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CSI: Backyard

May 23, 2009


The reddish spot on the Catahoula’s foot almost went unnoticed. When it registered, I picked up the paw, then checked the other, and moving up her legs, found a few spots more. A larger smear of dried blood was on her chest. There were no holes in her, the blood was all on the surface. The two dogs occasionally have dust-ups; as Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan has pointed out, in the pack the correction is swift, and then they go on being friends. They’ve occasionally drawn blood. It’s usually over before I’m aware of it. Anyway, there were no holes in Poppy.

Yin-Yang-1bI rolled the pit bull over and took a look at her. No holes in her hide, and no splatter marks except for one spot of blood on her hindquarters. So evidently Poppy killed something this time, but where is it, and what is it? There were no small furry mounds in the yard, and nothing smelled dead. I walked into stall in the garage and found the front half of a 3′ snake in the hay, where it apparently bled out near one of the dog houses. I had blood on my hand from picking up a handful of wet hay to discard outside– if this were CSI Miami or New York I could find out if this was dog blood or snake blood. Instead, I’ll have to watch for swelling. Looking further, I found another large portion of the snake in a corner of the stall, but the end was still missing.

I learned a lot about snakes when I worked in Arizona as a park ranger. In my home of Western Washington I knew nothing of venomous snakes except that some had rattles. The rest were okay, but how to tell them apart? Since so many of our visitors at Organ Pipe Cactus NM were also from Western Washington, I did us all a favor by researching and designing a poster for the campground bulletin boards identifying our venomous snakes, and urging people to leave them alone. One large book had excellent line sketches, and in an appendix it contained the anecdotal accounts of how all sorts of different animals will kill snakes. Was there any science in this, or is it a herp myth that all animals abhor snakes? I wish I knew now what the book was. A memorable entry described how dogs kill snakes. The evidence, as he described it, has been written on my dogs several times, though I’ve only seen it happen once, and that snake was too badly injured to recover.

They will circle carefully and dart a paw at the coils of the snake, causing it to twitch and strike, and when the snake is extended after pitching forward to attack, the dog will continue to paw at the body until it can bite the snake in its midsection. The dog thrashes it’s head from side to side to slap the snake senseless. The snake can’t fight the G-force of such a shaking, that also prevents the snake from biting the dog. This shaking often breaks the snake in half. My dogs have done this many times. I wish they’d leave the snakes and other wildlife alone, and yet, at the same time, I have to admire the prowess at hunting and dispatching their prey. Dogs are hunters, and outdoors dogs that haven’t lived a pampered life sleeping on the couch all day still have the keen skills to be dogs.

I once spoke to another naturalist about this, Ken Seleske of the Fort Worth Nature Center. I mentioned the nagging guilt at being a naturalist who owns dogs who hunt on their own. They have a job they do well—they guard my home (we had a burglary in 2005) and they are pets. They live outside with a commodious stall in the garage, and they dictate their own hours—the dog door allows them total freedom. They don’t eat what they kill (unless they’re catching bugs—they love to eat insects). Ken pointed out that at least the damage was limited to the area in the yard the dogs patrol, and animals can choose to avoid the yard. If I were a gardener who used toxic chemicals, he reminded me that I’d do much more widespread and long-lasting damage. And the dogs haven’t come out of this unscathed.

Last fall they caught and killed a skunk. Partners in crime, both girls got skunked. (A word to the wise—tomato juice doesn’t do a thing. There is a hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap recipe that has some effect, but the best and relatively inexpensive product that I found was Nature’s Miracle skunk odor remover. I keep a spare bottle here at the house.) They’ve caught possums, some of them have survived (the sight of my pit bull lying fondly next to the gray lump in the yard, slobbered on from being carried around, was quite touching. That possum must have had nerves of steel.)  Squirrels goad and chatter and twitch their tails to torment the dogs who don’t go all the way to the fence because their Invisible Fence collars prevent it. I’ve managed to rescue a couple of treed squirrels, but they’ve killed several. 

I won’t enumerate all of their hunting successes here, but I do acknowledge that my American Staffordshire Terrier is usually the leader in the hunt. Today, however, if we can find the last bit of snake, I’ll award Poppy the tail. 


Yin-Yang / Poppy and Cinnamon

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