeranian, dropped dead. Morin rushed him to urgent care, but he was gone.

Morin and her mother don’t doubt Oliphant had her own designs for Willie. “It was her plan to take him with her,” she said. “She could finally own a dog of her own.”

Throughout her life, Oliphant never lacked the company of animals. Her love for them defined her, her family said.

On the back terrace of the home overlooking La Mesa where she lived for 45 years, her daughter Gina Morin said, Oliphant each night hosted a veritable processional of neighborhood critters that expected to be fed. “Raccoons, skunks, and opossums — they all lined up,” she said.

Oliphant was born Vera Mitchell on Nov. 5, 1925, in South Shields, England, near Newcastle. She was the second daughter of Richard and Penny Mitchell and had a working-class upbringing. A high school runner, she was 17 when she married David Oliphant, a 19-year-old soldier in the British Army whom she’d met at a dance.

He deployed within weeks of their October 1943 wedding and toured Europe and northern Africa as a combat soldier and ambulance driver.

He returned to his young wife a victorious soldier in 1945, ready to resume their life interrupted by war. She awaited him, eager for their young love to mature. He brought an unexpected keepsake.

While stationed in Egypt, he had met George Popowski, a Polish soldier who was the sole member of his family to have escaped death in concentration camps. David invited him to join his family. Popowski accepted and adopted the family name.

For the next 45 years, George lived with the Oliphants. He boarded the Queen Elizabeth and moved with them to Toronto in 1953, where they opened a Texaco service station. When they left for San Diego 12 years later, he helped pack the car and shared it with the Oliphants and their two children.

In pictures of the happy couple, taken over decades and into their sunset years, George is always by the Oliphants’ side. He was like their brother, Gina Morin said, and like a second father to their children. The deeds to their property and their businesses included all three names.

“It sounds strange, but there was never a question if it was OK. He was part of our family,” she said. “It was always David, Vera, and George, and she loved it that way.”

The setup suited Vera well, her daughter said. She loved company, and had a soft spot for people and animals who’d gotten the short end of life’s stick.

She encouraged her granddaughter Kimberly’s calling to save abandoned animals. “She always asked me what I had rescued today,” her granddaughter said. Oliphant frequently donated to the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

During snowy winters in Toronto, she spread nuts for squirrels that she feared wouldn’t find the ones they’d stowed away. She filled plastic bags with candy bars and drove to the plant of Canada Packers, Canada’s largest meat processing company. She walked up to the outdoor pens where cattle awaited slaughter and fed them the candy through the mesh.

“She thought it was the least she could do for them,” her daughter said. She was a vegetarian until her death.

At a Las Vegas hotel some 20 years ago, she paid to have her picture taken next to a lion. She picked it up and plopped it in her lap, embracing it tightly.

Except for a stint as a night club waitress in Toronto, Oliphant was a homemaker. In San Diego, David and George invested in real estate while she raised her children, Gina and David. But her family saw a mischievous streak, reflected in more than her shock of fiery red hair.

She delighted in pinching men’s backsides, even without knowing them, her daughter said. She endeared herself to strangers when she told people to “piss off” in her British accent, but she loved her life, her daughter said.

After the death of her husband in 1990, and of George a year later, she continued taking frequent trips to England, and collecting paraphernalia reminiscent of ancient Egypt. Her house is filled with it. A life-sized sarcophagus — her daughter scoured San Diego to find it — rests in the corner of her living room.

In her final years, as her health declined, her daughter said, she never complained. She elicited tears from her nurses who were amazed that, despite the pain from her chronic arthritis and her failing body, she sang through it all.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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