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Like most evenings, my cat Boomer wanted to be let out. Only during rain or cold did he opt to stay inside.

The next morning, he failedBoomer to show up for breakfast.

Boomer was obsessed by food, so this was alarming. He first showed up on my doorstep (literally) six years ago as a skinny stray. Cat food, dog food, people food – he ate it all. He’d tear through plastic wrapping to gnaw on a loaf of bread. He’d jump on a counter or the table to steal bacon or a piece of pizza or a slice of meat if I turned away from it for more than five seconds. He’d hunch in the sink over unwashed cooking pots to lick up any chocolate frosting, mashed potatoes or hot cereal that might still have been left in them.

I ate like a convict, guarding my plate from attack.

After two days, alarm turned to certainty. He’d never missed one meal, much less four in a row. Boomer must be dead.

Maybe coyotes got him. He will be missed for a long time.

 

 

 

 

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My first visit with Sugar to a dog park was like approaching a playground with a bomb in hand.

At age 3, my adopted Lab/Beagle mix exhibited extreme territorial possessiveness. I had to quit boarding dogs for my pet-sitting customers. Sugar attacked them all, from a miniature Poodle to a Rottweiler/Mastiff mix three times her size. The last straw was when my 90-year-old father ended up on my kitchen floor after diving to rescue his little Bichon/Cavalier mix, Heidi, from a snarling, snapping Sugar. Heidi’s crime? She had walked past Sugar’s empty food bowl, which I had forgotten to pick up before Heidi’s arrival.

Leashes, owners and home ground can all trigger this canine behavior. So the only way to give them playtime with other dogs is off-leash on neutral territory.

That first time, we stood at the gate, wondering whether to go to the big-dog side or the small-dog side. Sugar weighs 30 pounds, but given her out-sized attitude at home, I opted for the big dogs. In we went.

She avoided them all. She got scared whenever any approached for a friendly, introductory butt-sniff, tucking her tail and dashing away. When a couple of Saint Bernards entered, we decamped to the small-dog side.

To my huge relief, this went well. Sugar progressed from fearful avoidance to mere social awkwardness. She enjoyed being approached, but didn’t know how to initiate an encounter. She was like the geeky kid watching the others play, hoping to be included but too shy to join in.

Over the next couple of weekends, she progressed to chasing and being chased, jumping on and being jumped on. She began issuing tail wagging, butt-in-the-air play invitations. She also charmed the other owners by eagerly soliciting their friendly attention and by not snapping at their dogs.

Twenty to 30 minutes is her limit for socializing. Then she needs to go home, flop out and nap. Me too.

 

miracle-dogOne of her rescuers dubbed the stray dog in the photo, “Miracle.”  She had a raging case of mange, and was afflicted by heart worms, dehydration and starvation. After she finally was coaxed into the back seat of a car, the Humane Society of Northwest Indiana in Miller Beach took her in. Donations arrived from people saddened by her condition and hopeful for her future. She was only a year old.

After weeks of vet care, affectionate attention and sessions with an animal behaviorist, Miracle had to be euthanized.

“I hated making this decision,” said Frieda, the shelter manager. But she felt obligated. The more Miracle’s health improved, the more unpredictably aggressive she became.

The first time she lunged at a shelter worker, she latched onto his beard as he reached to leash her. “She’d be wagging her tail at you, and then if you moved the wrong way, she’d come at you,” Freida said.

Freida wasn’t ready to give up. Maybe the constant commotion from all those barking dogs was the problem. She brought Miracle up to the front of the shelter, where she could lounge quietly behind the counter near the entrance. An animal behaviorist was brought in to work with her.

Three more attempts to bite followed. She began jumping up on the counter, alarming staff and visitors.

The decision was made when Miracle clamped down on the arm of Sandy, an employee, as Sandy bent down to the floor to pick up something. Sandy had worked with Miracle more than anyone, yet this time the bite left bruises.

None of those donations were wasted. They allowed Miracle to be given every chance to recover her health and to demonstrate she could safely be adopted.

Meanwhile, a Rottweiler was brought in with a badly broken front leg. It had to be amputated. But he’s healing and has already been adopted. The miracle is that the shelter sees far more happy endings than not.

 

 

red-tailed-hawk

The woman at Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources tried to reassure me that capturing an injured red-tailed hawk was doable.

Get a box, a towel and a pair of thick gloves, she said. Throw the towel over its head so it can’t see. Pick it up from behind and put it in the box.

From behind?

“You don’t want its talons to get you. Hold it away from your body.”

A moment of silence followed while I regarded the curved claws on the bird, picturing how easily they’d pierce flesh. She heard my hesitation.

