The Heartbreak of “Free” Dogs, part two

Bill Burkett
10 min readMay 22, 2024

September 4, 1977 — Tomorrow, Paka’s pups will be five weeks old. She went under the hibiscus bush in the heat of the Phoenix afternoon August 1 and dropped them and cleaned them and had them nursing contentedly before Beau came screaming into the house, “there’s something under Paka — and it’s moving!”

The whole deal has been a thrill for Beau and Heather with some trauma, like being screamed at for dropping one of the puppies when it squirmed. Beau announced his intention to have the brown one. There were three whites, three blacks and the brown male. The white darkened soon to a rich gold except for white patches on chests and paws.

They were all precocious in nervous-system development, and Paka was an outstanding mom. We fed her hamburger and eggs to keep the milk flowing, and she tended them solicitously. They were over four weeks old and frisky when a yellow female went down within 24 hours; flat, empty, dehydrated, done. The vet named some kind of disease.

The second yellow female is a shadow now, refusing to eat, sucking piteously on Paka’s dried teats, wasting away. I force-fed it water, antibiotics and milk in an eye-dropper on doctor’s orders. We’ve isolated it in the back bathroom.

The other pups are perky but every time one flops down after playing, I feel a chill. The yellow and brown males seem most fully hydrated, the all-black female and black male next. The healthy yellow is friendliest to humans; the brown is a single-minded eating machine — first to the bowl; last to leave. The black male is first to challenge any strange sound, yapyapyap, then a fierce puppy growl. He looks the most like Papa Harry.

The people who gave us Paka want the yellow male, and I suppose we will send him to them if they foot the shipping bill to Washington. I’m afraid to commit myself to any one pup because secretly I was leaning toward the yellow females, marked so alike I don’t know which died. I brought in a dove this evening, flipped it in the improvised pen behind the couch, and the brown one snapped it right up and rambled around toting it. Then he settled down and began to strip it down in a businesslike manner, but abandoned the chore when he heard the others lapping milk. When I took them outside, the black male had the dove opened up chewing meat and organs.

I have been out two afternoons for doves — once near the Arlington Cattle Company and once where Seventh Street runs into the desert. A place southwest of Buckeye was supposed to be a honey hole, but I only had shooting at six birds and dropped two. I was turned aside from the best spot by a phony “Posted” sign; one of the Wildlife Managers later informed me it was signed by “A. Ghost.”

At Seventh Street, the Citizen Band radio people knew when the check station folded up and kept right on shooting way past sundown. There was approximately no chance Rob Young, whose patch this is, would come back, or even Sturla the Terrible, as we call the geeky little WM assigned to deal with random wildlife issues in Phoenix proper.

September 10, 1977 — the front they said was due before dove season hit last night, with grumbling exquinoxial thunder, sheet lightning and the rattle of pebbles flung by gusts of wind. It was 110 yesterday and 86 today, muggy with stratus clouds over most of the sky.

The pups were in ordered retreat in the back yard, turning to look at the approaching clouds, slinking toward the back door by turns, but they abandoned all pretense of bluffing the storm and scampered for safety when I opened the door.

The storm had them charged up, and they yapped incessantly while I sorted shotgun shells. I interrupted a reply to Shirrel Rhoades’ latest letter to rescue the pack. He now is associate publisher of Harper’s Magazine. Just your basic success story, he said modestly. My letter was getting long and gabby when the storm intervened.

February 5,1978 — Paka’s second litter of pups started being born January 29. One at 3 p.m. at home; the rest 11 p.m.; we got her to our vet 9:30 a.m. on a dreary chilly day full of rain. She sure picked contrasting days for her litters.

Two live ones and a dead one came that morning before our vet decided Paka could go no more and did a Caesarian to save the rest, a total of eight live births. Paka outdid herself this second litter, jumping off the delivery table to crawl in the box with her pups before she went under the anesthetic. Last litter, because they spayed her while she was under; another pregnancy would be too dangerous.

They seem to be getting good milk from her, but we add a bottle per day to help with hydration. The vet says they can fade suddenly when their births were that rough, impeded by a slight uterine infection. Besides four black males, a yellow male and female, and two brown ones, one pure chocolate and the other Big Shot’s brindle color. I let my pick of the first litter go to that girl who wanted him so badly. Will one of these be Harry’s heir?

An ugly episode

December 27, 1978 — Buckley. This is hard to write. I took Paka up into the snowy woods along the power-line road this morning and shot her.

She had led Pirate chasing a neighbor’s horses last weekend. Pirate got two teeth kicked out. I ran out to try to stop her and she snapped at me with bared teeth. That little streak of meanness showed up a couple of times lately. Yesterday she killed a neighbor’s chicken while he watched it happen, according to Wanda.

He came over with the dead bird and wanted to be reimbursed $2.50. Wanda put Paka in the garage, furious. When I got home from work she said we had to take her to the Tacoma Pound immediately. Then she said we didn’t have the money the Pound charges; and she didn’t want to face a lecture about bringing in unwanted dogs. Paka was strangely passive all night, no tail wagging, no canine bowing. She did not stand on her hind legs in the garage window when I came home.

This morning in the swirling snow she came quietly out and got in the truck; no prancing around. I drove the snowed-in cat trail in four-wheel-drive over a couple hills and turned into the evergreens. The snow was loud in the firs, rattling against bare alder branches like hail. I walked Paka down the trail away from the truck. I couldn’t hear the engine idle above the noisy snow.

