04 April 2007

Elegy for Cooper

We were in the corral, working with our newly adopted mustangs, when a shot rang out to the west. A dog yelped in pain. Another shot…then silence. My husband and I looked briefly at one another, oats in our hands, grubby with horse slobber and dirt from the recent rains. "Where's Cocoa?" I asked, referring to his Lab/Catahoula cross. "She's around here, I'm sure," was his quiet reply. "Do you think that was Cooper?" It felt wrong to ask; I was sure it was. Orvy nodded. "It was bound to happen sooner or later."

We looked for him throughout the day, but three days later, he hasn't returned.

It was just hours before we were supposed to be married. I was still giving a final at Baylor University and I received a text message from Orvy that his oldest daughter "got something for our wedding." How thoughtful, I thought, until he let me know that the 'something' was a dog that she had found wandering at school. We were married, had a nice luncheon with his daughter, her boyfriend, his youngest sister and his mother. Then we went home. There was Cooper, gangly, yellow, definitely a German Shepherd/Chow mix. He had the purple spotted tongue that revealed the Chow side of his heritage. He had the typical lanky hindquarters of a Shepherd. He was obviously young, only about a year old, with floppy ears and feet too big for his body. Cocoa, for whom Orvy's daughter thought Cooper (her name for him) could be company, didn't like him much. She was jealous. The thought of having two big dogs in the house distressed me. I was just beginning to get the house in order after more than a year of Orvy and his daughter 'batching' it after his ex-wife moved out.

Besides, Cooper liked to take things from other rooms – shoes, stuffed animals, clothes, and so on – and bring them to the living room. He hadn't chewed anything up yet; but it was just a matter of time. Then one day, while the dogs were outside while we were at work/school, they found something dead. A deer, I think. And like all dogs, they had rolled in it, brought parts of it home to chew. They reeked. Suddenly, they became consigned to the outdoors. Cooper still found all sorts of things to drag about the yard – old shoes, door mats, towels, bits of plastic nursery pots. He also chased our cats, chickens and ponies. We yelled at him, scolded him, but nothing seemed to deter him. And Cocoa is a follower. She started to accompany him on his jaunts off the 20-acre property. A neighbor had already warned Orvy when he owned a wolf-cross that if he continued to kill his chickens, he'd be shot.

One evening, we returned home late from dinner out. Cooper had my favorite kitten, Spit, pinned to the ground, held by the neck. Orvy pelted Cooper with rocks until he finally released Spit, who ran into the woods, never to be seen again. She wasn't six months old and hadn't been weaned that long. I think she died out there. That's when I began to hate Cooper. He wanted me to pet him; he wanted to follow me everywhere – when I checked the mail, when I hung up the laundry – but I didn't want anything to do with him. He killed my cat.

We had five old hens that had stopped laying during the winter. One was a bit crippled from a dog attack (not ours) last summer. But she continued to lay until the weather turned cold. Slowly, they began disappearing. Well, we reckoned, they are old; perhaps a possum is getting them, or they're going off to die. Wildlife started becoming scarce on the property, too. We often saw turkeys at dusk and deer grazing in a copse near the main gate. But we no longer saw these after Cooper's arrival. One day, the dogs had a small deer rack in the front yard. Another day, we woke up to find a mass of turkey buzzard feathers and a wing in the yard. The chickens started laying again.

Then, one Saturday after the weather had begun to warm and we were down to just one chicken, an Americauna hen named "Crow" by Orvy's youngest daughter. His eldest heard a chicken squawking outside her bedroom window. She looked out to see Cooper, trotting off into the woods with Crow in his mouth. Now I knew for certain that he had killed the other chickens. Now we had no eggs.

We had planned to adopt a mustang when BLM came to Belton in March. We ended up with two fillies: a yearling and a two-year old and a ten-year old donkey. I thought if Cooper bothered these beautiful creatures, I might shoot him myself. We heard from a neighbor about an organization in town that might take Cooper if we didn't tell them he'd been living with us for any length of time. It was on my list of phone calls to make on Monday.

Then those shots rang out. I'm sorry for Cooper. He would have made someone in town, with a fenced yard and no other animals, a lovely dog. He wanted to please; he wanted to be loved and cared for. But he was a killer and a wanderer, too. He wouldn't obey, and he couldn't be kept on a farm. He was too dangerous. Now he won't bother anyone's chickens, or horses, or cats. Or maybe he will. There's this poem by James Dickey:

The Heaven of Animals

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

James Dickey 1961