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Eulogy For A Friend

 

There's a dark stain of blood on the foot of my bed where Sammie died.

Dogs are property. You can own a dog. A dog acts as though pleasing you is the single most important requirement of its life. To a dog you are the center of its universe. If you abandon a dog his whole world comes crashing in on him and he is a lost soul.

Cats are different. You don't own a cat, you live with a cat. If you are lucky a cat will come to be your friend, or will come at least to tolerate you. If you should ever abandon a cat, he will merely shrug and manage to survive quite nicely on his own, thank you.

On March 14, 2000, at about six o'clock in the morning, just as it was growing light, Sammie was killed. He was dragged down by four large dogs who came upon him as he was waiting to come inside for breakfast.

Our studio is located "out in the sticks" and away from civilization. There are farm folks out here, and fields and woodlands. Deer walk into the yard and raccoons and opossoms come and sit on the doorstep. When asked where I live, I have always said I live just north of the Tennessee/Mississippi state line. Usually the follow-up question comes in the form of a request that I tell the name of the city or town in which our studio is located. "I don't live in a town," I happily tell the questioner. "There ain't one nearby."

At least, that is how it was a few years ago.

Now civilization is moving into the area. A clapboard subdivision is developing just up the road. Pole lights shine in the night, dimming the stars. New residents and their offspring roar up and down the dirt road throwing up clouds of dust and insisting the dirt road be converted to a paved surface. Woodlands are being clear-cut to provide pulp for the paper mill some fifteen miles distant. Rain then washes away the topsoil and all that remains is ragged scrub brush scattered over rutted red clay. The 78 acres I own and that surrounds Hanthercraft Studio may possibly be the last remaining uncut woodland left in the county. Someone said a few years ago that he wished the land could be restored back to the condition it enjoyed when we were children. I am not quite so ambitious. I'd be content just having the land look like something other than a bombed out inner city.

Along with civilization and new residents have come an infinite supply of dogs.

Dogs have always been where there are people.

As have cats.

And the hostility between dogs and cats is the stuff of legend.

For the most part, the dogs in my experience have been content to chase any random cat up the nearest tree, then the dog's attention has been diverted to something else of passing interest and the dog has wandered away and the cat has eventually come down from the tree. Life goes on. I once came home from a trip to find that someone had dropped off a litter of pups (a common practice in the area of people too irresponsible to have their animals made incapable of producing offspring) that had piled themselves upon my doorstep. There they lay smiling happily at my arrival and, piled among them, lay the cat that lived with me at the time. I verbally chastised the cat for lowering himself to associate with his social inferiors. The cat, of course, had no idea I was insulting him. We went inside and I fed him.

I told that story many times to make a joke that the cat had no taste in choosing his companions. The cat didn't understand the joke. He had never been told it was beneath his dignity to make friends with a group of stray pups.

I once owned a dog. I lived with a cat at the same time.

The dog, for the most part, ignored the cat. The cat liked to play with the dog on occasion. I never saw any hostility between them.

The dogs that infest the area now are more hostile and agressive. A pack of them killed a small pig that had wandered into my mother's front yard last fall. I have recently had local dogs snap at the back of my legs as I walked down the road in front of new resident's homes. The dogs did not break the skin as can be verified by the fact they are still alive.

My basic attitude toward animals is that they can continue as they please so long as they do not focus their agression upon me. I don't expect more intelligence from an animal than it has the ability to exercise.

I do expect the animal's master to make up the shortfall.

The cats who lived with me in years past had a tendency to wander an extended area. The cat who shared my space at the time I owned a dog took herself away and lived in a relative's barn where she survived quite nicely from the rodent infestation there. A couple of years later we recognized each other as she was sitting in a local garden while I walked along the road. She came back to the studio with me and was a frequent visitor until her death of age complications.

More recently, the cats who lived with me have chosen to remain closer to the studio. Perchance they recognized the dogs moving into the area were more dangerous than dogs of the past. Sammie was mostly at home and he stayed inside with me when I was working. He also liked to be outside in pleasant weather and I did not choose to make him a prisoner inside in deference to the increasingly dangerous outside climate that he may have recognized more accurately than I did.

The basic situation is that an agressive dog was a greater threat to Sammie than to me.

I once killed a dog that came attacking me, more by accident than by intent. As the dog came at me, I kicked at it's head and caught it under the chin. The dog hit my leg, fell to the ground, almost climbed to it's feet, then fell over and died. Apparently my kick had damaged its throat in a fatal manner. I was a child at the time, maybe early teens, and I was not sure but that I would be punished for killing the dog, so I walked on down the road and out of sight in hopes my terrible deed had not been seen. Apparently I escaped successfully. I never heard a word from anyone about the dog.

Sammie did not have my choices. His only option was to find the nearest tree of which there are an abundant supply about the studio.