I kept walking, kept putting off turning off the trail. She was looking around, ears cocked, interested. I had a fleeting thought just to let her go to find out if she could make it in the woods. But that’s how wild dog packs form and eventually bring down a calf or a child. I felt I had no choice; her going bad was my responsibility. I had the Ruger .357 in my bare right hand. I thought she might sense it and rear up, and with a glove on, I might end up shooting myself in the confusion. I checked the loading when I got out of the truck: Plus-P hollow-point .38s. Memory of putting Sonja’s distempered cat out of its misery with my .22, and how long it spasmed, made me choose the larger round.

I unsnapped the chain. It seemed not right to leave her with a chain around her neck. I didn’t think I could bring myself to unsnap it after. I knew this moment was going to haunt me the rest of my life. I patted her head twice. Something off through the falling snow had her attention. I touched her knowledge bump with the gun muzzle and she didn’t even notice. I had cocked the gun while I rattled the chain. I kept a light pressure on the open collar; she thought we were going on toward where she was looking.

The shot was muffled in the falling snow. She reared backward and fell in one motion, tugging free of the opened collar. I don’t remember the gun jumping or any smell of gunpowder. Her right rear leg paddled slowly in the air. Her muzzle was buried in the snow. She was hunched and twisted and there was no Paka anymore, just an odd black lump with no identity.

I found I could move her limp sliding weight on the snow as readily as a deer carcass. I turned her and stretched her out on the snow the way she liked to lie beside the fireplace at home, and smoothed her fur a little. There was a tea cup of blood from her nose and mouth and ears, but the exit wound was hidden under her neck. Death was as instantaneous as a bullet can give. I walked back to the truck with one goodbye look at her lying in the snow.

Somehow the sight of her fresh tracks going in at the left heel of my old Sorel pac boots — only one set of tracks coming out — jolted me hard. The hardest jolt since Wanda told me Paka killed the chicken, which instantly dredged a vicious, chicken-killing, child-biting black dog named Saint out of my most repressed Georgia childhood memories.

My grandfather shot Saint after he went from chickens to children and attacked Earl as a babe in arms. Now the children I feared for were mine, and shooting was my job.

On the way to work my mind was a cauldron. The only similarity between Paka and Saint was the color of their coat. Paka retrieved her first grouse as an untrained pup before we went to Arizona. She was a fine mother to her two Arizona litters, one in blistering summer and one in chill rainy winter. She never threatened the kids, even when they fumbled with her pups. She stood watch over the Phoenix house with her son Big Shot when Harry and the family came back to Washington for a visit, seeming to understand her role as guardian. But she never challenged the neighbor kid (who had one of Paka’s pups from her first litter) when he came daily to feed and water her.

She was jealous of Harry’s preeminence in the pecking order. But Harry was very possessive of her and damn near killed a pit-bull mix that climbed the fence to get at her when she was in heat. Harry took the dog’s whole head in his mouth and just — crunched — with jaws that could retrieve a clay bird unbroken. I paid the vet bills for the demoralized fighting dog.

Paka was playful and loving as any puppy, never keen about following hunting commands when older, but where that emerging mean streak came from I have no idea. Her placid behavior in the house often led us both to remark what a good dog she was, perhaps guiltily, because we lavished so much affection on graying Harry. Wanda said she is sick of dogs and the emotions they batter with their presence and then their loss.

Most of Paka’s pups in Phoenix went to what seemed good homes, one next door, one to Paka’s previous owners and one to some kids who brought theirs back around to brag how she loved their swimming pool. Pirate is still with us. Only two Arizona pups were consigned to the Pound, where we got that lecture about unwanted dogs Wanda couldn’t face again. Pups had a chance of adoption at least, from a puppy holding pen like the one from which we rescued Harry in Tallahassee. We just didn’t have the ability to bring five dogs home.

Now Paka is cold up there in the cold hills toward Mt. Rainier, as close as I could get her to where she retrieved her first and only grouse. The alternatives were being “put to sleep” and cremated by the vet at a cost of $50, or the Pound. Wanda said I had to do this to save the money. Then this morning she tried to talk me out of it, when I said best to get it over with. Tonight she was an emotional wreck, hating the thought of coyotes and crows and camp robbers getting the remains. But this morning when I hesitated, it was “well…if you really don’t mind — it is a lot of money we don’t have right now…and we did want to buy a cord of wood.”

I mind all right. But it was my responsibility because of what Paka had done. Letting Wanda talk me out of it would be permitting her to let me off the hook because I am squeamish and weak; I always have been. I expect to see Paka in my dreams when I least expect or can handle it. Dogs that go bad will go bad until they do something awful, is the conventional wisdom.

Labs never go bad. But Paka sure looked like going bad, between the horses and the chicken and trying to bite me. I guess I learned today in small scale why judges are not thrilled to sentence murderers to die: maybe the sentence is just — but maybe if they had one more chance…I don’t know. I really, truly do not know.

But a return to the earth through the food chain in the snowy hills ends with the same oblivion as a vet’s incinerator. I hope that the former, in the hills Paka loved, has a little more dignity. For my sake. And for the sake of the spark that dulled out of her eyes, left them lusterless and blank, and went somewhere else forever.

Postscript: It was weeks later when the farmer next door said he hadn’t seen Paka around; had something happened to her? I said we got rid of her. Aw that’s too bad, he said. I’m sorry I was so upset at your wife that day; she was running free across my field when one of my free-range bantams flushed in front of her like a pheasant. She snapped it out of the air and gave it a shake, just a hunting dog doing her job; I shouldn’t have got so upset.

I did not punch him in the face. I did not break down and cry. I did not tell him. This is all on me. I just walked away. I got rid of the Ruger as soon as I could. It was the only gun I ever misused.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.