There is nothing like the friendship of a pet.
We have two cats that came to our home several years ago. The female, Maisy, took up residence in the attic of my shop, and the male, Max, made a home in our garden shed. We feed them each day, although they prefer to hunt mice in the woodlot and at the edge of the hedgerow behind our back lawn. They are both finicky eaters, but it was obvious that something was stealing their food. We didn’t need another cat, and I watched often for the intruder. Despite checking the feed bowls often, I didn’t spot anything for several weeks. One day I returned from the restaurant with a small piece of chicken and placed it in the cat’s bowl, but had no more than turned my back until it was gone.
A few days later I was preparing a chicken to cook on the grill. The garbage dump was closed for the holiday, and I decided to take the skin to the back of our lot and throw it out where I had spotted a raccoon on several occasions. A few minutes later, I spotted a large pit bull standing at the edge of our patio looking toward the French doors. He evidently thought the chicken skin was an open invitation for him to make an appearance. A pit bull was the last thing we needed. Several people in our area had been bitten by stray pit bulls, and I knew they were dangerous if provoked. I opened the door and shouted at the dog, and he trotted off.
During the next few weeks, he became bolder. I asked around the community and learned that he had tried to take up residence at several homes. Several of them shot at the dog to scare him off. It usually took several encounters before he decided he was unwelcome and went to another house. He was strong, ferocious looking, and confident, but there was also something vulnerable about him. My wife named him Rocky, which is a bad sign. Once you name them, they usually become a part of the family.
It took several months for Rocky to get us trained where we accepted the fact that unless we killed him, he had no intentions of leaving. We started putting out food, and he gobbled it up in short order. He was already overweight, and I assumed he was running down rabbits and other small game rather than stealing food from our neighbors. He rearranged a rug in an outbuilding and made a bed, although he spent most of his time near our backdoor. I have already written an article about his encounter with our two cats. Rocky and the cats did not have a serious problem until Rocky eased up too close to the female, and Max attacked him. The dog fled around the corner of the house with the tomcat in close pursuit. Somehow, Max’s intervention created a bond between the two cats and they ended their long-running feud.
I had always thought of pit bulls as being unintelligent and dangerous. I soon learned that Rocky was one of the most intelligent dogs that I had ever known. As for the dangerous part, I withheld judgment until I got to know him better. It was easy to get him to follow commands. If he hung around the door when it was getting ready to rain, I only had to open the door and tell him to go home. He would immediately run across the yard and take shelter in the shed. The same procedure was repeated each night before dark, and he always obeyed.
Shortly after we started feeding him, we discovered that he did not like for us to leave home, even for short periods of time. He had obviously been a house dog in a previous life, and he wanted to come inside. I didn’t want something as large as he was inside our house, and insisted that he stay in the shed. One night when there were tornado warnings, my wife outvoted me and let him come inside. He was very well behaved and didn’t leave the mat near the back door until the storm was over and we put him back outside.
During the next few weeks, we bought him a doghouse and placed it on the patio where he liked to stay. The cats came to our backdoor frequently, and Rocky tried to make friends with both of them. Max was aloof and spurned his advances. Over a period of weeks, Maisy began to warm to him and I would frequently see them sniffing the other’s nose. Whenever we left the house and returned, we would often find Maisy and Rocky stretched out together on the patio.
Our next-door neighbors have a small child and it worried me that he might pose a danger to the little girl. I enclosed our patio with a wrought iron fence. He was getting too large for the plastic doghouse, so I decided to build him one. I learned that he would weigh about 50 to 60 pounds when fully grown, so I planned accordingly. The house had two rooms, one for a bed and the front one large enough where he could stretch out.
My wife is a sucker for anything with soft brown eyes, and she yielded to his request to come inside for extended visits. He seemed crushed when we left home and gave us that look that says, “I won’t ever see you again. Who is going to feed me?” To diminish his level of anxiety, we would slip out one of our three exterior doors and leave home without him knowing. Whenever we returned, he would always be laying at the door where we left. I didn’t solve this mystery until sometime later when I observed him standing on his hind legs and sniffing the doorknobs.
Whenever any family member set down, he regarded it as an open invitation to visit. His idea of a visit was to place his massive head in your lap and close his eyes. He could stand for impossible lengths of time in this position. When given a pat on the head, he would open his eyes and gaze up at you with a look of adoration. Whenever my wife or I walked through the house, he was right beside our knees as if we were joined hip and thigh. One day when I was chopping vegetables to prepare a Chinese dish, he thrust his head between my legs from behind, and I worked with his head between my knees. He liked any kind of togetherness with us, or with Maisy.
We didn’t know at the time that we adopted him, that many of the pit bull dogs in our area had liver problems, probably from inbreeding. When he became sick, we carried him to the vet, and learned that he might have a liver ailment, or possibly a problem with his heart. When he didn’t respond to treatment, we sought a second opinion. We carried him to another vet and this doctor insisted that we leave him overnight for observation. We left him at the office standing on an enamel table with the doctor sitting beside him stroking his head. We had no more than reached home when the doctor called and said that he was still sitting beside him with his arm around his shoulders when Rocky suddenly collapsed. He was dead instantly.
I drove to the vet’s office and brought Rocky back. Dead is a four-letter word, but it doesn’t convey the sense of loss from something being alive, and suddenly they aren’t. There was a sunny place in our backyard that we can see from the French doors. I dug the grave deep and buried him there. I placed a decorative stepping stone at the head of the grave, flush with the earth. Most mornings when we get up and look out the door, we see Maisy sitting on the headstone staring across the distance. There is no doubt that Maisy knows Rocky is there. I am not sure of the extent of an animal’s intelligence, but I know that they feel loyalty to the one’s who care for them, and they feel a sense of loss. Writing this will probably destroy my tough guy image and take something away from the kind of two-fisted characters I write about. I create characters that can take care of themselves, but then I am reminded that even the toughest of people have a soft center.
When I have finished with this, I think I will take a short walk in the back yard and brush the newly mown blades of grass from his tombstone, and remember his soft brown eyes, and the way he looked at us. I don’t think Maisy will mind me interrupting her visit, because she often follows me when I go in that direction.
Rest in peace, Rocky, we love you . . .