Call of the Wild

Unknown-3Sometimes on my walks around my house in Vermont, I forget who has the upper hand. It’s easy enough to forget; I have the suburbanite’s acquisitive, territorial nature. I like to put on my snow shoes and galumph around the woods, surveying my land like a cheap despot: my pond, my hemlock trees, my view, my meadow… I mark the seasons, note the changing light, the ephemeral patterns of things. Of course I love the way every minute of every day is unique and will never be seen again. Nature never disappoints. But let’s be honest: Nine tenths of love is possession.

While admiring that pink glow at dusk I’m also quietly, grabbily cataloging what I’m convinced is all mine: the stone walls, the apple trees, the seam of quartz that runs through the woods, the deer trail tamped down by generations of nimble hoofs, the natural spring where cows once came to drink in mid-winter (saving their farmers the laborious task of breaking and melting ice). I feel some sense of stewardship, of course. But I’ve got my eye on posterity too. Mine. I like this place, and I want it.

And meanwhile the wild animals who roam this exact land, and have done so for millennia, don’t give an owl’s hoot about my mortgage.Unknown-2

imagesI know animals are observing us out there. I see pairs of glowing eyes in the woods when I come up my driveway at night.

Unknown-1We spotted a bobcat crossing the dirt road to our house one evening and my neighbor saw a mountain lion a few years ago, standing still as a statue. A local naturalist advises looking up into the treetops in summertime if you want to see bear cubs.Unknown-5

Every morning when there’s snow on the ground, I see hoof prints and beds of flattened snow where the deer have spent the night. I may be the only person in the Western hemisphere who doesn’t want to shoot or poison them; in fact, I wish I saw even more deer. (Attention, Ruminants! Come eat my flowers!) I like the wildlife around here. (Squatters, make yourselves right at home here.) I’m a kindly property owner.

Naïve too.

Yesterday, my dogs learned who really owns the real estate in these parts. I was out walking with my husband when the dogs took off on a tear and didn’t come back even with the yelled promise of a doggy treat. Knowing their lazy, greedy, urban ways, I was very surprised – then concerned – when they didn’t follow me up to the house. A few moments later, I heard a muffled shrieking sound that was unmistakably a distress call but hard to make out. We went running in search of the noise and there found a large overturned dead tree, a five-star hotel for woodland creatures, and our dogs frantically yelping at something in the hollow of that dead tree. I could only see Elsa, our Rhodesian Ridgeback, because Rudy, the dachshund, who I should say at the outset is bred for the precise purpose of weaseling his way down holes in the ground to flush out and kill prey, was – how do I put it? – expressing his authentic self.

He’d wedged himself into the crevice and with his big attitude and crap judgment awakened a sizable, highly agitated, fully armored porcupine. Dachshund and porcupine scrambled out of the hole, and we watched aghast as the three animals advanced and parried, yelping and squealing and utterly ignoring our human presence. We might have been tree stumps. We saw limited options to stop the mayhem (the word “rabies” did cross my mind), but in a fit of ingenuity I grabbed a long branch and ordered my husband to whack some sense into the dogs and steer them away from the furious rodent (Did I mention the size of this thing? Bigger than Rudy.) Unfortunately, the dogs were too idiotic or excited to let it go and teamed up instead like the lion and rodent hunters they desperately want to be. They had it cornered.

But this was no canine Stalingrad. The hounds may have encircled the porcupine, but the porcupine had encased them… before we’d even arrived on the scene, it turned out, in long, hard, extremely sharp quills. The dogs were littered with quills: mouth, snout, tongue and gums, belly and paws, punctured like bloodied pin cushions; the vet later told us that some of the quills had penetrated three different types of tissue at once, like a single bullet passing through multiple body parts. Needless to say once the adrenaline wore off, the real howling began. And being a city mouse, it sounded like a death rattle.

My husband hustled them back to the house, wailing and flailing, as I scrambled to find an emergency vet. A sensible friend reassured me that the dogs would be okay (And what would I know? I hadn’t google-imaged “porcupine attack” and they really did sound like they were dying!) But it wasn’t a quick little procedure with a pair of needle-nosed pliers and rubbing alcohol. Far from it. Rudy (our nervy dachshund) had taken the brunt of the action; he had to undergo immediate surgery to uproot the smashed quills deeply embedded in his chest in potentially dangerous places that could migrate to yet more dangerous places. He’s resting at my feet now with a large surgical incision on his chest and a very swollen face and moderately bruised ego. Elsa fared a little better but only with the aid of general anesthesia (and with full metabolic panel, intubation, the works……ka-ching!) to get her quills out.

Six hours and more than a thousand dollars later, I’d met our landlord.

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About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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5 Responses to Call of the Wild

  1. Kansachusetts says:

    Great story, well set up.

  2. Jim Dukelow says:

    Many years ago, our now-deceased Ridgeback Sheila, the puppy of legend, had a similar run-in with a porcupine on the banks of the Columbia River. We picked a quill out of her mouth that the vet missed, twenty-four hours later. The vet assured us that dogs are not one-trial learners when it comes to porcupines — he had treated some multiple times. Love the pictures.

    Jim Dukelow
    Benton City, Washington

    • That’s what I’m afraid of! I have visions of vet bills approaching college tuitions levels if the dogs don’t smarten up. But I just took Rudy out for a bathroom break — the one who has the big surgical wound – and he wobbled unsteadily across the driveway and then suddenly pointed his nose in the air and tried to take off in the same direction as the porcupine lair! Our vet said the scent just drives them berserk. She also said the worst cases she’s seen involved two dogs “working” together. Pack mentality! Thanks for writing. Aren’t Ridgebacks great? (Ours was born “ridgeless” but it stands out when she’s excited, i.e. yesterday.)

  3. Why do we call them ‘wild animals’? They’re living ‘at home’. Just because we domesticate animals for ourselves, doesn’t mean that animals in their natural habitat are wild. Perhaps we could call them ‘natural’ and ones we have under our care ‘domesticated’.

    • Good point!

      The whole notion of “wildness” needs to be rethought as these ‘natural’ animals are increasingly being forced to live in our managed/manicured environments. We talk about how they’ve become “nuisance” animals and have encroached on “our” land; yet we humans are the ones who’ve done this to them and then we are surprised they push back a little.

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