Thursday, November 18, 2010

Monkey's wild bitches

People ask why we call him Monkey Boy, on account of he doesn’t look like a monkey anymore. His simian traits – the oversized head, the arched, serrated backbone, the longer front legs than back, have morphed into something that looks more like a homemade dog that was cobbled together from parts of other dogs. You see Monkey now, you see a default dog of the local countryside -- “a Miss’ippi black dog,” as one friend put it.

Monkey is not, however, a common black dog, like some generic stray scavenging for KFC boxes along the shoulder of the road. Though he has history in that arena, as evidenced by the fact that he abhors buzzards, with which he presumably once had some altercations over road kill, he is, in fact, a Jedi. For starters, he has successfully navigated the pitfalls of the fields and forests around Holly Grove -- the speeding cars and dump trucks of the local roads, the electric fences surrounding the alluring cow pastures, the coyote traps baited with rancid meat in distant creek bottoms, the feral dog-shooters who populate many country abodes, and the sinister, hidden compounds of certain local men who train and fight pitbulls, and who capture loose dogs that come their way to sacrifice as stand-ins during the deadly training. So far, Monkey has not fallen prey to any of these things. As my friend Elaine, who works at the Chevron station in Bolton, said, “Monkey know what he doin’.”

After living more than two years in relative domesticity, Monkey does have a few challenges that he has not yet mastered. These are, primarily, the teeth of cornered beavers, the fangs of various pit vipers, the smoke bombs of skunks, and now, the responsibility for caring for a pair of wild courtesans.

When he arrived at Holly Grove in 2008, Monkey was not made to feel welcome. He was a very bedraggled stray, no doubt attracted to the place by the presence of my comparatively civilized personal dogs, Jack and Truman, two mainstream Labradors who also, it should be noted, enjoyed occasional escapes to explore the hills and dales nearby. Like all good pets, Jack and Truman were devoted users; they held their instincts in abeyance for just the right moment. Truman could snuggle better than any dog I’ve ever known, but his origins (a group of poor children had dropped him off in the parking lot of the Jackson zoo, in a crate filled with straw) no doubt reminded him that we are, all of us, only visitors aboard this weary, unbright cinder. Even when we were bonding, he seemed always aware that I was merely a link in the chain. Sometimes he ignored me when I called his name.

Truman adored Jack, the elder lab, who had actual registration papers, and had proved to be a survivor of the canine perils that had taken a few of his compatriots, one of whom got run over, one of whom was eviscerated by an oversized bobcat, and two others that had simply disappeared. Among Jack’s notable protégés was Omar the Terrible, who, during his years at Holly Grove, brought home evidence of a stunning array of nocturnal conquests – the dead carcasses of a water moccasin, a rat snake, a fox squirrel, a gray squirrel, a flying squirrel, a chipmunk, a rabbit, a possum, a raccoon, a bird, a juvenile beaver, and, remarkably, a long, toothy gar – a fish, mind you. Omar was sweet and loving when it was called for, but he was a ruthless terrorizer of all critters who deigned to enter our domain. I worried for him, having occasionally glimpsed a huge bobcat that padded around the creek bottom, now and then crying out in a shrill scream that would send me back indoors; I’d also seen its large footprints in the mud. Bobcats vary greatly in size, from about the size of a very large housecat to the size of a small Lab. I knew that if Omar ever went into pitched battle with The Big Bobcat he would lose, and sure enough, one morning he did not return, and Jack, his mentor and partner in crime, wandered up with long, bloody scratches all over his head and forequarters. I never saw Omar again.

Not surprisingly, considering their forays into the nether world, my dogs attracted strays, including Little Dog the Cat Killer, who ended up dying at the hands of a cat avenger, and Beau, a happy boxerish dog who showed up on my porch, greeted me jovially, as if we were long-lost friends, and introduced himself as Beau, then went on to become the best pet my friend Dick has ever had.

