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A dog’s death in the rural West teaches an uncommon lesson

Butcher

One day this winter, as the light was fading, my 12-year-old Basset hound mutt, Belle, joined the rest of us on a walk down the way. The road is gravel, largely untraveled and follows a north-south canyon with steep ridges on each side.

When we turned for home, it didn’t surprise me that Belle wasn’t with us. She’s a hound, and her nose demands far more attention than my calls ever do. In her old age, she’s also become a dawdler and would come home in due course.

Yet she did not. Overnight and the next day, we searched on foot, horseback and by car with shifting feelings of doubt and determination.

The next afternoon, I was riding along a ridge where we’d last seen her, looking south across miles of country.

Had the dogs not gathered to inspect, I might have missed her body, perfectly inconspicuous 15 feet down the hillside. Belle looked asleep and almost unharmed save some blood on her side and her head.

From all indications, this was a mountain lion kill. It had been quick and not motivated by hunger but more likely by aggravation. The dog had pursued and the cat had disposed of her.

What does a dog’s death have to do with one’s view of life in the rural West? Quite a lot, it seems to me.

Living in the rural West requires respectful coexistence. Mostly, I think us bipeds get it wrong. Self-centered interlopers, we often demand that wildlife step aside to our interests and we grossly underestimate our impact. Even polite dogs stress wildlife. Even single-lane dirt roads upset habitat.

On the surface, the West seems resilient and too titan for insult. But we know the opposite is true.

William Kittredge wrote about land stewardship as he reflected on the unwitting havoc his family wreaked over thousands of acres and three generations in southern Oregon.

His people never owned the land “in any significant way,” he wrote in Hole in the Sky: A Memoir. We’re all just passing through.

Scientists tells us we’re moving into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, so named because of the impact our activity is having on the planet.

We are a powerful biogeophysical force and will leave a permanent imprint on the geological record long after climate change arguments are over.

It’s sobering stuff. As one tiny agent of that biogeophysical force, I could react to Belle’s death with representative boldness. I could take offense and seek retribution.

How very human and myopic. We’re quick to favor dominance over connection, reaction over observation, and talking over listening. Instead, I like to embrace exceptions to the rule:

Nearly 150 years ago, the Shivwits, a band of the Paiute Indian Tribe in southern Utah, murdered three companions of John Wesley Powell. They had been falsely informed that the men had killed a Shivwit woman. Powell visited. He learned how his friends were tragically mistaken for other men. He “slept among the murderers without fear of harm and none came to him,” wrote Wallace Stegner in Beyond the 100th Meridian. In the Tom Miner Basin of Montana, today’s ranchers are learning preventive steps to minimize livestock losses in high predator areas. Essentially, they’re teaching wolves and grizzlies that it’s not worth their while to attack cows and calves. The ranchers invest in reshaping predators’ behavior instead of eliminating them and having new, uninformed predators move in. Predation has been markedly reduced and the group is creating a new paradigm.In the rural West, the human inclination toward supremacy and self-isolation should strike us as absurd. Life on Earth should be less a hierarchical tree with us on top and more of a writhing, brambled bush.

My son wrote this about Belle:

“You made me into a person. You taught me when to go further and when to sit still. You taught me to open my senses and put them to use.”

Her death reminded me to observe, accept and listen first. I harbor no ill will toward the cat (though that might change if it gets a taste for domestic dog). It was doing what cats do. Belle was doing what dogs do.

Along this quiet road, people say I have few neighbors. But I think there are loads of them – killers and victims and others – all together in a Colorado canyon.

Maddy Butcher is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Mancos.

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