I’ve played a lot of Pokémon games, but Pokémon Black and White were never really standouts to me. And yet, after over two decades of love for the monster-collecting franchise, the only tattoo I have of a Pokémon is Herdier, the normal-type “loyal dog” Pokémon that debuted in the DS games. But the tattoo is not of Herdier. Not really. It’s of someone I had to say goodbye to.
Content warning: The following article contains discussions of animal death.
In February, I lost my best friend Lily. She was a 16-year-old yorkie-chihuahua who’d been part of my family since I was in middle school. She was a little anxious and particular about where she sat on the living-room couch, but she’d stop whatever she was doing to stare at any human food that came across the dinner table. At some point, she chose me as her family favorite, and slept in my bed for many years after. She was there for more than half my life, and scrolling through old photos and videos on my phone has been a constant reminder of just how much she’d seen me through. I have videos of her running excitedly into my bedroom while I was having a depression nap just to stare at me until I went to the living room and sat on the couch with her.
Just before the covid-19 pandemic began, Lily started having serious health problems, including a hacking cough and a gradual loss of feeling in her hind legs. She even developed a sudden fear of heights, and didn’t want to sleep in my bed anymore. Eventually we ended up assembling a small pharmacy for her on the kitchen counter. For the last three years of her life, as her symptoms worsened, we were constantly in and out of the vet. All of this was happening as I was trying to move out of small-town Georgia and into a big city, a goal I’d been working toward for a decade. Lily had been there for me through all of it, and I was left to cope with the very real possibility that she might not see our journey through to the end.
Fast forward to February 2023. I started at Kotaku two months prior, and Lily and I were settled in a New York apartment, but by the time she had grown accustomed to her new surroundings, she couldn’t get around the apartment without my help. After visiting a vet, I finally accepted that it was time to say goodbye. She couldn’t walk on her own, so I carried her around my new neighborhood so she could get a good look at where I’d be building the life we had dreamed of for so long. I ordered some McDonald’s so she could have some chicken nuggets, and by 6:45 that evening, she was gone.
Paying tribute to a lost loved one
The next day, I found a walk-in tattoo shop and got the Herdier on my arm. I didn’t give much thought to where on my body it would go, I just knew I wanted the ink in my skin now while the emotional wound was still fresh. Fittingly enough, it was the most painful tattoo I’ve ever gotten.
When you come home to an empty apartment and an open wound on your arm, the feeling of emptiness hits you like an unflexed punch in the stomach. But as I unwrapped the tattoo, I knew I wanted to see Lily again, and if I couldn’t see her in this world, I would see her in another. I grabbed my 3DS and my copy of Pokémon White 2. I had never finished the game because Gen V never really spoke to me and that Game Freak wanted me to play through it twice seemed ludicrous to me, at the time.
I booted up White 2, started a new save file, and played until I reached Floccesy Ranch. Here, I explored a small patch of grass until a wild Pokémon appeared, and it was a female Lillipup, the first form of Herdier. She was the first wild critter I found in the ranch’s tall grass. It felt like fate. I caught her in a Pokéball and, despite my usual aversion to nicknaming Pokémon, named her Lily.
Because the algorithm never rests, my TikTok For You page began deluging me in videos about pets dying. Then after a while the streams crossed and I started to see videos from Pokémon trainers who’d nicknamed Pocket Monsters after real-world pets as a memorial for their lost loved ones. After asking around a bit, I’ve realized this isn’t just a passing trend, but a pretty common thread throughout the Pokémon player community.
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Mike Ibarra, a teacher who’s played every Pokémon game since Red and Blue, is also an avid Pokémon Go player. Just before the covid-19 pandemic began, his sister brought home a small red-and-yellow bird to keep their mother company while he and his brother worked. The family decided to name him Mango, though the relationship took some time to develop. The bird was pretty scared of the family, Ibarra especially, for some reason. But eventually, he began to trust his new owners and would eat with them at the dinner table.
“He was actually pretty intelligent, but also pretty aggressive,” Ibarra told me. “He responded to us whenever we’d call him [and] he was pretty caring and loved to be pet, but [would] also bite us whenever he felt like it.”
Unfortunately, the family only got to enjoy two years with Mango before his sudden passing in 2022. But the bird remains memorialized in his owner’s Pokémon Go save file as a Talonflame. Ibarra captured it as a Fletchling during a 2020 community day. It was, incredibly, a perfect IV ‘mon, and its red color pattern reminded Ibarra of his family’s favorite bird.