Jack trained the uninvited emigrants in the ways of Holly Grove – the tandem attractions and dangers of the fields and forests and the denizens therein, the mysterious, speeding hrudus of the roads, and, of particular note, the serpents that crawled upon the ground. Of all my dogs, Jack got snake-bitten more than any other; he never seemed to learn. He passed this penchant onto the newbies who took their queues from him, so that on one Christmas day all three of my dogs were bitten during a dramatic creek-side tug-of-war in which, sooner or later, everyone got the bad end. Only Omar proved capable of killing large, venomous snakes without suffering for it. He would grab the tail and whip the monster maniacally back and forth, breaking whatever passes for a neck on a snake. Jack also had trouble with beavers, which can inflict a deep slice wound. Omar eventually took care of that little problem, too, though checking beavers off the list required suffering a few of his own inspiring slice-wounds and eventually resorting to going after a comparatively vulnerable youth. After that he seemed satisfied, at least where beavers were concerned.

Jack was then the king of Holly Grove, but he had begun life as an heir apparent, the uncontested ruler having been Hank, the First Lab, who knew everything about everything. Hank had the largest vocabulary of any dog I’ve known; I could recognize, from inside the house, whether he was barking at a small animal, a snake, a medium-sized animal, a hog (“They’re SO annoying!”), a large animal (differentiating between horses, cows and deer) or a person (differentiating for race and gender). Jack learned from Hank, though he wasn’t quite the virtuoso in the signaling department, and he passed on everything he’d learned to Al, a 120-lb. half-Lab, half-Rotweiller who is now among the disappeared, as well as to Omar, Truman, and finally Monkey, who showed up a few months before Jack died.

Among Jack’s teachings was one that had been passed down to him from Hank: That dogs should sit in rocking chairs on the front porch of Holly Grove. All of them took to doing this, so that, assuming everyone was around, when I got home I’d be met by the tableau of Jack, Truman and now Monkey lined up in their respective chairs, as if that were what dogs did. It only took Monkey a few days to find his perch, and he now spends all of his downtime so ensconced.

By the time Monkey discovered the chair his head had mysteriously begun to shrink. Because I was feeding him his body was likewise filling out, which caused his prominent vertebrae to recede. Eventually his head was height- and weight-proportional, which was when I realized that it had been grossly swollen from a strategic snakebite at the time he arrived. The result was that he came to look very little like a Monkey. By then, though, the name had stuck.

After the passing of Jack, Monkey and Truman were alone together, and periodically, Monkey would convince Truman to accompany him on greatly extended romps. Previously, Truman had never jumped the fence, but Monkey apparently demonstrated the ease with which this could be done, and they were off. I could never contain either of them again. Slowly Truman became wilder and wilder, until, eventually, he never returned. I don’t know what happened to him, and I miss him still. Every time I see a similar dog on the road I slow to see if it’s him. I blame Monkey for the loss.

So it was that I became a one-man dog, that dog being a stray that had corrupted my chosen ones. Yet I came to love Monkey Boy, and he has since entered my personal pantheon of great dogs. For one thing, he likes to dance and be sung to, very, very much. Take his paws in your hands so that he rises on his hind legs, and sing one of his personalized ditties -- Monkey is the Monkey-dog, the Monkey-dog, the Monkey-dog. Monkey is the monkey-dog, all… day… long -- and he will promenade with you, all day long. Also, he goes into a Zen state while being petted, closing his eyes languorously and going limp. This is extremely endearing, particularly for women, who particularly love Monkey.

Because Monkey became lonesome in the absence of his former peeps, he took to taking more and longer sabbaticals in the countryside, perhaps looking for community beyond the rocking chair. I don’t know where he goes but he is sometimes gone for days (the longest period so far has been a week), and invariably returns muddy, injured in some way, covered with ticks, having lost his collar, and stinking of skunk. There is no containing him. He will climb out of a fence if he can’t dig his way to freedom, even while wearing a shock collar. He is a more adept escape artist than any dog I’ve ever known. Even at the vet, where he sometimes has to go while I’m in New York City (the mysterious place that I disappear to for long periods of time, which no doubt confounds Monkey as much as his romps confound me), he has learned to escape the kennels. Milton, my vet, said that Monkey is the first dog to escape the Maximum Security Unit – a pen that differs from the others in that its roof is also enclosed with chain-length fencing. Monkey climbs the six-foot-tall chain-link fence and worms his way between the top rail and the fencing of the roof. Then he shows up in Milton’s office, wagging his tail. He only wants company. Milton indulged him in this, at first, but because no dog can have free reign in the clinic or its kennels at night, Monkey has had to resign himself to being held, at night, in a cat cage from which there is no escape.

