Carolyn M. Miller

Carolyn Miller is an occasional blogger for TheBark.com. She and her husband, Bruce Miller, live in Gallon Jug, Belize, where they study "bats 'n' cats". Read more about their adventures on the Belize Field Note blog.

News: Guest Posts
Big Jungle, Little Dog
Why Maggie never goes outside alone

Maggie never goes outside alone. Never. She always has a human escort, someone to scan the dense bush surrounding the patch of grass we call a yard. Lurking within that bush could be almost any variety of tropical mammal; mammals that almost certainly consider a small white dog a tasty snack. It could be argued that choosing such a small dog in our line of work—field biology in Belize—was not a wise choice (see, A Change of Heart). Of course, when we adopted her, I didn’t intend for her to be under escort all of the time. But an incident her first week with us rapidly changed my mind.

  It was with a great deal of enthusiasm that I set out with our newly adopted dog to take a walk on the dirt road near our home. It was a foggy morning, early. In the pasture on one side of us, a swish, swish, swish arrested my attention. I was amazed to see a short deer approaching through the tall grass. Then it had slowed to a slink, tail tip switching and green eyes riveted upon us.    An adult puma!   I scooped up the little dog in my arms and faced the great cat. It was only 25 feet away from us and looked like it meant business. A commanding bark or two from Maggie would have been welcome, but she seemed not to notice the cat, or at least wasn’t commenting.   The cat approached us, one step at a time, tail tip flicking. I was so frightened my knees were knocking. Though pumas, or cougars as they are called in North America, have a reputation for attacking humans in some areas, I was all but certain this one wanted the dog. And for a split second, I entertained throwing the dog to the cat. I shudder at the memory. But only for a split second—even though Maggie had been with us only a week, we were bonded.   After what felt like eternity, the cat evidently decided I wasn’t surrendering the dog. Like water poured from a pitcher, it leaped gracefully, easily clearing the barbwire fence that separated us and bounded across the road only a few feet away. Then sat, sphinx-like, and regarded us, its coat tawny against the green jungle backdrop.   Clutching Maggie, I took this as my cue to escape, never turning my back on it, maintaining eye contact all the way home. That evening, just after dark, there was a puma in our driveway. Scoping out the dog? I’ll never know, but it was the first of several hair-raising puma encounters near our home. Once we came face-to-face with three nearly grown youngsters that followed us up the hill to the house. By then, I’d perfected walking backwards with Maggie in my arms maintaining eye contact.   Besides pumas, another predator to take an unhealthy interest in Maggie was the tayra, aka “bush dog” in Belize. This large member of the weasel family is an omnivore, known to take small deer. I’d thought Maggie would be safe walking the wide road at the edge of the farm with my husband, Bruce, and I as escorts until a tayra burst from the jungle and streaked toward our dog with frightening speed. Fortunately, Bruce snatched her up before the animal reached her. It gave up then and disappeared into the jungle.   And it’s not just the predators we need to beware of. I’ve discovered white tailed deer, the same species found in North America, take exception to a small white dog, even a polite, well-behaved one. To be fair, there were babies involved: two darling newborn fawns at the base of our hill. When I saw them, Maggie and I waited until they’d disappeared into the bush and then I counted to 30. Maggie has zero interest in deer. None whatsoever. Particularly when treats are involved, which is how we’d been killing time until the coast was clear. A quick look around and then I deemed it safe to proceed.   Or so I thought.   Mama deer burst from the bush not far from where the fawns had entered. Without knowing quite how it happened, she’d straddled Maggie and was attempting to stomp her. Horrified, I somehow grabbed Maggie from beneath the enraged mother’s flying hooves and headed back up our hill to the house. Bleating furiously, with foam flying from her muzzle, the Mama Deer from Hell charged us repeatedly until we were safely inside.   Other than deer, which Maggie now fears, she is remarkably blasé about most animals she encounters. She has very little interest in the raccoons, coatimundis (a long-nosed, long-tailed member of the raccoon family), kinkajous (another distant relative of the raccoon called “honey bear” in Belize), opossums and armadillos—all of which she has totally ignored in our yard beyond a cursory sniff in their direction.   She does display some interest in two species. Monkeys really get her cranked up. Likewise, they shake branches violently when they see her. For her part, Maggie stands on her hind legs, yipping and stretching up to reach them. Then they take to urinating in our direction and throwing feces with uncanny aim—our cue to exit.   But the giant Baird’s Tapir, Belize’s National Animal, is where Maggie’s protective instinct finally finds expression. Weighing up to 800 pounds, this harmless relative of the horse family has a pleasant horsey smell that is readily detectable, even to humans. Many times when we’ve been working at night, Maggie has alerted us to their presence with the utmost urgency and uncharacteristic agitated barking. “Stay back,” she seems to be saying to the tapir, “otherwise I’m coming after you!” Does she really imagine she can catch one, let alone drag it home?


News: Guest Posts
Seriously Ticked Off
One little pup vs. infinite tropical parasites

If you think about life in the tropics, maybe you picture warm balmy breezes, a rain shower or two, and gently swinging in a hammock under a palm tree, your dog snoozing peacefully nearby. No taking the dog outside in freezing weather for “last call.” No bundling up to brave a chilly walk. And no frozen toes.

