A Tale of Puppycide ... Averted

Usually mornings are a long, drawn out affair for me. I have gotten into the habit of waking up at an hour that has been described as "ungodly"; of preparing breakfast, and of spending the first few hours of my day in serene contemplation. Its a time for catching up on my reading or for quiet exercise in front of the lake or for wrangling my yard into a less formidable shape.

This morning was a sharp and unwelcome divergence from the relaxing routine. As I sat down with the day's first cup of coffee, eyes not yet prepared for remaining completely open for anything resembling an extended period, a shriek pierced the tranquility of my humble home.

At first it was unclear who the shriek belonged to, or where the source of said shriek resided. It could have easily belonged to a child, but I couldn't be sure; it was unclear, as well, whether the cry had come from within a house or from the street, or in which direction the sound had come from. I was prepared, then, to ignore the whole incident - children, after all, have been known to issue such wild protests for trifles; perhaps a youngster had had enough of being buckled into a child seat. Just as reasonable was the notion that the shriek was not a protest at all - but an exclamation of glee. It is Christmas time after all. Perhaps little Johnny or June had come across the trove of this year's presents, prior to being wrapped. Better to just leave the whole thing for the parents. They had signed up for such concerns upon creating the child in the first place. Not to mention they had enjoyed the attendant bliss that goes along with manufacturing such a creature. I had received no such bliss; signed no such social contract.

I was off the hook. Back to my coffee.

But then, within a moment, the sound proceeded at pace. With each hue and cry the yelp became a scream. There was no doubt at this point: this was not a shriek of happiness. This was a cry for help; someone was in pain.

I peered out the windows. Perhaps there had been some sort of accident? I saw my land lord and several other neighbors walk-running (trotting, essentially) to a home about a block away from me. A more accurate picture of what must have occurred began to appear in my mind.

You see, I was familiar with this particular house toward which the bee-line of neighbors proceeded. Two dogs resided there: one a medium sized male dog of indeterminate breed, the other a large black lady-beast of an appearance that on-lookers tend to immediately ascribe to a genetic relation to the "Pit Bull" variety of hounds. I had known both dogs for at least two years. As puppies, the pair had often escaped from the captivity of their back yard and spent the afternoons galloping across the neighborhood, rough-housing and tumbling over one another in gleeful barrel rolls. Their escape hatch, which has remained consistent for some time now, was a rear gate in their master's fence. The latch on this gate could be broken when enough force was applied. Alternatively, an alcove in the home provided the gate with a degree of privacy. Within such a secret den, the dogs could easily and eagerly tunnel their way to freedom. They did so often.

I have for at least the last year, been blessed with a happy arrangement of self-employment - an arrangement that allows me under nearly all circumstances to work from my home. From time to time I enjoy breaking the tedium of the more complex systems administration tasks that are my warrant in life by using my laptop on either the front of rear porch of the home. Instead of the pitch black screen of a commercial server's console, my arrangment thus entitles me to a pitch black screen of a commercial server's console, surrounded by a delightful forest of greens and reds and blues and purples with which the gardens of my home are painted. My concentration thus obtained, I find my productivity to be excellent in such surroundings. That is, until the pair of young dogs make their entrance.

More than once the two rapscallions have fumbled into my lap, already covered with a small computer - breaking my concentration as well as the near-impossible-to-replace latch that attaches my computer's monitor to its keyboard. Any curses or angry gestures sent toward the dogs are simpy ignored, as if struck blind and deaf toward any distraction from their play. Despite their imperviousness to messages of ill-will, their senses are in fact quite keen. After a few minutes of wrestling across the patio, one of them ill inevitably catch a whiff of the smallest odor, or hear perhaps the scuttle of a squirrels feet in a tree a half mile away. Inspired by this neoteric kinesthesia, the one will catch the other's attention, as if by some telepathic link, and the two are off - cavorting in some alternate direction.

It was with this in mind that my first thoughts, upon coming into contact with the screeching and the rapid procession of neighbors, were that some disaster had befallen one or the both of these canine companions. Having known the beasts and feeling as a result somewhat responsible for their well-being, I set off after the procession.

Upon reaching my destination I found the larger of the two hounds pacing back and forth in the middle of the street. Her mood was inscrutable. The dog's face still had the plastered on grin that many dogs wear regardless of the circumstances, her tongue hanging out. But something in the way she paced back and forth betrayed that her usual playfulness could, in an instant, disappear. Hers was a manic gait - the way one might imagine a mental patient whiling away the hours when locked away in a padded cell too small for his tasts. The large black dog was squaring off against a half dozen or so neighbors, who stood between the dog and the house immediately across the street from her own.

There was chatter that the dog was vicious and that something must be done - the police ought to be called. After a bit of idle eavesdropping it became apparent that my musclebound dark-haired friend had in some manner attacked the dog living across the street, and bit him. From the hushed and anxious tones with which the matter was discussed, it was obvious that the dog who received the bite had incurrd a serious injury as a result, one which could have easily proved fatal with a slight shift in circumstances. The injured dog I knew also - he was small, less than 15 pounds. His attacker was easily 5 times his size.

This was not good news. After all, I work for the Puppycide Database Project. I have read and compiled thousands of reports of dogs shot by police, and a majority of them begin as this story had: with a dog on the loose, and with neighbors afraid of what might happen if the dog remained that way. It was clear that something must be done to ensure that the large black dog was contained within her own yard, and that the owners of the large black dog ought to recompense the owners of the small dog who was injured. That said, killing the large black dog would serve no good purpose, and would only turn what was almost a tragedy into an actual tragedy. We don't reserve the death penalty for people who are found guilty of simple assault. Is it sensible for the punishment of dogs to so drastically diverge from the nature of their crime?

