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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Shelter dogs come as surprise packages. Just as you can’t be certain what mix of breeds may be in your mutt, so you also can’t tell what her quirks are until you get her home.sugar2

The beagle/lab mix I chose was described as “a little timid” with people. She warmed up to me quickly enough and was eagerly affectionate with the kennel attendants.

But the moment we left the familiar confines of the shelter, she was in a state of high anxiety. It showed up on our first walk. Any person within sight, even at a distance of 100 feet, provoked frantic barking, cringing, raised hackles, digging in her paws to keep from getting closer and hiding behind me.

Could this be why someone had tagged her with the name “Drama?”

She wasn’t even two years old and already on her third home. She had qualities important to me: a moderate energy level, a smallish size of 25 pounds, a short-haired coat and friendly playfulness with dogs. She was house-trained and well past the chewing stage. On our first night, she jumped in my lap and rolled belly up for a tummy rub.

So I’ll hire a trainer to teach me how to bolster her confidence around people. My hope is that soon others will be able to see the sweet nature that prompted me to rename her as Sugar. Because Drama I can do without.

 

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The end came like a guillotine.DSCN0001a

In January, the vet said Brownie, 16, was in the final stage of congestive heart failure. This was in addition to a heart murmur, arthritis and serious losses of sight and hearing. A matter of months now, the vet told me.

Nine pills daily of five different kinds eased her pain and slowed her decline to a very gradual descent. We kept making new normals out of incremental adjustments: shorter walks, then none; no more steep stairs. I disguised the bitter taste of her pain pills with liver sausage, peanut butter or hot dog pieces.

She still enjoyed her life. She ate with gusto, played with the cat and pestered visitors for attention. By June, I began daring to hope that Brownie might enjoy one more summer.

I watched closely for signs of impending heart failure. At night, I counted her respirations during 60 seconds of deep sleep. Twelve a minute, fifteen a minute – when that number spiked, accompanied by coughing fits, it would be a matter of hours.

But it wasn’t heart failure that killed her.

One morning, she collapsed after her back legs gave out. She got up on her feet, but could barely move, and listed a bit to one side. She managed to get to the back yard for a potty break, but lost her balance and fell over while shaking away a gnat that had started buzzing around her head. She had to be carried up the stairs.

I called the vet. She said Brownie’s weakened heart would be even more stressed by the failure of her back legs. I decided it was time. The vet said she’d come over at noon.

For the next few hours, I tried to distract myself or petted Brownie. I didn’t want to hover or brood enough to arouse anxiety in her. I swept and vacuumed dog hair from the floors and rugs, realizing that for once this chore wasn’t annoying. I told her she was going to a place with a huge back yard bordered by a big lake, how there’d be lots of dogs and cats to play with, that she’d get to eat peanut butter smeared on everything and never have to have her nails trimmed. I thought about how she used to love rolling in the sand at the beach or grabbing one end of a four- or five-foot-long branch during a walk and trot proudly along with the other end dragging on the ground. No weeny sticks for her.

BrownieWhen the vet and an assistant arrived, Brownie got to her feet and followed me to the front door. They spread a white blanket on the living room floor and I guided her to it. The assistant enveloped her in a firm hug and I stroked her ears while the vet inserted a needle into a front leg. Brownie’s heart stopped after 15 quiet seconds. They gently wrapped her in the blanket. I helped carry her body out to their SUV. Then, just hours after she’d collapsed, I went back inside the house for the first time without Brownie there waiting for me.

This new reality will keep smacking me in the face for a while. Time to feed Brownie – nope. She needs her next round of pills – nope. She should go out once more before bed – nope.

On my first morning without her, I woke up thinking I’d heard her give a single bark. It was her time-for-my-breakfast signal.

The trickiest part of loving a pet is giving them as much good time as possible, but not waiting too long when they’re merely surviving. What comforts me is the relief of knowing Brownie was spared last moments full of pain and panic while in the throes of a final crisis. Instead, she enjoyed a chicken bratwurst I fed her piece by piece, followed by respectful attention from her last two visitors.

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A neighbor who owns a minature pinscher, like that pictured at right, is so lazy she’d rather risk the dog’s life instead of take him for a walk.

In the post “Chained chihuahua barks, owner snarls” (in which I mistakenly labeled a min-pin as a chihuahua), I described how this owner ties the dog each day by a short rope to a tree in her front yard and leaves him there for hours. Yesterday about 6:30 p.m., a coyote came into her front yard and for two minutes sniffed avidly around the tree and rope where the min-pin is tied before going back into the woods bordering her back yard.

Fortunately, the dog had not been out there.  A neighbor alerted the owner about the coyote. I rejoiced, believing that in the face of such clear and present danger, the owner certainly would stop tying the dog up outside, then ignoring the dog, his racket and the disturbance his barking caused her neighbors. But this afternoon, less than 24 hours after the coyote thoroughly investigated exactly where to find his prey, she tied him out there again.

Earlier this week, she came out of the house with a newspaper and hit the dog with it, even chasing it behind the tree it was tied to while yelling at it to stop barking. She correctly deduced, after a visit the next day from an Animal Control officer, that I was the person who had called them. She yelled insults at me from her front porch about the “lies” I had told.

I”m guessing she’s not bothered by the possibility of having to tell her children that a coyote ate their dog. Given how little attention any of them give the dog, it’s unlikely she or her kids would witness the gruesome event. It’s far more likely that I will, since my office window looks directly into her front yard.

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Usually, people choose their pets. But my latest pet is a cat who showed up and insisted on joining our household. He behaved as if there were no question that he would live here and proceeded to make himself at home.

The first time I saw him, he sat on the porch step outside the kitchen door, calmly regarding my dog, Brownie, as she barked wildly just inches from his face on the other side of the glass.

Next, I heard terrific commotions late at night as my cat, Taffy, screeched warnings from the back porch to an intruder she wanted to scare away.

Then, whenever I pulled into my driveway, I’d hear him meowing as I stepped out of the car. He’d trot across the cul-de-sac and walk alongside me up the steps to the front door as if it were a foregone conclusion that he’d come inside. When I’d shut the door on him, he’d sit out there for a few minutes and vocalize his protest. His message was clear: “There’s been a mistake, you don’t understand, I’m supposed to live here.”

After he found the hole in the screen door out back, he’d appear on the back porch and jump into my lap, purring and rolling belly up, a request for affection that was irresistible. I’d scratch under his chin, smooth back his whiskers and gently rub his ears despite knowing this was no way to get rid of him.

I wasn’t interested in adding another pet. But he patiently continued to woo me while keeping an eye open for opportunity. He finally found the window I keep cracked open so Taffy (who refuses to use the cat door) can let herself in and out at will.

The day I saw him strolling through the living room, I knew he’d won.

He’s been examined, vaccinated and neutered. The vet said he’s about one year old, a big, healthy dark gray tabby who charmed her as easily as he did me. “He has such an expressive face,” she marveled.

I named him Boomer. It’s short for Boomerang, because he just kept coming back.

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