Sammie came to me last year. He had showed up on the doorstep of the lady who works as my model and she was in no position to take on another cat. She has an abundance of both dogs and cats already. Sammie was an exceedingly domesticated cat and obviously had lived with someone. She asked about in her area, but no one admitted to a missing cat. She suggested Sammie come to live with me as I was presently without a cat. I reluctantly agreed. I had decided I was too busy to take the time required to make friends with a new cat, but the lady convinced me Sammie was in need of a place to stay.

Sammie was different from any cat of my experience. He was affectionate almost to the point of annoyance. He was not afraid of strangers and quickly made friends with anyone who came around. He even became friendly in short order with visiting electricians and noisy children, classifications that normally send cats scurrying under the couch or out the door until the offending visitor has departed.

Last summer he damaged his paw in some manner and was limping for a few days. I called the vet to make an appointment to bring Sammie in, but the foot improved and the limp went away. But the foot, during that period, was tender. Sammie was clawing at my couch as cats will do and I forcefully grasped his front legs and pushed him away. By accident I caused him pain. He cried out, then sat there looking at me as though pain of this sort, inflicted by a human, was a totally new experience for him.

It was the only time I ever hurt him.

On March 13, Sammie wanted to go out so I opened the door and he went out into the pleasant spring morning. When I returned from a long day, Sammie was not about. This was unusual as Sammie stayed close to home, but it did happen on occaion so I did not worry.

Next morning I was up before light as usual and Sammie was not at the door. Again this was no cause for alarm. Sammie was a late sleeper and did not normally come for breakfast until after first light.

It was maybe ten minutes later I heard dogs barking. It was not possible to determine from where the barking was coming as my heating system was running. (It was a cool morning, maybe forty degrees outside.) Dogs often bark around here for no good reason.

The dogs began barking again (still muffled by the operating heating system) and I began to be curious. I looked out, but it was dark. Because of the noise of the heat system I could not determine from which direction the barking was originating. Becoming more concerned, I looked out every window in the studio in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and realized it was growing light outside when I peered from a window in an unlighted room. It had not crossed my mind that Sammie might be involved.

I flipped off the light in the kitchen area and looked out the window toward the parking area. There were four dogs barking and bouncing around something I could not see on the other side of the gravel road that passes my studio. I grabbed a robe (I had recently been in the shower) and rushed outside.

The dogs continued with their antics. I approached, still not able to see the object of their attention, and they noticed me. Three of them turned to retreat and the fourth growled and snapped at me. I am not in terror of dogs; but the truth is it did not cross my mind to consider this dog could possibly harm me. I grabbed him by the skin behind his head and skin on his back, lifted him and flung him with the strength of sudden anger (How dare this dog snap at me!) several feet down the road. He hit on his side, yelped in pain and joined his companions in retreat.

I had no time and no longer any interest in the dogs. I saw the still form that had arrested their attention lying in the dirt and leaves piled at the side of the road.

It was Sammie.

To this point I had not considered Sammie could be in danger. I had come out with the intention of discovering what had so interested the dogs and with the intention of driving them away. I don't remember that I'd had the time to wonder what their victim happened to be. I have been known to drive dogs away from their victims previously when the victim turned out to be a rabbit or young raccoon. I don't often have problems with dogs being dogs, but given the opportunity I'll not hesitate to save their prey.

Sammie lay not moving and I wondered briefly if he was dead, if anything could be done for him. Then I saw his side rise and fall. He was not dead...yet.

I gently dig my hands under him to lift him up. He growled weakly, a good sign I supposed. He at least still had the strength to try to growl.

I picked him up. He was so limp. It crossed my mind I could be doing more damage by moving him, but I certainly couldn't leave him lay.

I took him inside and lay him on the foot of my bed. I was thinking of getting him to the vet, how long it would take, would he survive that long, how long would it take to contact the vet and for him to get to the clinic. Had Sammie even survived my lifting and bringing him inside?

Sammie breathed once and made a small sound.

I bent close to him. He lay with his eyes open. He was no longer breathing.

I waited until his limbs were stiff, then I took him outside to a final resting place.

There was a large stain where Sammie lay on the bed and I noticed blood on my robe, quite a lot of blood from a small cat.

Outside the ground, leaves and scattered bits of cat hair told a pretty clear story of what had happened.

Sammie had been atop my truck when the dogs arrived. He would have been safe had he remained there, but his cat brain did not understand that. He had jumped down and hidden under the truck, a location he might possibly have defended and apparently did for some time, but he was eventually forced from beneath the truck where he had no chance against four dogs. The evidence of Sammie's fight stretched across a patch of woodland leaves and the dirt of the road to the mud and leaves piled on the far side of the road where his fight ended and where I found him.

If the heating system had not been running, if I could have heard Sammie's voice thru the dogs' racket, if I had responded more quickly, if Sammie had been at the door when I first checked for him, if I had kept him prisoner inside the studio and never allowed him to go outside, if pigs had wings....

There are so many "ifs" I have considered over the past several days, but they don't change the fact that Sammie died in blood and dirt and terror, set upon by four huge brutes that were "just having fun" and out for a morning lark.

Sammie lived with me for only a single year, but he was a good friend and I shall miss him.

Good-bye, Sammie.

-hanther