“It’s really not that hard,” she said into the phone.

As the bird glared at me, I noticed the sharp tip on his beak, used to rip bloody chunks of flesh from prey. The notion of grappling with this predator looked risky.

The hawk and I were just off Interstate 65 in Gary, Indiana. Mention this town to anyone who doesn’t live here and they’re likely to think of steel mills belching pollution or a deserted downtown of boarded-up, graffitied buildings. They wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s more to the place than that.

There’s a surprising amount of still natural land. Patches of open prairie, forests and dunes stretch in a series of local and national parks along Lake Michigan from Chicago to Indiana’s western boundary and beyond. In my neighborhood abutting one of these parks (and often in my yard), it’s common to see deer, coyotes, sand hill cranes and occasionally even an elusive fox.

Red-tailed hawks are common, too, typically circling high above the trees. This one, however, had perched on a guard rail along the highway just before an exit. He was impossible to miss – maybe 15 inches tall, as big around as my cat. His back was turned to the traffic as if he wouldn’t deign to acknowledge it. His bearing exuded invincibility. You couldn’t tell he had an injury that amounted to a death sentence.

I pulled my car onto the shoulder and edged it closer, hoping to gawk at him for a minute.

His head swiveled. He saw the car creeping up and tried to fly away. I could see that half of one wing was almost broken off and hanging limply. He couldn’t gain altitude or get far. He landed about five feet below the guard rail on the downward slope of a weedy berm.

Now that he was on the ground away from the busy highway, he was even more vulnerable to predators – raccoons, foxes, great horned owls. I’d made his bad situation worse.

After talking with the woman at DNR, I drove home and assembled the recommended equipment: a cardboard box, a cat bed to cushion the bird, a large beach towel, a pair of leather gloves and a pair of insulated barbecue gloves to put over those.

He hadn’t moved when I returned 25 minutes later. I put the box with the cat bed in it on the ground, donned the two pairs of gloves, unfolded the towel and slowly advanced on him from behind.

Again, his head swiveled. He turned to face me. With each step I took, his unbroken wing lifted higher, his feathers puffed further out and his beak opened wider in warning. It felt like he was daring me to look down his gullet. I imagined being a small animal struggling under his talons as that sharp point lowered towards its meal.

His yellow eyes never wavered. He showed no fear. He was all threat.

Three feet from him, I froze. Fortunately, the U.S. Army came to the rescue.

A young soldier, seeing a woman on the berm holding a beach towel open on a gray January day, pulled over to find out what I was doing and whether I needed help. He hadn’t seen the hawk. The sight of it impressed him.

This was a combatant he could easily handle. He held the towel in front of him so it shielded his entire body; only his head and his booted feet were visible. The bird ended his threat displays. The soldier slowly stepped closer, talking softly to it, until the two stood toe-to-talon. He dropped the towel. Then he bundled the bird, gently lowered it into the box and placed the box in the back seat of my car. He even strapped the seat belt around the box to keep it from tipping.

It was a half-hour drive to the DNR-designated vet who would take the hawk. The back of my neck prickled the whole way. The bird was secured in a box with a lid weighted down by my purse, but I was nervous. How strong was he? Could he bust out? I imagined the car careening while I flailed my arms as he lunged, screeching, towards my face.

For one moment, his talons had scratched briefly against the box. Other than that, he didn’t make a sound.

The vet discovered that the hawk’s wing wasn’t just broken; it was rotting off. He was too badly injured to be healed. He had to be euthanized.

That hawk was the wildest creature I’ve ever encountered up close, without a thick plate of glass or bars between us. The experience was thrilling and humbling. Even half-dead, boxed up, and much smaller than his captor, he scared me. He showed me what “untamed” means.

The domiracle-dogg pictured here had huddled in the doorway of a public building. She had a raging case of mange. Her boniness indicated she hadn’t eaten well for some time. She barked at anyone who approached her, but wagged the tip of her tail at the same time. Clearly, she needed help.

Two women from the building came out to see what they could do. Tiffany kept refilling a small plastic bowl of water, which the dog lapped up immediately. McKenya had some dog treats, which also were eagerly accepted. By now, the dog would sit in front of whoever offered her food or water and wag her tail. But given her skin condition, none of us felt it was safe to pet her.

After 20 minutes, we managed to coax her into the back seat of my car. By now, McKenya had dubbed her “Miracle.” She’s at the Humane Society of Northwest Indiana in the Miller neighborhood of Gary. A treatable autoimmune deficiency aggravated the mange, which (fortunately for the back seat of my car) was the non-contagious kind. She also has been diagnosed with heart worms. It’s treatable, but adds to her medical expenses. A couple of people have contributed to the cost of Miracle’s care, but more donations of any size would be mighty welcome.