  And you would be right. Here in Belize, we do enjoy those balmy breezes, hammocks and rain showers. Lots of rain. They don’t call it the rainforest for nothing.   All that warmth and humidity grows things. Big things, little things ... parasite-type things. I think the biggest battle a dog’s person fights in the tropics is parasites, specifically fleas and ticks. Recall that there is no deep freeze to kill them off in winter. It is a year-round battle and despite my best efforts, sometimes the ticks win.   Recently, we had just such a week. Agatha, the first tropical storm of the season hammered Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Somewhat north, Belize escaped the high winds but received heavy downpours daily, including more than 2 inches overnight. A boon for frogs, certainly, but the ticks also appeared, like I’ve never seen them before. Big ones, small ones, flat ones and fat ones. “Pepper ticks” so tiny and numerous they might be mistaken for something you’d sprinkle on your baked potato. And let’s not forget the aerial assault; that’s right, we have ticks raining from trees and overhanging vegetation.   After more than 20 years in Belize, I am no stranger to ticks, either on my person or my dog. So how do I deal with them? Well, I groom Maggie every day, top to bottom. I peer into her ears, lift her tail, separate her toes. I feel every millimeter of her furry little body for any tick-like bumps. I keep a tweezers, scissors and alcohol at hand. Usually, I find them before they have really attached when they are easily removed and drowned in alcohol.   Of course, prevention is an even better idea and I try, I really do, to take the green route. Maggie has a bandana scented with rose geranium reputed to be a tick repellent. She wears it when she goes outside, otherwise I store it in a jar to retain the tick-repelling properties and spare her sensitive nose from inhaling it constantly. I recharge it every so often with another drop of rose geranium. When the ticks get really bad, I spray her with a few drops of rose geranium and lavender dissolved in a bit of glycerin and 8 ounces of water.    And when that doesn’t work, I bring out the big guns: Frontline. Keeping in mind most flea and tick products are developed for the North American market and frequently not effective against the ferocious tropical species. Frontline seems to be the most effective of the bunch, in Belize anyway, although I’ve heard that the ticks have developed resistance to it here.   Last week was beyond awful though. Despite Frontline, scented bandanas and diligent examinations, ticks the size of black beans shinnied up my dog, attached and stayed hidden. These “stealth” ticks fed until swollen to bursting, then dropped to the floor in a small explosion of blood. Maggie looks like she’s been shot—blood spatters when she shakes her head or trickles down her snow-white fur. She stares at me big-eyed: Do something, Mom!    In desperation, I emailed Maggie’s vet who is three hours away on bad roads. I knew ticks injected an anticoagulant—so maybe I was overreacting to all that blood—but I wanted to grouse about my Tick Hell and ask for tips on how to staunch the bleeding. I’d even tried a styptic pen, such as men use for shaving nicks, to stem the flow. Dr. Sheila cut right to the chase: Blood that won’t clot is a symptom of tick fever. She mailed me a course of antibiotics ... and another dose of Frontline. 
News: Guest Posts
A Change of Heart
Adopting a dog, Belize-style

We were afraid it was a heart attack. My husband Bruce felt pressure on his chest, stiffness in his neck and on his left side, and struggled to breathe. So we drove our beat-up SUV 3 hours over rough bush roads to the hospital in Belize City. It was this frightening incident, and waiting for the doctor’s results, that landed us at the new Belize Humane Society.

