Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Would-Be Deerslayer

I don't know if I'll ever understand dogs. Harper Lee is probably the smartest dog I've ever been around, but even she shows no ability to differentiate between a dog biscuit and, say, the flea collar that Dwayne Grubb pulled off her neck only a moment before. We spent Sunday morning in the dog emergency room with a sometimes epileptic dog. Dwayne, as if not to be outdone, would not let us leave him home and insisted on riding along. He suffered a panic attack upon arrival, ducked his collar and ran down the middle of Cary Street for a few minutes before I corralled him and put him back in the car. We ended up spending a few hours and a hundred dollars for the folks at the emergency clinic to tell us, essentially, that they wanted to keep Harper overnight and make her poop.

By this time, Harper was fully alert and acting as if she had not swallowed an unspecified amount of neurotoxin the afternoon before. So, after much deliberation, we decided to take her home and keep a close watch on her. Long story shorter, she had a couple more mild episodes before puking up a big ball of rubberized plastic and getting back to normal. She was more tired than usual that night, but showed no more ill effects.

Fast forward to the next day, yesterday afternoon. We were deep in the swampy recesses of the Appomattox River Trail, picking off scores of ticks and scuffling through the fourth or fifth mile, when the bookstore dog picked up a trail. There ensued a chase scene that would have made Natty Bumppo proud. Harper Lee, fully recovered canine athlete that she was, had scared up a baby deer and was hard on its heels as it emitted the most pitiful, panicked bleating sound I've ever heard. Harper has chased adult deer before, thankfully without success, and we know from experience that we kind of just have to let those chases run their course. She eventually tires of it and comes back empty-pawed and contrite. But this one, we saw, and it was just a baby. Harper was about a foot behind its heels, and the forest was filled with the desperate cries of an animal fighting for its life. All of this conspired to chase away what little bit of prudence I normally have and send me crashing off through the snake-laden underbrush in an all-out attempt to get there before the worst happened. Harper barked excitedly, the deer bleated, Dwayne Grubb ran in bumbling circles trying to track. Beth yelled at me to stop running in deference to my trick back. Suddenly, it seemed all kinds of animals and people were thrashing around in the undergrowth. Then, it stopped.

There we stood: muddy, scratched up, gasping for breath, filled with the worst possible feeling of sick dread. I managed to get a leash on Dwayne Grubb (he's not much of a tracker, and circled too close to me one time). We called Harper repeatedly, started first one way, then the other, and then resigned ourselves to impotently pulling ticks off until she finally trotted back up, some ten minutes later. There were no signs of blood on her, so we could only assume the deer made it to the river and got away. I could have cried with relief. I understand instincts, I get that dogs were domesticated by man and that their wild ancestry tells them to hunt and kill and eat. I am not a vegetarian. I fish. I don't hunt, but I don't begrudge people who do and eat what they take their hobby or way of life. But a cerebral understanding of all that is a far cry from the immediacy of yesterday afternoon in the Appomattox River woods. I'm not sure I could have welcomed Harper back, walked with her, pulled ticks off her on the way home, if she'd come back with that little deer's blood on her muzzle. Thankfully, I didn't have to find out.

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