I was thinking about my little dog named “BIG” who was only twelve years old when she passed from life. I named her Big because I knew people would like such a little dog with the silly name of Big, and I wanted to give her that advantage. I named her Big in optimism because she had such a rough start.
I remember that I was recuperating at home from my hysterectomy, and suddenly I heard a terrible screeching. It sounded like someone’s dog had been run over in the alley behind the houses, a loud but small noise. I wondered why I was bounding down the stairs, heedless of my stitches, when it was not my problem and there was probably nothing I could do for the animal. I stopped short because there at the foot of my stairs was less than a handful of a dull gray puppy. Nothing at all to look at, mangy, bony with starvation, fluid bloated belly, flea-riddled, ticks, and the reek of marijuana. I grabbed her up, she whimpered, and I put her to my heart. I could feel her relief and hope as her little soul sought mine. Great! I thought, now I have a poodle. I knew nothing about poodles except that I did not prefer them, they seemed effete. And, this one was likely to be stunted, even retarded from the look of her. It was very unlike me to have left my kitchen door open, but apparently I had, for someone had thrown this little puppy into my kitchen. I knew who. The day before two unkempt children of elementary school age had come begging at my door, asking for food, pampers, clothes, whatever I would give. I was shocked at the danger of what they were doing, going door to door, but they said they had to because they were living out of a car with their parents in the alley. I gave them money and told them to try to get to a school for better help. I saw them eyeing into my home and tried not to worry about being cased by children with parents hiding behind them while I was alone and incapacitated by major surgery. I never heard from that family again, but I think those children tried to save their puppy by throwing it into my home. The puppy was not even old enough to walk, its eyes were cloudy blue, it could not see. As fate would have it that was Saturday night so I had to improvise the care the puppy so desperately needed. I held her all weekend for warmth and I gave her warm cow milk dipped in cloth until Monday when I got her to a veterinarian, paying hundreds of dollars to give Big a new start on life. I wished I could have helped the children. Human beings are harder to help than you might think.
For the first year of her life, I thought Big was a devil dog. Her vision was never very good, but she was energetic and willful. I had made her strong with a veterinarian recommended diet of home-cooked rice, fish, a dash of salt, and molasses which she liked very much. Her bones and muscles were sturdy, and she had very good vitality. But she seemed determined not to use it for good. She chewed my brush, my shoes, books, anything plastic, and legs of furniture. Everyday when I came home from work, there would be a trail of dog damage throughout my house, including poop and pee. And, after all the care and expense I lavished on her, she did not love me. She saw no reason to pay attention to anything I said and very little that I did. Would I have to get rid of this little dog that I now loved and for which I had such hopes? In my mind’s eye I could see her guarding my home to the best of her 12” high-at-the-shoulder ability, heeling perfectly in public, coming and going to voice call, being a canine best friend. So I took her to dog school where I was admonished for not bringing Big to puppy school (who knew there was such a thing), and given the back-handed compliment that if “(I) were better, Big would be the best dog in the class (of forty).” Huh. Anyway, I got my perfect dog, Big was the best dog in the world for me. It turns out that poodles are a highly intelligent breed, and Big lived up to her full potential.
Big was not pretty, she was gray like a dusty mop, clean but very scraggly. She had a huge, charming personality which she beamed on everyone she met. People really liked Big, they liked her happy, shining eyes, her eagerness to interact, her confidence. She would go visit my friend who lived next door. I would open my door, my friend would open her door and little Big would run across our yards and into my friend’s house. She would visit about an hour, then my friend would bring her home. That dog, what a character!
Big used to wear doggie booties in the winter, she would not step outside in the snow or ice without her little boots with fluffy lining and traction grip soles. Big’s first winter experience was very funny. I was rushing about carrying things to the car when I realized that Big was not with me. She had walked about four paces into the snow then flipped over on her back to get her tender dog toes off the cold snow. There she lay, looking at me for rescue. I put her boots and doggie jacket on (which she had refused earlier), and then she was okay. She never especially liked the snow but she would go outside into it if that was where I went.
