Sunday, February 6, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 241: Biomythography - Note 18, Free Range Dogs

A Biomythography - Note 18
by Secret Hippie

I Fought the Dog
and the Dog Won

The confrontation didn't change my attitude or the direction of my life. At the time, it seemed ordinary except for a brief moment. The setup for it started right after we moved onto Black Rock Road. One of our new neighbors got a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

“It's the kind of dog they use to hunt lions,” he explained to me proudly as he tugged on his suspenders. He announced it every time we met. He described how two Ridgebacks could take down a lion. Even though I was twelve and he was a grown adult with grey hairs and a mustache, I felt skeptical. His dog was big, yeah, but a lion is a fucking lion.

This was during the age of free-range dogs, which I guess is most of American history until around 1990 for the rural suburbs. When I was growing up in College Park, animals ran loose. It was the same in Darnestown. I had walked my dog on a leash to the creek plenty of times in Darnestown but I learned to take a heavy stick with me. I needed it to break up the fights. The dobermans and mutts downhill of us tried to attack my dog if she stopped to pee. I had pushed away a bunch of them over the course of the year, even the Ridgeback.

Then came the second dog.

Sixteen months after we had settled in with our dog-walking habits, our neighbor got a 'really lucky opportunity' in his words. A big, male Rhodesian Ridgeback had attacked other animals in Rockville. After the last of the attacks, the city told the owners to get rid of the dog or put it down. Normally, a purebred would have cost hundreds of dollars. The reason our neighbor, Warner, had one in the first place was that a work friend of his had gotten a runt female in a litter of Ridgebacks. No one else had wanted it so he pawned it off to Warner.

Suddenly, Warner discovered that he could have a breeding pair. What's more, the male, despite its behavior problems, had a fantastic pedigree. The dog came with papers and everything. Soon enough, he introduced the new Ridgeback to the neighborhood.

The male attacked the female Ridgeback immediately, Warner conceded a few days later. But he said he had gotten them to settle down.

"He needs to run," my neighbor explained as he walked by my driveway with his pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. He pointed his thumb at the male. It was, I noticed, pretty often lunging at the female. They weren't playful attacks. These were two big, muscular dogs and the bigger one was trying to drive the smaller one away.

Next month, the lunges started on humans. The new Ridgeback hunted us each day on our way to the mailbox. He bounced up and tried to knock us over. Sometimes he nipped at us. If my dog was with me, the two animals would hold barking fights. If the German Shepherd across the street heard the commotion, he would run to my defense because he liked me and my dog. That made for three dogs bouncing and yelling as I tried to sort the bills from the junk fliers.

My father stopped getting the mail. He switched to sending me out for it on most afternoons.

He never sent my mother but, often enough, my mother volunteered. Once she came back complaining about the male Ridgeback. I should have taken that as a warning. My mother never complained about anything. She loved animals. Often enough, she tamed feral ones.

"That dog is out of control, Bob," she told my father.

"Well, what am I supposed to do?"

They talked it over. My mother insisted the dog was dangerous. My dad gave in. He picked a time when both Ridgebacks had gone inside and walked to the neighbor to complain about the attacks as we got our mail. Amazingly, our neighbor apologized and agreed to keep his animals inside more often. The dogfights on the way to the mail slowed for a few weeks.

In time, the frequency picked up again. The male Ridgeback resumed hunting us. Technically, I suppose everyone was obligated to keep their dogs inside gated yards. It was the county law. No one in our area had a yard like that, though. I'm not sure it occurred to anyone to change things. For sure it wasn't in the minds of the four area teenagers. The most we did was trade warnings about which dogs were dangerous.

One night, I wandered upstairs for a snack. I had just turned fourteen, so I ate more or less constantly. If I wasn't working out or commuting thirty miles to school, I was helping myself to food.

While I was making a sandwich, my dog begged to go outside. I opened the door for her. It opened to a frozen landscape. That February, there had been a snow storm, followed by an ice storm, followed by a cycle of melting and re-frosting to create an inch-thick layer of ice on the hillside. Our house sat on a pretty steep slope so there was some danger that my dog would simply slide into our downhill neighbor's driveway. But she didn't. She carefully skated out, found a spot near a flower bed, and peed for a while. Then she roamed the yard.

I returned to my eating and reading.

A minute later, I heard a bark. I rose to let my dog back in. The bark was followed by an animalistic roar. It stopped me for half a second. I'd never heard anything like it. Then came more barking and a squeal of tremendous pain.

