Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The predator within


On several occasions our gardener Félix, with a great deal of admiration in his voice, has described our dog Lucy as a “real ranch dog.” He loves Lucy almost as much as his own two dogs.

At sixty pounds or thereabouts, Lucy is an impressive canine of undetermined pedigree. I see faint Labrador-ish traces on her face but people tell me it’s all in my head. Her fur is short, bristly and all white except for two black blotches on one side. She has an enormous, powerful chest that tapers toward her small back which is supported by her muscular rear legs. A foot-long tail can wag wildly when she is happy or turn rigidly straight, almost perfectly in line with her back, when there’s some serious business at hand.

Even at six years old—middle-age for a dog her size—when Lucy runs at full throttle she kicks up a contrail of dust and gravel that makes her seem a bit like a cheetah or some wild animal The other four dogs in the pack, two ours and two belonging to Félix, don’t even try to keep up.

Leader of the pack
Indeed, Lucy is the queen of the pack. She’ll rassle with the other mutts, all smaller than her, but when she walks away that’s the signal for everyone to settle down. A quick growl or impatient look may underline the point.

With visitors, Lucy’s annoying slobbering is anything but menacing. But if she spots a stranger, human or animal, on the outside of our fence she’ll put on a growling, snarling display fit for a trained guard dog. Alone with Stew, Félix and me, Lucy has never displayed any aggression.

So what makes her a “real ranch dog” I asked Felix one day, and he replied calmly: “The way she can hunt.” He could have elaborated: “And the way she can also kill and occasionally dismember and eat her prey.”

For a pet that sleeps on Costco dog mattress in the living room and at the foot of the bed, eats a mix of dry and canned dog food, wears a collar with a name tag and does a few tricks, it's always a shock to be reminded of the predator side of Lucy.

She was not a wild creature rescued from a forest. When someone found her abandoned on the side of a road, she was only a few weeks old and weighed no more than five or six pounds including a bellyful of parasites. We were only supposed to “foster” her for a few months until she’d be ready for adoption at the local shelter. The ridiculous fostering pretense lasted less than a day. She stayed.

Parasites, mange and other health problems out of the way Lucy grew prodigiously and in less than a year had turned into the large, restless animal that she is. But until we moved to the ranch she had never run loose, exploring other animals and plants at her leisure, guided by nothing but her nose and basic instincts.

Full-speed ahead
Since then, she's caught snakes, rabbits, birds, rats, mice and probably a number of other creatures meandering by. Just yesterday we saw a bird that looked like a pheasant and Stew and I both have seen roadrunners in the ranch, imagining them going "beep-beep" as they scurried away. 

I've seen Lucy hunting something under a cactus or under a rock, crouching down, her body so tense it looks spring-loaded, her front paws kicking up dirt. No use calling her name or trying to intervene in the moment: This is the ultimate case of mindfulness, of concentrating on one thing and forgetting the rest of the world. 

Fortunately for the local wildlife, what makes Lucy so threatening and overwhelming--her size and brute force--prevents her from making many kills. A rat, mouse or even a rabbit can dash under a cactus out of reach of Lucy's paws, snout and formidable teeth. 

Aside from the burst of adrenaline in the predator and prey, and the spectacle--which usually attracts the other dogs who stand around waiting for the outcome--such confrontations end up in a draw. The would-prey is left alive but scared out of its wits, and Lucy with nothing to show but a couple of cactus thorns stuck on her nose. 

Her heart pounding, tongue dangling out, and ears up, Lucy will then walk to the nearest water bowl for a drink--and promptly revert to her normal persona of a galoot of a dog sleeping in front of the TV.

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