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Dogs and Wild Animals: What We Don't Know

Living on the east side of Milwaukee, a narrow strip of land between the green corridor of the Milwaukee River on the west and the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan on the east, I’d heard many stories of coyotes prowling the neighborhood. Two children reported seeing a “wolf” in the park; a Schnauzer, cornered in his own backyard, was rescued by his owner heroically banging on a pot. The only coyote I’d ever seen, though, was a frightened, mange-ravaged creature skulking through a neighbor’s yard and away down the alley, not a symbol of the healthy persistence of wilderness in the city.

In truth, the wilderness that persists in this area is hardly a picture of health by any measure. When my dogs and I take our morning walks, I try to enjoy each moment the way they do, which is to say thoughtlessly: I breathe deep, in awe of the reds and golds of a sunrise made more vivid by particulate pollution; I shiver at the chilly shake of dew from competing monocultures of alien plants around my feet; I try to read my home turf through enthusiastic eyes (or maybe, noses) that relish the presence of every tiny life, whether or not it has any legitimate claim on being here.

My younger dog, Boo, is an appropriate observer of this environment precisely because she is such a misfit herself. She is certainly not the dog most people would choose for an urban family pet. When, five years ago, a friend found her wandering along a dirt track in the Smoky Mountains, she was malnourished, missing her left eye, pregnant with 11 pups, prematurely graying, and so used to fending for herself beyond the human world that she had to be taught to climb stairs. (Later, when she was X-rayed for a shoulder injury, we learned that she also has a chest full of birdshot.) We’ve always called her a Lab mix, but over time her uniquely expressive voice and amazing acuity as a squirrel hunter have convinced me that her pedigree, such as it is, probably runs more to Mountain Cur. When people ask her breed, my husband answers, “She’s a loud black dog.”

Despite her feral roots, Boo had so little difficulty bonding with our family that a leash has seldom been a feature of her life. But last spring, she suddenly began running off every morning on our walks along the lakefront. A half-mile down the beach from where we started, she’d abruptly turn, go crashing up the bluff face and vanish in brush. I’d call and call, terrified that this time she might not pause, with a glance over her shoulder as if to say, Just a minute, OK? I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done over here … What if this time, she mounted the top of the bluff, crossed the upscale lawns, raced out into the stream of traffic winding downtown for another day at the office? Every morning for a week, I found myself abandoned, wandering along the beach calling her name until tears came; eventually I’d hear her bark and she’d burst back downhill to me, frowzy and unapologetic.

Finally, it occurred to me to track Boo on her wild ascents. The first few tries were futile: struggling uphill, I did my best to follow, but always she’d dissolve before my eyes into brambles and silence. After five or 10 minutes of clawing through the underbrush, I’d skid back down to the beach with burrs in my hair and sleeves, only to find Boo rolling in the sand.

One morning, approaching the spot where Boo kept running off, I clipped a leash to her collar. When she pulled toward the bluff, I tagged after, clambering over the snags and deadfalls she scrambled through, the leash impeding her progress as I unclipped and reattached it several times. She moved with purpose, tolerating the hindrance of my presence. Halfway up the bluff, she turned and half-slid into a steep gully hidden from both above and below. A jutting pile of broken concrete slabs thrown down there years earlier formed something like a cave mouth on the opposite side, and Boo was pulling me directly toward it.

I started to scold her in frustration, but my breath caught in my throat. There, across the gully, four fat coyote pups peered out at us from their den, pricked ears and black button noses alert to our presence. And there, at my feet, sat Boo, her tongue flicking in and out, tail wagging, whimpering under her breath as if comforting babies she’d mothered long ago.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011
Judith Harway's books of poetry include All That is Left and The Memory Box. She is a professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Photo courtesy of Judith Harway

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