Letters to Montana

Lessons in Landscape, History and Imagination

For Ibn, who managed to amble into the hearts of most everyone he met . . .IMG_2286

For me, some of the times that I marvel most at our human capacity is in those moments when we just know. I think we all can experience those moments–you know, when we understand how a stranger is feeling, just by looking at them, or when we know what it is we have to do to make a situation turn out on the right side.

Of course, sometimes, that thing we have to do isn’t always comfortable. But, I think those are the times when we actually get the chance to gain an even deeper understanding of the world we live in. At least . . . that’s how I justify what I did:

Nearly a year ago, Zach and I still had 3 old dogs and we took them, each morning, for a walk in Greenough Park, near our house. One particular morning, our friend Evan was visiting, and he joined us. The day was already hinting at the heat to come and the early light bounced in yellow-white halos from lush green trees and played in lacy webs across the stones at the bottom of Rattlesnake Creek.

We walked slowly, because by then, Ibn was more of a shuffler–his hind feet ensconced in booties to protect his toes while his arthritic hips inhibited movement of his hind legs. Yet, Ibn still embarked on his walks with a giant lab smile and all the exuberance he could muster. That was more than enough to make us content to move at his speed. We turned down a familiar path and Evan stopped to read a sign about the song sparrows that inhabit the area. I glanced beyond the sign and saw a young couple, sitting in the sun at the far side of the clearing. Then, I continued to walk on with Timber and Charlie. Within five steps, I was around a slight bend in the trail, where the shrubs to my right concealed the path from which I had come.

As I stopped to wait for Zach, Evan and Ibn, I heard this odd cry–somewhere between fear and fury–come from Zach. Only seconds had passed. The hairs on my neck rose. I turned and ran back around the bend. At first, through the leaves of the shrubs, I thought I saw a large brown dog hanging from Zach’s arm. But that was simply the flash before full perception.

How quickly the scene I left had changed. The large brown dog (a pitbull cross) actually had Ibn by the head. The young man I’d seen sitting across the clearing held the dog by the collar and was trying his best to pull the dog off of Ibn. But, the dog was locked on so tight, that both he and Ibn had only their hind legs on the ground, while Zach was punching the dog in the head as hard as he could.

Our sweet Ibn, mouth agape, tongue lolling out, eyes rolling back in his head, was helplessly hanging in the jaws of this dog.

I absorbed all this information and quickly unlatched the leashes around my waist, asking Evan to help me grab Timber and Charlie before they jumped into the fray. Then I handed them both to Evan and everything fell away. All the yelling, the motion, the racing of my thoughts absorbed into and hung in the sunny haze of the morning.

IMG_7637Around me but not in me.

I knew only one thing in that long moment. I knew what I had to do.

I walked around to the far side of the dogs, so that I was standing next to the young man who held his dog. I briefly made eye contact with him, checked that he had a secure grip on the dog’s collar, then crouched down at the dog’s hind legs. I looked up at the dog and noticed how he was a slave to his own jaw; his teeth dug into the skin at the crown of Ibn’s skull. I lifted the dog’s tail, took a breath and shoved my index finger into his butt.

Yeah, I really did that.

I watched the dog’s face the whole time, and the instant my finger went in, he let go.

Then time sped up again.

The young man dragged the dog a few feet away and pinned him to the ground while the young girl, who I had not noticed since I saw her sitting across the clearing, was at the dog’s face, crying, yelling and smacking him.

Ibn who had lost control of his bowels, was panting and pacing on the trail. Zach paced along with him, fists clenched, still yelling, and I knew we had thought the same thing:

“This can’t be the way Ibn is going to die.”

Evan stood quietly, holding the leashes in his hand.

The girl stood, quivering, and asked, “Is your dog okay. Oh my God. I am so sorry. Is he okay?”

She was so distraught that she appeared to levitating and I watched her small hands rub her apparently pregnant belly. She didn’t appear to be more than 16 and I instantly felt protective of her.

Zach got ready to say something and I asked him quietly to check on Ibn–who as it turned out, was okay, aside from the stress.

“Has he ever done that before?” I asked.

“No ma’am,” she said.

This was probably the first time in my life I didn’t flinch at being called “ma’am.”

“You’re not lying to me, are you?” (Then I really felt like a ma’am).

“No ma’am.”

I believed her. “Well he better not do it again, but . . .”

“Oh he won’t. He’s going to be chained to the pole from now on.”

That, I did flinch at.

“Please don’t do that. He better not do it again, but just so you know, if he does: I stuck my finger up his butt to make him let go.”

That statement was met with a somewhat bewildered look from Zach, Evan and the girl. I realized that no one noticed, in the middle of the fray, what I did–except probably for the guy who was holding the dog. That made me laugh, inwardly. But, I continued.

“You need to find a trainer to work with you, now that you know he can do that.”

“Who do I go to?”

Of course I didn’t have the name of a trainer in my brain, but I told her to call Go Fetch and Missoula Animal Control and they could probably point her in a good direction. I tried to give her hope that she could work with her dog. I couldn’t bear to think of the dog chained to a pole for the duration of his life, nor could I bear to think of this young girl not being empowered to take charge of things for herself.

We spoke for a few minutes more, then continued on our walk, in effort to walk off the adrenaline, for all of us. By the end of it, we were all laughing about me hiding in the bushes and jumping out to shove my finger up the butt of anyone who was misbehaving.

How I knew what to do is a story for another time. Perhaps you’ll read about it. But regardless, I can’t advise people to start breaking up dog fights in such a way. It just worked out that time.

But, my point in telling this part of the story is that there was a time in my life when I did not have the wherewithal to do what I did, nor would I have had the patience to handle the aftermath with genuine love in my heart.

Even though a good friend dubbed me “Butt Hole Finger Hero,” what I did wasn’t heroic. It was simply a matter of listening to my intuition and striving to be a better human (and at this point, I am talking less about where I put my finger and more about where I put my words).

The memory of this event is so very bittersweet, since we lost sweet Ibn less than 2 months later. It was something that stirs a primal sadness in both Zach and me.

But, it also reminds me that opportunities to be graceful are all around us, every day, in in the least expected ways–even when we are tangled in pain or remorse.

It also prompts me to remind you:  my finger is more powerful than your bite. Look out! I might be lurking around the next bend in the trail.

IMG_7047

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One Response to “How to Unlock a Pitbull and Other Odd Truths”

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