by Frank DiGianni
Tragedy struck my home again this week -- my beloved dog Mainge went to doggie heaven. This comes on the heels of losing my father several months earlier.
I am at a loss to explain her death; she wasn’t sick or injured. She had no physical problems whatsoever. The day of the night she passed was a typical day in her life. She was playing around with my other two dogs, Ingrid and Bella; she chased a few squirrels; she took a ride with me in the car to run a few errands; she ate her dinner, took a nap, woke up, shared some of my dinner, played around some more. Then as night fell she jumped up on the couch, curled up and went to bed. Shortly after, I decided to do the same. I scrunched her on the head with my forehead, holding her head in both hands as I always did when saying goodnight to her, did the same to my other dogs, and went to bed.
When I woke up the next morning, I immediately noticed something strange – only two dogs were in my bed instead of the usual three. I went into the next room and saw Mainge on the couch, right where I had left her eight hours before. But I knew there was something wrong. Her head was hanging off the couch and her tongue was hanging out of her open mouth. And when I picked her up, her body was stiff and cold.
I will spare you all my reaction to discovering this and say only that I am devastated. I could not understand how a happy, healthy dog could just go to sleep and not wake anymore. She was 10 years old, but she had the heart and energy of a dog half her age.
How? Why? I'm at a loss. A few hours later I put her in the trunk of my car and, along with my other two dogs, drove up to my property in Barryville, New York. And on that beautiful early spring day, I got on my knees and dug her grave. I buried her with my other two dogs present. I put one of her favorite dog biscuits in there with her, I rubbed her little head one last time and covered her with a plastic sheet, and then I pushed the cold dirt on to her body.
I fed Ingrid and Bella right there on Mainge’s grave and Mainge’s bowl was left empty. I found a nice flat rock that will serve as her headstone and placed that in the trunk. We then drove back home. That was three days ago and life at my house will never be quite the same again. But I need closure. I have had a hard winter and a bittersweet year. But rather than dwell on the loss of this most unique animal, I would like to share how we had come to find each other and exactly what it was that made her so unique.
Back during the summer of 1994 I was working as a Park Ranger on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was late July, maybe early August. I had a few days off and I was going down to Flagstaff for supplies. From where I lived and worked, this was a four-hour drive through some of the most beautiful but hospitable desert on the planet.
About two hours into the trip I crossed into the Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation larger than many states. Cruising along on a barren stretch of Highway 89, I saw out of the corner of my eye a tiny dog along the side of the road.
I thought this was odd because this was the middle of nowhere. I knew I couldn’t leave the dog there. I slowed down, turned around, and drove back where I had seen it. For a minute, I couldn’t find her, but then I saw her stumbling deeper into the desert.
This was the most pathetic animal I had ever seen. She was skin and bones with little fur, and her body, face and tail were covered with scabs. She had big ears like a fox, and the ears were so scabbed that the weight of the scabs made her ears hang over her face. She also had open sores on her body that were oozing pus. There were ticks all over her, and she had the look of death in her eyes.
When I picked her up I realized she couldn’t weigh more than half a pound. She let out a little cry, and I noticed how bad off this dog was. She felt strange in my hand, not like a little cuddly puppy, but more like a carcass, all scabs and bones.
I opened the rear hatch of my car and put her in. I cut an old Coke can in half and gave her water. I also had some chocolate chip cookies with me and gave her one. She drank and ate as if she hadn’t had nourishment in weeks. With her in the rear of the car I continued to Flagstaff.
I kept thinking, who would abandon a tiny dog like this in this harsh landscape? There was no water for 50 miles, just sand and rock and cactus. During the day the temperature could reach 120 degrees, dipping below freezing at night. I couldn’t even tell if the dog was a puppy or a twenty-year-old Chihuahua – she was that messed up. And that tiny, too.
I got to Flagstaff and found a veterinarian office and took the dog in. The vet took one look at the dog and knew its story. He said this was a "reservation dog" or “res dog,” for short. These are wild dogs that live on the Indian reservation, and he said, “Some survive, some don’t.” He added that the dogs aren’t domesticated and their origins date back hundreds of years when Indians hunted bison with bows. He said that somewhere along the way, domesticated dogs mated with wolves, coyotes and foxes. And a breed of feral dog was created. They filled a niche as a predator and scavenger on the reservation. So this was essentially a true wild dog or, in other words, a dingo. The vet advised me against keeping the dog and said I would be crazy to waste my money on it. He said these animals can’t be domesticated, do not make good pets, and that she would be unpredictable. He said he would euthanize it for no charge.
