At Large : Playing possum
At our house, the dogs run free. No one lives nearby, except briefly in the summer, so for most of the year we can let the dogs roam. It must seem logical to them, having had the run of the house, inside, to have the run of the earth, outside. Happily, they are not adventurous, or ambitious, so they never to seem to go far, although in fact we don't know for sure. We reach that conclusion by counting the number of credit card solicitations and political polls we receive each day by phone (three to five) and comparing the result to the number of calls from the dog officer or irritated neighbors (none or, rarely, one). We also count ticks, of course. If the dogs are dotted with eager ticks, they've covered some territory. Nearly all the territory for miles around our place is woods, with the occasional run-out former pasture, so the tick population flourishes. If they are tick-free, or mostly so, we know they've stayed near the house, where we've cut down trees and grown something resembling grass, which we keep short, thus shifting what should be our proportional share of the Martha's Vineyard tick population to land that belongs to others. You've heard of tax-shifting, where the burden of running the town is reduced for one favored class of property owners and consequently increased for another. Usually the latter is a class that hasn't got the voting clout of the former. I'm afraid tick-shifting is a variation on that theme.
The advantage of living where the dogs can be let out to circulate, rain or shine, in relative safety is considerable. The disadvantage is that, even if you have no human neighbors to interfere with, there are creatures out there with which dogs habitually interact with disagreeable results. Skunks, for instance. I've shot my share of skunks over the years, mainly because, smart as we know our dogs are, they haven't been able to master their enthusiasm for the game of bedeviling skunks. That's where the skunk stands there, tail aloft but otherwise relaxed, as the dogs bark, dance, and dart around it. Eventually, it always happens that the skunk consults his watch, remembers that he has someplace to be, decides to end this nonsense, and gives a Nobska foghorn-type toot. In the house, we immediately know what's happened. We regard one another horrified, each searching for the magic words that will move the other to be the one to go to the door and call the dogs. When I open the door, there is no skunk, though. As the saying goes, he's left but he's not gone, and the two idiots are rolling on the ground, pawing at their noses, trying once again to grasp the implications of what's just happened. Then, there must be baths, no matter the midnight hour, and the dogs find baths thrilling, which means there must be house swabbing and vacuuming. And, then there must be incarceration in the garage for what remains of the night, which the dogs do not like, so there must be repetitive, unending barking, until we relent and let them in.
As I say, getting rid of skunks (and raccoons, for that matter) has been a passion of mine, but I have some rules, or rather one rule: don't fire the shotgun at a skunk that is in the immediate vicinity of the house. I learned to avoid this practice years ago when a volatile Chilmarker I knew, driven temporarily insane by a marauding raccoon, dispatched the varmint one night as it came around the corner of his barn bound for the chicken coop. He blew the corner boards, and most of the corner, off his barn, which was expensive and time consuming to repair. So, our most recent skunk, smarter by far than the dogs, has made himself at home under the front porch. He never goes far when the dogs are out, and if they happen to catch him on his rounds, he leans nonchalantly against the porch, cleaning his nails and tilting his top hat rakishly to the side of his head, knowing that without question, his position is impregnable.
But, I didn't mean to get off on skunks. The point is that recently we've been away from home and in a village, very nice indeed, but not the sort of place where you let the boys roam. So, we put leashes on them and take them for walks, early morning, late evening. But, as cheek by jowl as village living seems to be, there are nevertheless critters with which one must contend.
The other evening, after dark, at the edge of a lawn between two houses, a lawn that is the field of play for a croquet club, we unleashed Diesel the mastiff, figuring a bit of a romp would do him, and us, good. Shortly, we heard barking, then thrashing in the border of tall cedars at the edge of the field. Then there was crashing as Diesel lopped off branches, opening up the vistas from the neighboring homeowner's property to the sporting field. I thought skunk. I hollered for the dog. He paid me no attention whatsoever. I tracked the crashing cedar boughs, hoping I could get hold of bloody animal before he began felling the trees, and suddenly, there he was. I fished out my flashlight and shone it on Diesel, who was lying down covered with cedar branches. His nose was flat on the ground, and he was staring questioningly ahead. I moved the flashlight's beam ten inches, and there, also prostrate, was a flattish, white muzzle and two black eyes, staring questioningly back at the dog. Each of them was calculating his next move. Neither was prepared to make it.
It was a possum. Diesel had never seen one before, nor had I. He adored that thing, you could tell, the way he adores the ride-on lawnmower tire that he likes me to throw for him, or the occasional cat whose sudden appearance in his path quickens his step. I was more reserved in my appreciation. If the possum was playing possum, in its tête-à-tête with Diesel, he was doing it with only the after part of his body. His face was no death mask. Rather, it was animated with a fevered mix of wonder, concern, and calculation. This was not the occasion for disinterested observation, to see what would happen next. We hauled Diesel away from the meeting and fled before the neighborhood watch got on to us.
There is nothing easy about dogs, and contrary to what we may have thought, the advantages of country living over village life are hard to calculate. If you consult the dogs, they'll say, quite reasonably, "It's not a decision for us to make. You decide. Just take us with you wherever you go, and we'll find plenty to keep us occupied."