I remember swimming in a lake to cool off. I was just going to swim out a way and back again so I put Big into a sit/stay on the beach. I was quite a way out when I heard desperate breaths and splashing behind me. It was Big with her muzzle wide open, gulping for air, blind with water in her weak eyes, tracking me through the water by sound or scent. She had never swum before. She was such a little dog that I could cradle her in my arms as I swam her back to shore. She needed a lot of comforting and so did I as I realized there are many risks to a little dog who does not see very well but wants so very much to be included, to not be left alone. She touched my heart.
I remember the first time that I took Big to a dog park. She was so gregarious with people I thought that she would enjoy running free in a dog pack, which was legal in this particular park. Oh goodness, was I mistaken! This was a fairly large city park with a nice cover of grass and shaded overall by tall, old trees. It was mid-morning on a weekend, so there were a lot of us standing around talking and watching the dogs romp together. A lot of people had let their dogs off leash, so I unclipped Big from her leash. She immediately moved behind me, away from the dogs, but they came at her from all directions. To my human eye these dogs appeared to be stepping up to make her acquaintance. Big did not see it that way. She fled in a full out panic run, with ten, twenty, more dogs joining in as she sped past them, her curly tail flowing flat out behind her in the wind, her eyes rolling in terror, as the huge pack of dogs joyfully went into hunt mode behind her. I was appalled and very frightened. They went around and around the park as Big circled seeking safety. The only thing protecting her was my voice command calling her in to me, and the thick, wide, heavy collar I had put on her little neck when she got her first tags. It was too heavy for her to wear inside, but whenever we went out I put it on her. Some dogs were so big they could have swallowed her like popcorn shrimp, the collar would have just flossed their teeth as she went down. She finished a smaller loop around the park by swinging past me, and I snatched her up mid stride. Everyone called off their happy, naughty dogs and I took Big home. No more dog parks for us. I let Big do human activities with me. In the twelve years I had her, I never saw her show any interest in another dog, never.
Big traveled well. She would sit neatly in the passenger seat and look out the window until she got tired, then she curled up beside me and snoozed for hundreds of miles. And she was a very good camper. I remember camping just off the road at beautiful Sunset Crater, which is a volcanic cinder cone located north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Since I usually traveled alone, I developed strategies for staying safe. One of them was to set up my little tent in full view of the highway, put me and Big into the tent immediately, then zip up the tent and shut up for the night. Big understood that I was avoiding observation and she would remain silent. If she heard something in the night, she would silently nudge me with her nose, and then let me decide what to do. Which was usually roll over and go back to sleep. Big was a wonderful companion animal. We never had a problem camping, but then we did not sleep outdoors very often as it was too risky, which is a shame because I love to be outdoors under the stars, away from city lights, outside where the celestial array of galaxies will take your breath away.
Big developed a standard response to dangerous animals, she would crawl up my leg and into my arms. She would give no warning, she would just materialize in my arms. I remember hiking with Big along the ridge of South Mountain near Ahwatukee, Arizona. We often hiked there. The trail up was gradual and unambiguous and the view along the ridge surveyed the bright lights of the big city of Phoenix to the north, and the lovely colors of the sunlit desert to the south, with lots of variety in the desert flora along the way. Usually I got up before sunrise to hike before work, before the heat, and before troublemakers had pulled themselves out of bed. I carried pepper spray. On this particular day, it was cooler, I had lots of extra energy, so I decided to hike around some lower hills I had noticed. I had gone over several hills and was beginning to think about heading back, having seen nothing more than the usual beauty of the desert. Suddenly, Big was in my arms and intensely alert. I was instantly alert too, and I heard what I should have heard before, the rattling of rattlesnakes, lots of them. The steady rattlings had been getting louder, in the back of my mind I had been thinking how surprisingly loud the desert cicadas were today. But in actuality I had climbed a rattlesnake den. Looking around I now saw flickers of a couple snakes, heard the rattles of more within the very hill I stood on. I did not stop to figure out what to do, I gripped Big tighter, increased my speed, and walked myself off the hill. No bites. Lucky.
