Saturday, September 30, 2006

I Keep the Wolf From the Door

A looming problem, a parenting episode has just been “resolved” and I want to write it out, to keep… It’s long…

Seven months ago, I found myself treading through wet snow in the dark. Moving through the undeveloped lands adjacent to our old home.

I’d just left our boys asleep. I left their dad sitting at the kitchen table, somber and trying to distract himself with the paper. We had just tucked them into bed, acting as though nothing was out of the ordinary, and I felt both glad and guilty they bought it.

The beam from my flashlight skimmed along a faint path ahead of me. I was tracking an animal, tracking the coyote that had just strangled our family dog by the side of our home.

I know now I set off without thinking it through, only on the reflex. But I was on automatic. I was single-mindedly, dispassionately intent on finding the next imperfection in the fresh snow, each distorted caved-in hint at a paw. The distance this animal could leap was remarkable.

I recalled the week before seeing the animal, across the yard, much larger than your average coyote. It sat there staring back, at our dog, at us, at our kids, from the boarder of the trees. How interesting and interested he seemed, and I was excited to point him out to my boys. It made an impression that I’d regret.

I kept going. I went up a hill, through thick growths of trees, through a field, hunting under the new moon. About a mile away from our home, it finally it hit me. What was I planning to do? Really, why on earth was I out here? Had I gone mad? Was I planning to tackle the animal to the ground and bring him to the authorities? Bludgeon it with my flashlight? I merely then remembered our gun and immediately felt my ridiculousness. He was just an animal following its instincts, and so was I, and there was no end to the path I was following that night. He’d just keep moving, with a speed and silence I did not have. Ridiculous.

So why? I realized I’d just been thinking to fix it, find and fix, do something. Our boys were going to be hurt in the morning. I wanted, at least, a better horrible story to digest down and lay out for them, once they realized our dog was gone.

I stopped. I’d not been out in the snow at night for years, and was glad to break it off, relax my posture, and become reacquainted with that old set of sensations.

After some time, I turned and went home, and straight to our bedroom where R was now trying to sleep. I gathered our dog’s “personal belongings.” It’s surprising how much a dog can own, from his bed to bones to stuffed animals donated to him from the twin’s collection. I wrapped it all in his bed and brought them to the garage, where he was. There was nothing to be fixed now; I could allow a break from going over the words I would use to explain in the morning. He was a little friendly shi tzu, sure, the gayest thing we owned, and he lay there in a box. We had bought him as a puppy when it was just R and I, in California. Now he was cold in our garage. I went to bed.

Our boys woke the next day as they always do, bright and smiling. It was too soon that they realized the absence, and we did our best to explain. We were honest, on their level, save for lies of omission. It was not easy. We didn’t know if we wanted to leave the villain in the story, not wanting them to fear the yard with that beast loose, but my Aunt let that out, regardless. In the end, thank goodness, it was more difficult on us than it was on them. They really were too young to understand much; they’d ask for months when their dog would be brought back.

They still ask about why he’s dead, and what death is, and if we will die to this day. I would have loved to postpone such worries for many more years, but it was out. What do you say to, “Papa, are you going to die?” Seriously, I am asking. I do my best, but every possible answer makes me feel like I shouldn’t even be talking.

When I was a kid, my favorite dog became a seeing eye dog in California [Lost in the woods while camping]. I was very proud of him. Another dog went to live with a kindly farmer on his ranch [lethal injection administered by the county for being a remorseless and frequent cat killer]. Did we already make the mistake in not following my parent’s lead, in not lying? I don’t know; they won’t feel betrayed and fooled out of their grief later, as I admit I did, but they wouldn’t have that worry, this soon.

On the night after the death, I heard them talking on the baby monitor while they were going to sleep. B bravely told A, “I’m taking a stick and I’m going to get [our dog] back from the coyote.” He then thought a bit, and said “But the coyote will take it”. A reassured B, “No he won’t. I’ll come with you.”