  Let me take a step back to the weeks before Bruce’s health scare. After 15 years living in remote areas of Belize, we’d recently acquired a television and were catching up on American culture, including Animal Planet. One of our favorite programs, “Breed All About It,” matched humans with dogs that fit their lifestyle—a totally new concept so far as we were concerned. I was impressed that people might select a dog based on predetermined requirements. After a few months of everything from Aussies to Yorkies, we pretty much decided it was time to have a dog in our lives again.   So we let our friend Karina know that maybe—well, it was still early but perhaps—we might like a dog, if it was exactly the right sort of dog. Karina had founded the fledgling Belize Humane Society after years of feeding and finding homes for the thin, feral animals roaming the mean streets of Belize City. Delighted with our interest, she called us from time to time.   “A nice big dog was just turned in, we might want to look at it? Puppies found under a porch, take a look? Beautiful litter of Husky/Shepherd pups?”   “No… no… and no thanks.” Our beautiful Suki had been part Husky and came to Belize with us when she was 10. She lived to be 15 but her long, heavy coat and northern preferences made her susceptible to hot spots and other skin irritations. I didn’t want to go there again. No long-haired dogs for us.   Thanks to the helpful people behind “Breed All About It,” we had narrowed down exactly what sort of dog was right for us, with requirements I didn’t think were too stringent given our circumstances. We’d decided on a medium to large dog, nothing small or yappy. I was adamant about short hair—no more treating hot spots on an overheated dog for me. A young adult dog would be fine, no need to go through puppyhood. A male or female, either way, we would be sure to have it neutered not wanting to add to the feral dog population in Belize via unplanned progeny. And, of course, we wanted our new dog to be healthy and well adjusted, friendly and outgoing. And a good barker since part of his or her duties would be to sound the alarm near our house. I didn’t think we were being overly picky either.   Finally, Karina called us about a female “Weimaraner type” dog, about a year old, short gray hair with a white patch on her chest. Very pretty, very nice. I was skeptical about the breed designation as the vast majority of dogs here in Belize are mixes eventually evolving into the tan “potlicka” found on every street corner and roaming every village.   Feeling vulnerable after hours with the doctor, we decided to “just have a look” at the Karina’s “Weimaraner.” Although it was sort of a whim—after all, we could more productively run some errands—my heart was in my throat because I was pretty certain that if we saw the dog, we would take her. It seemed a big step for a long-time dogless, peripatetic couple.   Bruce navigated the narrow winding streets of Belize City, deftly dodging pedestrians, bicyclists, garbage and feral dogs. Finally, he wedged our old 4WD into a narrow space next to a two-story cement building with an “Animals Hospital” sign. We entered a small lobby area, still, damp and quiet with burglar bars bolted over the windows, like any establishment in Belize City. Narrow wooden benches lined the walls for patients but the place was deserted. I introduced myself to the pleasant looking woman sitting behind the desk, the receptionist I guessed, and inquired about the female Weimaraner-type dog up for adoption.   She was puzzled. “This is the temporary location for the new Belize Humane Society, no true?” I mentioned Karina’s name. She thought a moment and allowed as it was. I dropped Weimaraner from my description, instead said we were here to see the gray female dog that was up for adoption. The woman’s face cleared.   “Dat dog foun’ who she b’long to.” Her delightful Caribbean lilt was typical of Belize.   “Oh, well that’s good then.” It sounded like a happy outcome to me. Bruce and I exchanged a glance. “Do you have anything else?” I inquired. I imagined being led to some enclosures to consider other dogs. Big, sleek, healthy ones of a type that seemed right for us. Animal Planet dogs. Her brow knit again. “You want an inside or outside dog?”   “Well inside, I guess.”   “Only wan we have is dis.” She jerked her head back over her shoulder.   “What?”   “We have dis wan.” She pushed back her chair and nudged a small, miserable-looking creature curled up on a towel behind her chair, wedged next to the wall. The dog reluctantly got to its feet, tail curved between its legs and slunk off the towel. The receptionist—Felicia, by her name tag—nudged the dog into the light and picked her up. “Someone foun’ her on d’streets las’ week and tun her in.”   This was so not what we had envisioned. After a dozen episodes of “Breed All About It,” some viewed more than once, big and healthy was what we wanted, that was the right dog for us. Small and dejected, the dog hung its head. I couldn’t imagine a little dog like this surviving Belize City streets for long. There were rats just about its size and scrappy wild-eyed cats and cocky streetwise feral dogs. Not to mention boa constrictors. I thought about the Snake Man who stood on the street corner with boa constrictors looped around his torso. How did this dog dodge the cars and bicycles careening down the narrow winding streets?   Felicia thrust the lump of skin and bones at me. I regarded it at arm’s length. Female. Very small, with badly barbered white fur sticking out in short wiry tufts and patches of bare skin. Her backside was naked and pink, like a baboon’s bottom or an upside-down heart. She smelled to high heaven—of chemicals. Felicia explained, the dog had been badly matted so they’d hacked her hair off and then flea dipped her. Her bare backside was due to flea allergy dermatitis. She was very thin and no doubt suffering from heartworm as do most Belize strays.   I glanced at Bruce. He shrugged. Felicia said tactfully, “We leave you ’lone for a few moments” and pulled him out the door.   Please don’t, I thought, this is so not what we want. The dog was dead weight in my arms, almost lifeless. This country, I thought, you can never get what you want. After 15 years, I knew that was petulant and spoiled of me but I was tired of settling for what was available. I struggled to come to terms with big, sleek and healthy versus small, scruffy and miserable.   I focused back on the dog. What was her history? What unfortunate circumstances brought her here? And what kind of dog was she? A terrier maybe. Or poodle? We regarded each other. Inexplicably, the little dog’s eyes brightened. Weird eyes. One was blue and the other brown. I tried to harden my heart.   Big. Sleek. Healthy. Remember that.   Her floppy ears went back—in some mysterious way, her expression had changed. Was her plumed tail beginning a tentative wave? The trim wasn’t as bad as I first thought. She was actually, sort of, well, appealing.   And just like that, it was all over. She’d grabbed my heart with a gap-toothed grin. Missing teeth, both top and bottom. But, that didn’t matter. Didn’t matter at all.   “OK, that’s it,” I announced to Bruce as he rejoined us. “We’re bonded!” He smiled happily; he’d liked her all along. We made arrangements for the little dog, our little dog, to get her inoculations and picked out a red collar for her. Then we returned to get the doctor’s results—good news, just a bad reaction to a medication. Bruce’s heart was fine. And so was mine. And when we returned to pick up our scruffy little dog, she was wagging her tail to greet us. Somehow, I felt the “Breed All About It” people would be OK with that.