The pain made me move. I burst through the front door onto the porch. There, on the icy sidewalk lay my dog, on her side. Above her stood the male Ridgeback with his jaws around her throat. I only had a few seconds, so I charged. I forgot about the ice. My shoes started sliding as I ran. Luckily, I arrived down the steps still mostly vertical. I punched the Ridgeback in his neck. Then I tried to poke him in the eye. It was a revelation. The dog felt like it was made of iron rebar.

He growled louder. My dog whined more desperately. With an eye on me and my unsteadiness, the Ridgeback backed up off the sidewalk. He seemed to know I couldn't follow. Then he continued with the job of killing my dog. He flipped her onto her back and adjusted his grip on her throat. She screamed.

I kept slipping to one knee as I tried to move into the yard. That dog was right. I couldn't stand up on the iced slope. I backed up onto the sidewalk, then to the porch as I looked for anything to use as a weapon. Just something to get the Ridgeback's attention. Anything. Then I saw the ice hoe. That morning, I'd used ot to clear off part of the porch and the sidewalk. It was still in the corner of the porch, a six foot wooden handle with a four-inch blade at the end. I grabbed it and scrambled back down the porch stairs.

That January, I had turned fourteen. I'd won trophies in martial arts. I'd made the wrestling team. Someone I hit with the full swing of an ice hoe wouldn't be happy.

The Ridgeback saw me coming. For the first time, it really looked like it wanted to kill me. But it wanted to finish my dog. I slipped, which gave the Ridgeback a chance to dodge. Still, I managed to clock it on the hip with the blade of the hoe. A full swing. I had to do it on the ice, yes, sliding all the way and without good leverage. But I hit the dog in the thigh with the blade.

The blade of the ice hoe bounced. The Rhodesian Ridgeback glared at me, gave a surprised, angry growl, and pulled my dog downslope along the ice. Suddenly, I couldn't see the dogs. The light from the house cast shadows. The Ridgeback had pulled itself into them. On the slope of the hill, I had to hold onto a bush and flail with the hoe in one hand. I tried anyway.

The Ridgeback pulled my gasping dog further down the slope.

If I moved any further, I would need to fall to my knees to remain partly vertical. There would be no way to swing. I needed a different weapon. And, in the back of my mind, there was the idea that if I fell in front of the Rhodesian Ridgeback in the middle of its kill, that might be bad for me.

"What's going on?" My father burst out of the house. In retrospect, he might have come to yell at me for waking him up. What he saw stopped him, though. He didn't even step off the front porch.

"I can't reach it!" I yelled back at him.

"What are you doing?" he screamed. His gaze drifted. "Is that a bear? Wait, that's the ridgeback."

"Hold onto me," I said. "If you help me stand up, I can take another swing."

"No, come back to the house." This time, he did step down from the porch. He stretched his arm out to me. At the same time, he turned and called back to the house. "Ann, get Warner on the phone."

And so the problem was solved. Adults took care of it. Our neighbor picked up the phone on his end and came running when he understood what was going on. My father helped Warner find the dogs. Amazingly, he was able to separate the animals. He offered to take our dog to the veterinarian immediately, in the middle of the night, as an emergency call. He knew the vet from taking his female Ridgeback.

My parents accepted his offer. They couldn't contain their surprise, though, when the veterinary surgeon called us at four in the morning to announce that our dog was going to make it.

"No teeth punctures in the artery," I heard my father say to the handset in the hallway. "Wow."

"She's alive?" I asked.

"It was close. But yes, she's alive. She can't come home right away. But she'll be able to come home."

In a way, it was just another dog incident among many. A few months later, our neighbor Warner decided to put down the male Ridgeback after it seriously injured his female Ridgeback again. That solved a problem for the neighborhood. I resumed walking my dog down to the creek. I stepped into the middle of other, less deadly dogfights with a stick. But sometimes, even after jaw-clacking combat with tangled leashes and pushes with the stick, I remembered this particular one.

Something about the ice hoe bouncing off the thigh of the Ridgeback lingered. So did my slipping on the ice and the feeling of the consequences. Before, I had pictured myself as being able to hold my own against all animals. But with a sort of physical finality, I knew it wasn't true, not completely. There had been at least one predator big enough to shake off a direct hit. There were bigger, tougher creatures in the world than me.

The Ridgeback wasn't even a wild animal. But I remembered the feel of its strength.

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