I have thought of implanting one of those microchips in Monkey so that I might monitor his travels by satellite, if only to satisfy my curiosity, but for now his routes remain a mystery. Wherever he goes, I know that among the prominent extras in his peripatetic drama is a skunk. He always comes back reeking of its scent, so much so that one time it was overpowering enough to wake me in my bed, on the second floor, though Monkey himself was nestled in a hole he’d dug under the house. My friend Daniel, who rents the cabin on my place, suggested that the skunk may be Monkey’s girlfriend, and that he comes home only after they have a tiff and she sprays him in disgust.

Monkey is fixed, but that does not seem to diminish his love of female company. As a result, he recently brought home two sisters – the wild bitches, who are identical (like a cross between a Lab and a hound) except for being different colors; Blackie is black, with white knee socks, and Red is red. They differ from Monkey in that they are truly, unabashedly wild. They were not on the lookout for a place to call home; they were merely following The Great Monkey, and this is where he led them. They bolt off the porch when I come out the door or approach from the yard, which is very disquieting, and makes me feel like a lurking monster in my own home. They persist in this despite the fact that I feed them. Red, who recently learned to sit in a rocking chair, after two weeks of observing Monkey, seems more inclined to cozy up, but Blackie is stupid and always sends out false alarms. I don’t know where the bitches came from, but I am determined to domesticate them if only so I can capture them and get them spayed. The last thing I want is two litters of mongrel puppies added to the mix. Their arrival, and their lack of interest in even feigning gratitude for room and board, makes me wonder if I’ve got the feral canine equivalent of a hobo’s mark on my gate.

Sometimes I look out the window and see Monkey prancing off down the gravel road, his wild bitches dancing around him, licking his face in adoration, and am touched to know how happy they make him. They are always up for a romp, with the result that he now disappears more and more. I’ve always seen Monkey’s sabbaticals as a rough corollary of my own life: As I vacillate between my country home at Holly Grove and my city life in Brooklyn, he vacillates between the sedentary life of a rocking chair on the porch and the restive ramblings of the far-flung countryside. Now that he’s got his bitches, the other universe beckons more.

His vacillations have their downsides, obviously, even for him. He sometimes seems a bit chastened, even embarrassed, because he knows that this new development has driven a wedge between us. With much more frequent skunk sprayings, he rarely gets petted, much less danced with, and I can assure you that if he could be petted, nonstop, for the rest of his life, he would never consider going on a romp again. He also at times seems to tire of the bitches’ relentless attention. Elaine predicts that he’ll eventually grow weary of them and take them back, whence they came, but I’m not so sure. I doubt they’d stay put if he returned them, anyway. From the looks of things, they’ve never had much interaction with humans. Monkey is all they’ve known and loved aside from each other. Holly Grove is just Monkey’s way station, and unfortunately harbors a monster who tries to lure them closer with dog food. The fact that Monkey allows the monster to touch and even caress him (when he’s not reeking of skunk) only elevates him in their minds. He is brave! Observe how he engages and disarms the monster!

Because they are inclined to enjoy this spectacle purely as spectators, Monkey’s pets have proved impervious to capture, which would be followed, in short order, by a trip to the CARA no-kill pet repository. For now, though, it looks like the bitches are here to stay, especially since Red, in tribute to Monkey and, though she isn’t aware of it, to Truman, Omar, Al, Jack and Hank, has found her temporary spot in a rocking chair. I don’t know why I was surprised when I walked out the door and saw Red look up at me from her rocking chair, as if to say, “What?” Blackie, meanwhile, ran cowering from the porch.

When I glanced down at Monkey, he looked up at me, as if to say, “Yes, she discovered the rocking chair. Yes, I know you and I have our differences. I know you don’t approve of the wild bitches. But we really, really do love our time at Holly Grove.”

I doubt I’ll ever count the bitches among the noteworthy dogs of my life, but who knows -- I once felt the same way about Monkey.

When people visit Holly Grove they often ask if they can bring their dogs, imagining some Hallmark scene in which their fluffy, well-groomed pets run, unhindered, through the dewy fields, like “Lassie” in days of yore. But, as I explain to them, I do not live inside a Hallmark card. Monkey’s episodes don’t always have a happy ending. I tell them, yes, you can bring your dog, but you may never see him again. Holly Grove is both a way station and a portal to another canine world, and you never know who or what will disappear into that portal, never to return, nor what will emerge from it in its place.