A neighbor moved toward the large black dog's house, in order to tell the owners what had happened, and hopefully to have them retrieve and contain the large black dog. The black dog turned to watch the neighbors approach, and the assembled crowd let out a shriek of their own. One man yelled: "For Christ's sake get back! He's VICIOUS!" The approaching neighbor complied with the warning. The crowd was terrified of the beast. They were calling the police. Things were quickly taking a turn southward for my muscle-bound, dark-haired friend.

I decided that quick action was called for. I snuck out from the crowd and made my way back to my own house, itself only a hundred feet or so away from the scene of the mob. As I quickly paced back to my front door, I passed the rear gate that the pair of dogs use in their escape plans. The big black dog's companion had pushed his face under a gap in the fence. Through this gap, which was obviously the route of their latest get-a-way, the black dog's companion was watching the events unfolding on the street. This smaller pup had wedged his entire body as low to the ground as possible, twisting his head to just the right angle so that he could keep an eye on his friend without exposing his own presence to the crowd. While I hesitate to assign human emotions to animals, I find it difficult to read anything other than fear on the dog's face and in his behavior. I had seen these two dogs cavorting through the neighborhood for years. Not once in that time had I encountered either dog more than a few steps away from the other. Until today. It was clear then and I remain convinced now that the black dog's companion wanted nothing more than to wiggle through his escape hatch and join his friend, but that he was terrified of doing so. Perhaps I am reading too much into the beast's behavior. Nevertheless, it struck me as a poignant, human reaction to the circumstances.

I reached my own home and made for the kitchen. There I tore open a few cabinets until I found a spare stash of dog food. I scooped out a few handfuls of the grainy, odorous brown kernels and shoved them into my pockets before turning around and leaving the way I had come in.

As I made my way back to the crowd, I noticed that the number of the mob had dwindled a bit. A few of the neighbors had retreated into a nearby house in order to call animal control. The family of the dog who was injured, along with a few onlookers, had bundled the poor pooch into a car and were pulling out to take him to the nearest vet.

Sensing an advantage as the mob contracted, the large black dog had ceased pacing back and forth in a few hectic steps. Instead, she now wandered around the edges of the crowd. Her intention was clear: she was tring to make her way past the crowd and onto the property of the dog she had just bitten.

I had to move fast. I feared that such an intrusion would be viewed as utterly unforgiveable: a confirmation of the big black dog's intention not just to bite her adversary, but to hunt and inevitably kill him. I had no doubt that if animal control or the police were to find the big black dog on the property of her victim, they would find it more reasonable to quickly escalate the use of force against her.

Shouldering through the crowd, I quickly got to the front. There was now nothing between me and the large dog. The dog, though, was paying little attention to me: she was making her way towards her destination, with no apparent regard for the consequences such a course would have.

I whistled, or gave my best attempt at a whistle. The sharp high-pitched sound made the dog turn her head and look straight at me. With her focus on me, I threw a fist-full of the dog food from my pockets into the street a few feet in front of me. As I had hoped, the big black dog trotted toward the food, her head ducked to the ground, sniffing her way to the kernels scattered this way and that. With a swift movement, I stepped forward and grabbed her collar.

The crowd was shocked. "Be careful!", a young woman exclaimed. There was grumbling that I had over-stepped the bounds of my authority. I was a mere neighbor. Clearly, this was a job for the police or at the very least someone with some kind of a uniform. Wasn't it?

As I walked the big dark-haired beast to the side of the house with an entrance to the gated-off back yard, I offered a few mumbling concessions to the spectators. "Its okay, I know this dog." And "Just making sure we are all safe with her off the street". I declined to mention that I was just as concerned for the dog's safety as I was for the safety of my neighbors. I was fairly confident that all of my neighbors would survive the day's events. I was not so sure that the same could be said of the big black dog, at least not without some help.

I was surprised by how little resistance the beast offered as I guided her along by the collar. She stayed a half step in front of me, obviously aware of her destination and completely un-opposed to getting there as quickly as possible. The beast's posture, stiff when I first grabbed her collar, immediately relaxed as we turned away from the crowd and headed toward her house. It became apparent to me that whatever aggression she displayed toward the crowd, if any was in fact displayed, was the result of panic. The big black dog simply did not know what to do, and felt much better once someone else had both literally and figuratively "taken the reins" to help conclude the morning's events.

In just a few moments, the immediate crisis over; the big black dog returned to her companion. People began returning to their homes, confident that their own dogs, cats and small children would be safe, at least for the time being.

With the dog in the back yard, the likelihood of additional frantic calls being made to the police and animal control are highly reduced. It also means that should the police deem it neccessary to take custody of the dog, there is no need for the use of force.

The dog who was bitten, as of this writing, still remains at the vet, but the outlook looks good. He was able to walk unassisted before his doctor visit, and its almost certain that his injuries are limited to a few bruises and a superficial cut.

There are a number of issues that remain unresolved. A determination of "viciousness" has yet to be made. The owners of the big black dog have yet to even be informed of what has happened - they were not home when the events described took place. Voicemails and notes on doors have been left. Further intervention may in fact be required to ensure that no unnecessary use of force is used against the big black dog or her companion.

Still, something important happened this morning. A community was able to deal with a dog fight on its own - between neighbors. No police were required to deal with the immediate threat of dog bites and scratches. There was no need for gunshots, or tasers or mace or catch poles.

The only weapon required was some dog food.

Violence need not be met with violence. This was a situation that easily could have spun out of control - its a situation that is the beginning of countless Puppycide narratives all over the country. That narrative can be different. Puppycide is not a tragedy that needs to happen.

We can make a difference.