“He passed away last year because of health issues,” Ibarra said. “but he made great company to my family and me during the pandemic.”
Welcome to Exp. Share, Kotaku’s weekly Pokémon column in which we dive deep to explore notable characters, urban legends, communities, and just plain weird quirks from throughout the Pokémon franchise.
Finding a real friend in Pokémon world
Many pet owners recognize the phenomenon in which a pet joins the family as one person’s companion, but gradually shifts its attentions to another family member. That was the case with creator coach and community manager Steve Orillion and his teacup poodle Ozzy (named after Ozzy Osbourne), who joined the family as a birthday gift to his sister. However, when Orillion started taking over walks and poop-scoop duty, Ozzy became his dog.
Orillion describes Ozzy as a fan of anime and video games, as he’d always “pull up a seat” for his master’s gaming sessions. The dog’s favorite movie was Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, or so Orillion likes to believe.
“I remember the first time Ozzy came to see me play games. He let out a little ‘bork’ at the foot of my desk, I picked him up, and he fell asleep on my desk,” Orillion said. “He was only a few weeks old too, so he braved the stairs to get to me. Once I realized it would be a daily thing, I moved a bed onto my desk and made room for him to rest there. He continued to do that to the day he passed.”
Ozzy was young when he died in February 2015, coming down with congestive heart failure at the age of 10. Orillion says his family tried to make him comfortable, but didn’t want him to suffer. While Mango shared physical traits with Talonflame, when it came time to name a Pokémon after Ozzy, Orillion chose to pay tribute to big spirit instead. As such, he’s named a majestic Arcanine after the little dog, and now that Pokémon Go tracks your walking distance and step data, he says it feels like he’s going on walks with his old friend again.
“He’s been my best friend in the game since 2016, and [I’ve] been taking Ozzy for walks virtually since you could have a companion Pokémon,” Orillion told me. “It means a lot to me that I can see him every day virtually, walk him, feed him berries, and pet him in the game.”
For some, finding a Pokémon that embodies a real-world pet can be challenging. That’s what freelance artist Jessica Hill dealt with when it came to paying tribute to her cat Marmite, who departed at the age of 20.
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Hill was seven years old when Marmite came into her family’s life, at a time when they’d just been through another pet loss. She described him as a “very loud, chatty” cat, but says he didn’t take too well to others in a “real stereotypical cat way.”
“I could stroke him, hold him, even dose his meds, but nobody else could because he wouldn’t let them,” Hill said. “He wasn’t violent, just very attached to me. But that came with a double edge: On more than one occasion he’d break things of mine if I didn’t pay attention to him on his terms. He’d jump up to a mug, or whatever, and stare me out, and eventually push it off the shelf.”
But Marmite was also a fixture in Hill’s life for two decades. She recounts stories of him sitting in her lap while she played video games in college, which became more common as his health declined in old age.
“He passed in my arms. He’d been on his way out a long time, and by the time he was already dying it was like he’d made a conscious decision to just...stop,” Hill said. “I got a call that he wasn’t eating, drinking, and was just sleeping and I booked it home, huddled him into my hoodie and sat with him until he died a couple of hours later. It did feel a little bit like he waited for me to get home so he could say goodbye. I was pretty much inconsolable for months. I was 27. I had him for 20 years. I didn’t, and still don’t, remember my life without him in it. It has been two years and I still miss him.”
Though Hill says she’d used Pokémon to memorialize people before, it wasn’t until Pokémon Legends: Arceus that a cat seemed to really personify Marmite. That all changed when she met a Purugly in one of the game’s open-world maps. Hill says Marmite had a very distinct, loud purr, and Purugly’s name and Pokédex entry tied it all together.
“I was crawling around in-game catching Pokémon, and this big chonk of a Purugly was sort of following me around,’ Hill recalled. “It felt so persistent, it reminded me of how Marmite used to follow me everywhere in the house. When I caught it, the Dex entry mentioned it being impudent and difficult and that just screamed ‘Marmite’ to me. Generally, for memorial Pokés I pick a species and breed one I’m happy with, but that this Pokémon sort of sidled up and followed me around kind of felt apt to me. That and that he was huge—Marmite weighed like 8 or 9 kilos in his prime, not fat, just huge.”