But I couldn’t let that happen. I told him to forget that and treat the dog.
The dog had a nasty case of Giardia, which is basically parasites in the intestines; she had a bad skin infection from the mange (hence her name) and ticks; she was dehydrated and malnourished; she had a serious puncture wound to her right shoulder. She was given a bunch of shots and pills, and the vet said he would need to see her in two weeks. He said the dog was a girl – I couldn’t tell. He also said she was probably about 8 weeks old. I couldn’t tell that either. He also said she probably had been abandoned by her mother so as not to infect the rest of the litter and she would not have survived another day. Dog eat dog!
We left the vet’s office. I found a box for her, gave her a can of Alpo, started the car and went about my business in town. She had a nasty smell to her, so I pulled into a gas station and gave her a bath in the bathroom sink. I still remember how the water coming off her was brown from all the dirt. She never did like baths. Later that night we took in a movie. She was so small she fit in my jacket pocket.
We left Flagstaff that night and headed back towards the Canyon. I drove a few hours and found an old dirt mining road, drove down a mile or so and laid out my sleeping bag. I kept the dog near me, but in the box. When I woke the next morning the dog had somehow climbed out of the box and into my sleeping bag and was sleeping right up against my stomach, probably for warmth, but I never did figure out how she got out of the box.
When I finally got back to my cabin I had to sneak her around – I wasn’t allowed to have pets there. Eventually people found out though and my boss even said I could keep her until she was well – and then I would need to get rid of her.
Over the next days and weeks she was hit and miss. She had high fevers, severe diarrhea and vomiting, and on several occasions I thought she was not going to make it. Some nights I got no sleep because I was up treating and watching her. People I worked with were always stopping by to help or baby-sit. But eventually she pulled through. She was becoming a beautiful dog. Her fur grew back, the scabs finally fell off her ears and face, she put on weight and, for the next month or so, she lived under my bed. She still seemed to have psychological issues, and I did not actually see her play or wag her tail for some time. But this too passed and she became very playful.
Mainge became my constant companion. I took her to work with me, and everywhere I went, she followed. Everywhere I drove, she rode shotgun. My boss was keen to her now being well and pressed me to give her up. I considered my options and thought best to find someone to adopt her, but nobody wanted a "res dog."
Somewhere around that same time, in September, my sister flew out and paid me a visit. She had fallen in love with Mainge too and decided to adopt her. I already had another dog my father was watching for me, so I really didn’t want two. So my sister ended up flying back to New York with this little dog. It was months before I would see her again.
I got back to New York in late December, and my sister came by with Mainge. The dog was beautiful. She had grown up a lot and, just to look at her, anybody could see she was no ordinary dog. She looked more fox like, with a striped coat and a white tip on her tail. Also, she and my other dog, Ingrid, had become fast friends. But my sister had her hands full with work and other things and really wasn’t prepared for the responsibilities of pet ownership.
So Mainge was now back living with me. She had been born and abandoned in the harsh desert of Arizona – now she would live a pampered life in the suburbs of New York.
But I also said that Mainge was no ordinary dog, that she was unique. The vet was right about one thing, she never would domesticate, but he was wrong about something else. She was a great pet, more than a pet. She became my constant companion. She was a wild dog, there was no getting that out of her, even if I wanted to. Her instincts ran strong and she had a pack mentality. My sister, my father, me, my other dog – all became members of her pack. I was the dominant male and she was the dominant female. You could see it in the way she carried herself, the way she would greet me, lying on her side, lifting a paw and exposing her belly. She was constantly on patrol, looking out the windows to see if there was something to chase, always protecting her pack against unwanted intruders.
She was a small dog, 30 - 35 pounds, but she wouldn’t back down from a dog four times her size. She had a quickness and a killer instinct and would go right for the throat. Even my other dog, Ingrid, who is a 130 pound Rottweiler was no match for Mainge when they sparred. Mainge would dance around her and wear her out in seconds flat.