I took a horseback riding tour in the Superstition Mountain near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix, Arizona when I first moved there. I wanted to see the lay of the land, and maybe we would stumble upon the as yet unclaimed Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine which is said to be hidden there. Ha! No such luck. From the saddle it seemed to me that the trails in Superstition Mountain were vague, stony, with many unmarked crossovers, and they would only get worse the deeper in one went. I heard that it was easy to get lost there and believed it. Later I found a long straight trail off Interstate Highway 60 that lead a few miles across the Sonoran Desert, then directly up into the mountains, wove through some cliffs, and ended at a little fresh water desert spring. People coming back down that trail said it was an easy hike which sounded good for me and Big. We hiked across the desert, the trail continued to be well-defined as we wound our way up along the cliffs into Superstition Mountain. The trail appeared to end in a box canyon of disappointment. Then I saw the spring. It was about one inch deep and you could have covered it with your body. I bend down to take a gander at whatever might be trying to live in such a little body of water, and I clearly saw the print of a mountain lion, it was bigger than my hand and freshly pressed into the ground. The earth had not yet crumbled from the edges of the print. I barely had time to stand before Big was shivering in my arms in distress. I tried not to leak fear pheromones into the air as I turned with what I hoped was steady confidence and descended the mountain. I heard not a sound. With such an adrenaline burst Big and I soon reached the desert floor again. I was just beginning to recover my composure when I realized that some idiot with an elaborate, heavy-duty, high-powered, you-have-no-hope-of-escape, compound bow with scope was aiming his arrow directly at me. All I could do was to keep descending the trail, and the idiot with bow and arrow faded back behind some brush. It was only years later that I realized he might have been aiming that arrow at some dangerous predator lurking behind me, perhaps a cat, heavier than me, stalking me with primal strength and stealth, a cat that if it stood on its hind legs would tower over me, one that could crush me with its weight, pierce and shear my flesh with it’s 4 inch fangs. One that would start with Big for an appetizer.
Scientific name: Puma (cougar, mountain lion, mountain cat, catamount or panther)
Height: 2 – 3 ft. (Adult, At Shoulder)
Speed: 40 – 50 mph (Running)
Conservation status: Least Concern (Population decreasing) Encyclopedia of Life
Length: Male: 7.9 ft. (Adult), Female: 6.7 ft. (Adult)
Mass: Male: 120 – 220 lbs (Adult), Female: 64 – 140 lbs (Adult)
It has been years since Big passed from life at age twelve, but I remember that eerie day as clearly as if it were happening now. I was living in Peoria, Illinois where I had some business to settle but I was planning to move to California where there were good jobs for senior technical writers such as myself. A friend in Kansas City had agreed to keep Big until I moved. My friend’s home was in the country, and she had her horses pastured next door. I thought Big would be safe there as my friend liked her very much. I told my friend that Big was always eager to go, but she had poor vision so she should never be let outside by herself.
Peoria is a lovely, well-wooded city, with many comfortable wood chip hiking trails throughout. It was my habit each day to walk along those trails. One particular trail lead through high grasses that grew between a city creek and a wood lot. Little rabbits proliferated in that high grass, and I startled them as I walked along. They leapt into the air like popcorn in a hot pan. I saw mink, badger, and coyote scat, animals who could easily run down those little rabbits. As the weeks went by there were fewer and fewer little rabbits hopping up into the air, and eventually as I walked along I would glimpse only a few matured rabbits hunkered down hiding under the grasses. It was on one of those last days before I moved, as I walked along looking for a rabbit nose here, a rabbit tail there, that Big came to me as real and round as life, right at my right shoulder so that my first impression was “No, you come to heel on my left.” Then I thought, “Well, that’s silly. Big is in Kansas City.” But Big was at my right ear crying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I immediately thought “No, no, don’t be sorry. You’re just a little dog. Don’t be upset.” Whatever it is, it is not your fault. You are only a little dog.” My dog Big understood me. I walked on wondering at such an odd occurrence, because as a scientist such an event told to me by someone else would get no credence from me because it is unprovable. Well, an hour later I was home and I got a telephone call from my friend telling me that my cherished little dog Big had—within the past hour—been run over by a truck and they had just finished burying her out by the horse pasture. Big had seemed so well-behaved that my friend let her out in the front yard, then went inside for just that moment when Big wandered into the road and the truck ran her down.
I still miss my darling little poodle, Big.