 

 

 

 

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Sugar

About a month ago, a neighbor from the cul-de-sac next door began walking her Chihuahua, Sweet Pea, in the cul-de-sac where Sugar and I live.

Sugar and I had walked past Sweet Pea’s house a few times. We stopped using that route because of the commotion it caused.

Sweet Pea, lounging on her front porch step while tethered to a long tie-out, would streak across the yard like a missile when she saw Sugar, barking ferociously. Sugar would return the barking, accompanied by bucking and lunging on the end of her leash. It made dragging her away a challenge.

When Sweet Pea reached the end of her tether while running at full speed, she’d go airborne, all four paws briefly leaving the ground and her body whirling by the neck. It looked hazardous. So we changed our route to avoid that house.

That’s about the same time Sweet Pea’s owner started walking her down our street. I always knew when because it drove Sugar berserk. She’d run from window to window, room to room, frantic, barking obsessively. It was like a series of bombs going off.

At the end of my own tether (so to speak), I finally approached the neighbor as she walked by with Sweet Pea. I described the commotion and the disruption it caused, told her how I’d been avoiding her house to keep from triggering said commotion and asked if she’d be willing, at least once a day, to please use a route that didn’t take her and Sweet Pea past my house. I had hired a trainer to work with me and Sugar and hoped to see results soon.

She seemed so nice about it,  so understanding. I felt relieved and grateful. And I knew from my own experience that she had other routes easily available. In fact, coming over to my cul-de-sac actually was a bit out of her way.

The next day, she walked Sweet Pea by my house six times. She has every day since. Slowly.

It has taken every bit of will power to keep from just opening the door and letting Sugar run them down. The trainer had a better idea.

After we master the basics, she said, we’ll train on the sidewalk in front of Sweet Pea’s house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My latest boarder is a goldendoodle named Rosie. She’s at least twice as big as my own dog, a mystery breed named Sugar.  They got into a spat within 60 seconds of Rosie coming into the house.

Her owner and I had introduced the two in neutral territory, a park. We walked them for 20 minutes or so, close enough to see each other but not interact beyond a bit of sniffing. When Rosie arrived at my house a few days later, I put her in the back yard. Sugar already was there. It’s big, so dogs have plenty of room to avoid each other if they want.

All this went well, but I knew that Sugar’s possessiveness over the house, me and the cat could trigger trouble. Anxiety from owners and caretakers can aggravate these situations. So I waited until Rosie’s owners drove off, took a couple of deep breaths and then let the two dogs inside.

Rosie immediately found a tennis ball I hadn’t seen under a piece of furniture. She let me take it from her, but as I was putting it up out of reach, she and Sugar turned into a snarling, grappling, teeth-bared bundle of canine chaos right at my feet.

Standing over them and yelling would likely have no effect or just get them even more worked up. So I walked out of the room. Within seconds, they broke off to run after me, probably wondering the same thing: Where is she going? What is she doing?

They got into it again the next morning, when both crowded up to the door I was coming through after running errands. Again, I walked away. They broke it up.

They didn’t hurt each other, but they seriously unnerved me. Their fights were mostly for show, a way of communicating with each other and letting off some steam. But I didn’t want it to ratchet up into a fight.

Sugar and rosie

Sugar (left) and Rosie

Internet research on how to stop a dog fight reveals advice ranging from impractical to dangerous. Slide or drop a piece of plywood between them. Grab one dog by the hind legs and “wheelbarrow” her away from the other. In really serious fights, jam a hammer handle into a dog’s mouth to break its hold on the other (try not to break any teeth), or loop a leash around its neck and twist to cut off its breathing until it lets go.

The best advice was to know what might trigger conflict and arrange to avoid those situations. So I keep all toys and food bowls out of reach. They’re fed in separate rooms. At night, Sugar is kept behind the shut bedroom door with me, while Rosie can roam the house. During the day, I remain calm but watchful around them. Quickly removing myself, my attention and my anxiousness might have kept their spats from escalating into serious fights.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that will work with other dogs, or even work another time with these two. When it comes to dog behavior, there are no guarantees at all.

Within an hour of that first spat, Sugar invited Rosie to play. Rosie didn’t respond then, but the next day she invited Sugar to play. When they start play tussling, I watch for signs they might be getting too worked up. If the play growling gets too loud or the nipping too vigorous, I  interrupt them with an invitation to go out, or call from another room to come get a treat. They have to sit calmly first.

Then I take another few deep breaths, take them for a walk and visualize them flopped out afterwards, peacefully snoozing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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