Edie, my little dynamo dressed in Australian Cattle dog clothing, keeps running to the bedroom to look for Rascal. Then she runs into the living room, again to look for Rascal. She looks out the window. She checks the yard. But he’s not there. He’s not in any of those places.
She appears momentarily confused, but then seems to remember what happened and, with the dog equivalent of a shrug, moves on to find another of our pack to chase. The gift of acceptance—dogs have it. We can learn from them.
I do think Edie still hopes Rascal might pop back up because he was her self-assigned job, her cow substitute. It was not an easy job. Rascal was a high-drive, highly reactive, highly unpredictable dog. Yet, since the day agile little Edie walked through our door just over a year ago, she has monitored his activities with relentless drive, devotion, and eventually friendship.
Two nights before Christmas, the unthinkable happened to bring an untimely end to Edie’s job. I’m fairly sure Edie was the only witness to our tragedy because, in the aftermath, I found her hiding in one of our dog crates. She was crouched all the way to the back of the crate, tense, and trembling. It took several minutes of soft talking and reassurance to coax my girl out.
I wish she could talk. I wish she could tell us how it happened. What we have been able to piece together is that Rascal was killed in the back corner of our yard. All evidence points to an attack by a coyote—inside our fence. Inside the boundary we once considered safe.
My mind keeps searching, irrationally, for the rewind button that will take me back to the moments just before Rascal’s death. If I could just go back in time, I could fix this. I could do things differently. I could keep Rascal safe.
I keep thinking back to the last time I saw him. He was actually being good. That was a rare thing for Rascal, especially in the evenings. Usually by 9:00 or 10:00 at night, Rascal had to be shut in his crate to keep him from exploding through the house repeatedly, racing out the dog door to bark at the horses, a bird, a deer, a leaf, anything…everything.
But on that night, he was being calm. I did not ask him to go to his crate. An unintentional, fatal mistake. Thankfully my last words to him were in delight, “Good boy, Rascal.” I’ve said some pretty terrible things to that dog out of total frustration, so I am blessed by this last thought, my last image of my challenging boy.
I was busy wrapping presents and Jim was relaxing in the recliner with a couple of dogs serving as blankets. All of the dogs were in the house, most were asleep. I didn’t pay much attention as a few of them would come and go through the dog door. They had always had free access to the yard. At least they used to.
At some point…it would have been after 10:30 or 11:00…Rascal went outside. I didn’t notice. He didn’t go tearing outside as he was prone to doing. I guess he probably went out to hike his leg on a fencepost. I never heard a thing. No alarmed barking. No sounds of a fight. None of the other dogs sounded an alert. There were simply no signs to bring my attention to the life and death struggle that was happening no more than 30 yards from where I sat tying bows on festively wrapped gifts. No more than 30 yards from where Jim cuddled with some of the other dogs.
I only discovered the tragedy when it occurred to me that we were having a quiet night. No Rascal disturbing our peaceful evening. No Edie in hot pursuit. I called out for him. There was no response. As crazy as Rascal could be, he always came to me when I called. Always. But not this time.
By now some of the dogs were up and heading outside. That’s when I noticed them acting strangely as they congregated in the dark of the back corner of the yard. That’s when I saw a black form laying on the ground, up against the fence.
And I knew. I knew he was dead. I knew.
We quickly gathered the other dogs into the house and Jim ran out to see what was wrong. I could see by his motions that there was nothing to be done. I could also tell by the movement of his searching flashlight that he was concerned.
On this night, Rascal—our fierce protector, the ultimate, fearless predator—became the prey. Because there was simply no noise, we believe a coyote was already in the yard when Rascal ventured out. Rascal was a formidable match for another dog, but no match at all for the ancient survival instinct of a wild animal. He was killed efficiently, and I like to believe quickly, by a grab to his throat. I did not see it happen. I believe only Edie knows the whole story.
I won’t go into detail, but Rascal was not killed in an act of violence by the coyote, we know he was killed for sustenance. We had just had an ice storm and every tree, every bit of brush, every blade of grass still wore a shimmering, translucent jacket. The coyotes were simply hungry and trying to survive freezing temperatures in an area where habitat loss has grown more pronounced every year by humans moving in, changing the landscape. Instinct led this coyote to the scent of our dogs…his prey.
Now I have to come to terms with this violent, sudden loss. An argument rages inside my mind. My emotional self feels extreme guilt and grief. How could I have missed this struggle? How did I not realize my dog desperately needed help? Logical me says that I cannot punish myself for this. The reality is that I did not know. Even if I had heard something it’s doubtful I could have saved Rascal, and in truth, my actions would have likely caused our other dogs to stream into the yard, putting them in grave danger as well. In time, the logical side will prevail. I will see to it. This was not our fault. This was not my fault.
Looking back does no good. There is no going back. What we do have to live with now is the knowledge that our home, our haven, has been violated. We have always felt safe here. We have always kept our dogs safely fenced in…the natural world free to exist outside of this boundary, often to our delight. But now the boundary, our trust, has been breached.
I truly don’t blame the coyotes. I hear them sing so beautifully every evening. I know they have young to feed. But just as they would protect their den, so shall we.
We have taken steps to ensure the immediate safety of our dogs. They no longer have free access to our main yard after dark. They no longer have access to the yard when we are not home. We check carefully before we let the dogs out at night or in the gray, pre-dawn morning. We are vigilant.
Motion detection lights will be installed in the dark corners of the yard. An electric fence will be run on the exterior of the chain link, not to keep our dogs in, but to keep wildlife out. We fear that the coyotes may come back. They have tasted blood here. The rifle positioned by our back door is a constant reminder that they are no longer welcome to come so close again.
The dogs all still rush out to the spot where Rascal’s life was taken. They still sniff carefully there, the male dogs and the female husky/malamute mix mark with their urine there and scruff their back feet as if sending a message to the coyote. I hope he listens. I hope he heeds their warning.
And now things here are much quieter. Much calmer. Rascal was a force to live with—his absence leaves an unmistakable void, both in a bad way and, admittedly, a good way as well. He was like a dangerous whirlwind in our home. He stirred the other dogs up. He caused stress. We were working on it, though, and I believe we were making progress. I’ll never know.
Rascal was a vital, strong eight years old. For as much as he was an impossibly frustrating dog to have around, he was equally affectionate. He was fiercely loyal to me. He was incredibly smart and complex.
To my Rascal:
You were a dog I never intended to keep.
You were a dog I never intended to love.
You were a dog I never intended to lose.
In the end, on all three counts, the best of intentions failed, and love and loss became reality. You were the dog that was so very hard to live with…now you are the dog I find it very hard to live without. Know that we learned from you. Know that your absence from our fold leaves a hollow spot. Above all, know that you were loved.