But Mainge had a loyalty that was incredible – that pack mentality again. Yet, in ten years, she never got aggressive with adults or children. She didn’t bark at the mailman, she greeted the garbage man, and anyone who came over to the house was automatically included in her pack. She never forgot anyone. Never once did I hear her growl at another person, and she never bit anybody.
But other things made her different too. She was smarter than your average dog. Had she survived in the Arizona desert she would have been working for her own living and, because of this, she could be clever and cunning. She watched the squirrels and deer around my house and learned their habits and patterns. This gave her the advantage during the chase.
She even looked different, well suited for her environment. Big ears to hear better and dissipate heat, striped coat for camouflage, white tip on her tail so other pack members could see her in tall grass and cacti, short legs which gave her quick bursts of speed and incredible agility. A long body – when she ran she had a low center of gravity, making it easier to turn in mid stride (just what was needed for catching jack rabbits on the open sand).
In ten years she never knew a leash or a chain; she was always loose when out of the house, and she would stay out most of the day perched on the porch or checking the perimeter. But she never ran away and always came running back when called. She was great to take hiking and camping, always on the alert, always scouting up ahead to make sure the trail was safe, always finding a stump or piece of high ground to sit on so she could see in all directions.
She wouldn’t sleep in the open, always had to find a place to curl up where she had her back covered. She never figured out she was no longer in the wilds, and she lived her entire life that way.
Over time we learned to understand each other well. Being a wild dog, she had different barks and howls, and I learned what they all meant. She had a large vocabulary too. Then there was the body language and posturing – all meant different things and were another way of communicating. I eventually learned the meaning of this too.
The Vet was wrong about something else also. Mainge became very predictable. I could read her mind sometimes. I know my other dog, Ingrid, and Mainge could communicate telepathically. I spent years observing this.
Life with her was a joy. Hardly a day went by that she wasn’t out chasing something through the woods, rolling in a maggot-infested carcass (to hide her own scent, no doubt) or being sprayed by a skunk (she really hated baths). She would show her loyalty to the pack by leaving a dead squirrel or woodchuck on the porch, sometimes a fresh kill, other times in various stages of decay. I never encouraged this, but I didn’t discourage her either. This behavior was instinctive; she just couldn’t help herself. That was the true wild part of her, the instinct of survival.
Even when my other dogs peed, Mainge would have to pee right on top of theirs; she had a thing about marking her territory.
Not a week passed that someone wouldn’t look at her and say, "What kind of a dog is that?" Or, "Is that a dingo?"
She had that look. She had confidence too – never had any self esteem issues, always knew exactly who she was and why she was here. I never told her when it was time to eat or go out, she told me when she was ready.
Because she was not a pedigree and because she was small, I had always thought she would live well past 15. In a way I feel robbed that I will no longer have her in my life. She will be sorely missed. But I had something with her that can’t easily be explained – a connection, a soul mate, a friend, a teacher. I will never forget the pleasure she gave me. Maybe it's better she died young and fit, so I can always remember her as she was – not as an old crippled dog living way past her time like those dogs that need help getting down stairs or that have to eat strained food because their teeth fall out.
Maybe it was meant to be this way. That's how it is done in the animal kingdom. Sometimes they just know when it is time to die. She didn’t appear to suffer; she just went to sleep and never woke up.
There is confusion amongst the pack members now, for we have lost our leader and, though my heart is broken, I want to celebrate her life even though I can’t help but mourn her death. She was one of a kind. There will never be another like her. And had I sneezed or blinked while driving past her that July day back in 1994, I would have never known what I’ve shared with all of you.
LONG MAY YOU RUN
For all of you who stayed to the end, thank you. I feel better already.
Frank DiGianni is a native New Yorker and resides in a suburb about 30 miles north of New York City. He is a former New York State and National Park Ranger, having begun his career as a Ranger in 1977. He is currently employed as a Flight Paramedic for a Denver based Air Medical Service, but his work location and coverage area is the lower Hudson Valley of New York State. He also volunteers as a wildlife rehabilitator for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, treating and caring for orphaned and injured animals with the goal of re-releasing them back into the wild.
So, how did a New York boy find himself on this Southern site?
Ye Editor explains: "This moving tribute was sent to me by USADS writer and former Mississippian, Jim Goudelock. I thought it was Jim's story. I posted the piece, then discovered it wasn't Jim's -- but by then I was in love with it. Frank agreed to cozy up with us for a bit, and aren't we glad?"
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