For freelance journalist Michael Czar, naming pets and video games have always gone hand-in-hand. His first pet was a hamster named Mario, named after the jumping, mushroom-eating hero turned movie star. When he first got Mario as a kid, he told me, the hamster was “extremely fast and hyper,” which mirrored his own childhood exuberance.
“He would run around in his cage in circles a lot, like a racecar on a track,” Czar said. “I was really young around the time, around 7 or 8, so my memories of him are limited, but one of my favorite ones was when we got a ball for him to use outside of his cage, and he would run around the main floor almost as fast as our dog did.”
Unfortunately, hamsters have a pretty short lifespan compared to other pets, so Czar only had Mario for two years before his defining energy started to wane.
“He became less and less energetic before he just went stiff. He would hardly drink or eat anything before that, so my Mom eased me into [his passing],” Czar said. “We buried him in the backyard, as we had a massive open space where we easily found a spot.”
Mario’s time on Earth may have been short, but his legacy has lasted because Czar has named several Pokémon after him over the years.
“As tradition, I always named the closest Pokémon I could find to hamsters ‘Mario,’ usually a Rattata or even a Pikachu, if they were male,” he said. “I thought it was perfect in retrospect matching Pikachu with Mario since they were both fast as hell.”
For some, associating a Pokémon with a lost friend transcends a nickname in a video game. For Geraldine Santiago, Snubbull and Granbull are pretty synonymous with her shih tzu Queenie. When Santiago turned 15 she received the pup as a gift, and it was only two weeks old at the time. A lot of dog owners don’t get their puppies until they’re a bit older, so Santiago got to be there for a lot of early, formative moments, such as Queenie learning to walk and being fed from a bottle. She says Queenie was her “actual baby” in those early days.
But as Queenie grew older, Santiago started to see similarities between her dog and the Granbull line, specifically the grumpy demeanor and an underbite that stood out when the small dog saw food. As can be the case with dogs that develop underbites, Queenie had some dental issues.
“She had half her teeth missing on her bottom jaw, they fell out naturally, and we didn’t really notice until she smiled,” said Santiago.
While she was grumpy in demeanor, Santiago says Queenie was also prone to the zoomies, and had a tendency to steal any toys as her own.
“I remember I was really into My Little Pony [Friendship is Magic] when it first came out, and my mom got me some plushes that were really small,” she said. “While deciding where to put them, they were on the floor and Queenie came and took Twilight as her own. I let Queenie keep the plush because she loved it so much and she loved playing fetch with it.”
When Queenie was seven, she became suddenly ill with internal bleeding, and when the family inquired with the vet, they were told there was nothing they could do. Queenie passed on the family’s back porch a few weeks before her eighth birthday. While Santiago doesn’t have a specific Snubbull she holds up as Queenie’s in-game equivalent, she names the first Snubbull she catches in each game after her lost friend, and even named a Snubbull Build-a-Bear from the toy store’s Detective Pikachu collaboration after her.
“I felt Snubbull fit her perfectly because it had the same underbite and was a Pokémon that was pampered like shih tzu are in real life,” she said.
A man’s best ‘mon
Pokémon nicknames can spring from a lot of things. Sometimes you just call your Pikachu “Sparky” because he shoots electricity out of his cheeks. Sometimes you name them something heinous and profane just to see if the game will let you.
But for some of us, it feels like a way to preserve a loved one in lines of code. Grief takes a lot of forms, and we do what we can to keep alive the memory of those we’ve lost. We carve a person’s name into a marble slab and tell the world what they were to us. A father, a sister, a friend. We put their ashes on a shelf until we’re ready to spread them in the wind. For others, we find a little guy who reminds us of someone we lost, and name them accordingly.
For me, naming my Herdier after Lily feels like more than just a tribute to someone who was by my side during my toughest battles. It’s a chance to feel like she got to see some semblance of the life I’m building now that she’s gone. Unova, the region in which Pokémon Black and White 2 takes place, is based on the United States. Castelia City, the lively metropolis in the region’s southern border, is based on Manhattan, which is where I live now. It doesn’t take as long to cross one side to the other, but Castelia as an amalgamation of New York City is complete with the city skyline and all the feeling of possibility it holds for a guy who spent all his life in small-town America with his little yorkie-chihuhua by his side. She helped get me here, and it’s still hard to move forward without her. But this Herdier and I can keep going. We’ll do all the things Lily and I never got to.
The artwork atop this story was provided by Christian “Kris” Dobbins. For more of their work, check out their portfolio.