Big Jungle, Little Dog

Why Maggie never goes outside alone
By Carolyn M. Miller, November 2010

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?


Carolyn Miller is an occasional blogger for 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.