Summer House: Ch. 4


The sedges rustled at the edge of the marsh, and my pulse quickened. I held my breath. The river otter spilled out of the low trail, onto the beach, racing towards the shore. The sedges rustled again. Could it be her pup?

I’d been watching the otter for the past several mornings, stealing down to the alder at the marsh’s end. She crawled out from the trail most mornings, sometimes alone, sometimes with her pup. But this was different. She never raced out like this.

I jumped at the sharp bark of a dog, and a bloodhound crashed through the sedges. What of the pup?

By now, the otter was in the ocean, and the bloodhound raced up and down the shore, howling.

I called the dog, ran after her, thinking to pull her off the hunt, but she took off down the shore, towards the bluffs where the sandpipers nested.

As soon as I got home, I called the island Animal Control, which happened to be the Sheriff’s office.

“You say it was a bloodhound?” the officer said. “Yeah, she’s already been in. In and out.”

“What do you mean?”

The officer explained that the island had a spay/neuter-and-release law for strays, both cats and dogs.

“But this is a reserve,” I explained. “Down on this side of the island. There are breeding otters, seals, shorebirds. You can’t let predators loose here!”

“It was passed by the voters,” the officer said. “We just don’t got room here for sheltering the strays. Choice was, put ’em down, or fix ’em and set ’em free. Voters chose to set ’em free. Only humane choice, if you ask me.”

“So you’re just going to let them decimate the breeding populations?”

“Hell, if it matters so much to you, adopt ’em. You do something. Our hands are tied. Tell you what–you lodge a complaint that she’s hunting livestock, and we can shoot her. If you don’t like that option, take her in.”

I couldn’t believe it. This part of the island has always been protected. Most summers, for the past twenty years, I’ve been keeping informal censuses of the breeding birds and mammals. The colonies were strong, but a few summers with dogs and cats roaming would destroy most of them. The gulls and other ground-breeding shorebirds were especially vulnerable.

Dogs seem to be an extension of people–bred by them, developed right along with them, from the time when people made “taming” nature their mission. Dogs were tools to hunt rodents, birds, rabbits, deer, and bears, tools to herd cattle and sheep. They belonged to that time when people sought dominion.

Now that people’s places are shifting, and it’s time for us to establish harmony with nature, where does that leave dogs? They don’t fit with our new mission.

But it wasn’t this bloodhound’s fault. There was no way I’d lodge a false complaint that would result in her getting shot. And there was no way I could leave her prowling the summer breeding grounds. It didn’t leave me much choice.

I found her the next morning rummaging through a pile of fish heads near the dock. I squatted about eight feet away and spoke softly. She looked up, cocking her head.

When I was a child, I’d longed for a dog. Finally, when I was twelve, my parents bought me a Bedlington terrier. We became instant friends. I always kept her on a leash when we roamed together, for she had a habit of catching scent of small mammals and taking off, and it might be days before we’d find her at last. One summer, my cousins took her out with them on a walk.

“Keep her on the leash!” I told them. They promised they would. They came back a few hours later, without her.

“She was only off the leash for a second,” they said.

That was all it took. I found her on a rock island in the bay. The tide had been out, and she’d walked the low-tide land bridge to it. Her mouth was bloody and on the ground near her lay a gull chick, its neck broken.

In a blind moment, I’d wanted to smash her with the canoe paddle. I gritted my teeth and swallowed the urge. She looked up at me, cocked her head. I fastened her leash onto her collar, she hopped into the bow of the canoe, where she liked to stand while I paddled from the stern, and we slowly made our way to the beach.

How could I reconcile my love of birds and all wild things with my love of this dog of mine, a hunter through and through, who hunted not to eat, but for the pure joy of the kill that had been bred into her?

I paddled through the waves, the wild sea on one side, the cove on the other. I couldn’t keep myself distant from my terrier–we were too closely bound together, and so she became this extension of me that I kept leashed, this terrifying history of what it meant to be a person on this planet.

The bloodhound looked up at me from the pile of fish heads. Of course she smiled. Of course she wagged her tail.

“I guess some things we can’t escape,” I told her. “So. Do you want to come with me?”

It didn’t take long to make friends, and soon, she walked by my side, back to the summer house.

I have a dog now. I call her Crystal. There are two other strays I’m planning to adopt, both females, a dalmatian and a water spaniel. Those are the only other stray dogs I’ve seen on this end of the island. I don’t know what I’ll do if there are more. Maybe campaign to have that law repealed, see if we can come up with a better solution.

It’s impossible not to love this dog. Her eyes, when she looks at me, are kind, her jowls smile beneath those folds, and she has the most delicate feet for a hound that I’ve ever seen. I love her as much as I’ve loved.

The otter’s OK. So’s her pup. I saw them both frolicking in the cove a few days after I took in Crystal. The mother rolled onto her back, and the pup climbed onto her stomach, and they floated in the cove, gently stroking each other.

I know that nature can be as violent as it can be gentle. I don’t begrudge the eagle, wolf, or raccoon their prey, even when their prey are the gull chicks I’ve been counting and watching over. But it’s different when the hunter is something that people bred for that purpose.

Maybe Crystal is an anachronism. And I seem to be about to try to bring two more anachronisms into our household. There is something deep in me that loves a dog–it’s the species’ memory. This is how we grew.

So, I’ll keep my anachronism contained in our fenced back lot, keep her on a leash when we’re out.  We’re stuck between times–the old ways no longer fit, and the new ones haven’t yet been fashioned.

It’s not Crystal’s fault. I’ll do my best to give her the best life she can have, without letting her enact the destruction she was bred for.

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