It was the sort of simple exchange on which parents live. They make the world seem so very and simultaneously hopeful and threatening.

Since that day we adopted a new dog, a grown, coyote-resistant pet. We even moved. But that was not the end of it.

Wildlife management tried to capture the animal at our last house, with no luck, and, though we moved further away from undeveloped lands, we did not make it out of his territory. In our new neighborhood, pets were often going missing. Twice in our first two months I had fathers ask if they could search our property for their family pet; once they found only part. Our neighbor even twice witnessed the (or a) coyote chase her dog right up to the back door.

It was disconcerting, of course. We called wildlife services again; their representative told us he had about 50 reports of missing or dead pets in the area and to shoot it if we could (not legal). We simply couldn’t feel comfortable with our kids in our backyard or even with our new dog being left out, as a grown German shepherd was killed just behind our home. Something had to be done, the neighbors agreed, and the guy went ahead and set snares.

We first caught a small female (his mate?), weeks ago. Clearly not the same animal I had hunted months earlier. Even so, the snares were removed and the pets kept disappearing, and my coyote was repeatedly seen between our old and new home. So the snares went back up.

Yesterday, though, I’m near sure we got him, one huge male coyote caught in a snare. We found him too late in the day, and the smell was already more horrible than anything I’d come across. Even still, we had to get close to this animal. And there he lay at my feet, a striking wild animal.

I found him, at the end of the trail I had followed many nights before in the snow. His prints lead into the radius of torn up and trampled earth and foliage around the snare, and they ended, at my feet.

We slipped the body into a bag and called for him to be retrieved.

I find it creepy and oddly appropriate that he was caught directly behind our new home, and that I was the one to “bring him in”. I find it sad, and ironic that he was killed in the same manner he had killed our dog and so many others, struggling for breath. It’s unfortunate that we’d all cross paths (oddly enough though, they moved into our neighborhood; never were they around when I was a kid). Still, I am unapologetically relieved.

I am glad, for my kids, to be able to play outside without the worry. I’m also glad to put an end into their narrative revolving around our old beloved pet for their little minds. The villain was caught. But I don’t feel the same way I did while tracking him, if I had caught him that night, armed only with a flashlight :-). Nature has a way of swallowing that motivation whole, gracefully, and effortlessly.

I’d just rather some different story altogether.


Ariane Ben Eli said...


When I was a kid, we lived in Colorado. We had a golden retriever who we called Sadie. She was a puppy, and what I remember most clearly about her is that her breath fogged up just like a person's when we took her for a walk on cold autumn mornings.

Because she was a puppy, she jumped on on people, including our neighbor who hated dogs. He told us that if she ever jumped up on him or his kids again, he'd shoot her. And he did.

I wish, in retrospect, that she'd been killed by a coyote. I don't remember feeling animosity toward our neighbors, just terrible grief and confusion. The grief goes away. The confusion remains. I don't remember the outcome of that, except my parents must have called the police. We got an Alaskan Malamut, a big hairy dog we called Ginger, even though she wasn't ginger-colored.

I don't have to explain death to my kids yet, but I'm the second of 8 kids, and we had pets who died my whole life--cats and dogs and turtles. I don't know if you can explain death. In theory, sure, but kids come to terms with it on their own, and I guess the best you do is what you always do--be present and mindful; always try to be honest, even when it's uncomfortable. Easier said than done, huh?

I'm glad you caught the coyote.

Scot said...

Thank you for sharing that, Ariane.

It’s so hard to understand a man like the man that killed your dog. I agree, the coyote is better. I can’t imagine explaining the other.

“We got an Alaskan Malamut, a big hairy dog we called Ginger, even though she wasn't ginger-colored.”

See now, my boys both, when asked to name their stuffed animals near always go with the color followed by ‘ey’. We have browney, whitey, bluey (a hippopotamus) and so on. Thank goodness our new dog came with a name :-).

Thank you for the perspective too. I certainly felt like I needed a sounding board on this one.

Nope, it ain’t easy.