This fall, a few weeks ago, a sick, emaciated cow elk wandered into our yard, circled aimlessly, walked in the raised garden and sniffed the kale, even fell momentarily into the neighbor’s window well, and then, right next to the house, got shot in the head by our Fish and Game Warden. It was a weird week, to say the least. A couple days after the elk visited, we knew it was time. Walter was gone by that Friday.
When they first met, our lady friend picked up Walter from a questionable, no terrible, pet store. She was desperate for a lab puppy and pretty much in the frame of mind of an optimistic, yet unaware, 24 year old. She thought, well, at least she’s rescuing this dog from a life of living in a tiny yard. There is some rescuing involved, even if he is not from a shelter. She had guilt. But, he was the cutest puppy in history and, like an indulgent purchase at a store that is above your economic status, it felt good and she wanted it. “I deserve this.” Her mom actually bought him for her, which is a whole other story about being 24 and not, secretly, being totally independent. Her sister named him.
Walter and our lady friend spent several years at the beach, the dunes, the forest preserves, dog parks, etc. in an effort to tame his overly-excited husky/lab energy. If she knew then what she knows now, she would have ridden a bike 10 plus miles a day with him at her side. He was insane. He ate two couches. He often barked for 8 hours straight. He was sort of an asshole to other dogs. But, of course, in her eyes, he could do no wrong.
The story is a good one, of him at nearly eight years old piling into her Subaru with her and her houseplants, pulling a U-haul of most of her belongings, and hitting I-80 on their own. There was so much lightening in North Platte, Nebraska, the sheets of rain too much for her fastest wiper speed (of course there were tornadoes in the area and she had no idea), that they stopped at a motel and finished the drive the next day. It was snowing when they arrived in Wilson on that late April day and the house was cold. Friends were made immediately, and they helped her unpack, as there is pretty much no other way in this rare bubble of goodness.
The other day we saw this etched saying in a window of a mini-mall: If you’re lucky enough to live in the West, then you’re lucky enough. It’s a corny and over-used phrase, applied to all sorts of settings. But, like everyone maybe thinks about their chosen surroundings, it’s true for us. We get to see things that most beings do not. Living on the fringe of one of the most wild places on the planet, right next to Yellowstone, you feel the severity of it. The intensity, the seriousness, is entirely humbling. The beauty knocks you on your ass all the time.
The elk visiting that fall day felt like an omen only after the fact. And, over a month later, we have the clarity to see how that encounter related to our situation of loss. Like man having to intervene in the natural world, with animals coming into their space and humans being forced to display mercy and humanity, she had to help Walter out of this world.
Walter wasn’t her baby. He wasn’t her child. He wasn’t her property. He was her friend, yes, but from the moment of her picking him up in that seedy pet store on Harlem Avenue in a Chicago suburb, he was under her control. There was reverse manipulation, yes, where he chewed a hole in her apartment wall and she still gave him treat after treat, but she had this furry being as, if you think about it, a strange companion. Why do we as dogs get to live in people’s homes?
For a human, having a dog is a neat little experiment with nature. A totally odd connection between the beauty and the raw harshness of natural beings and the modernity of humans, all packaged up in an often cute, hairy, loving little beast who wants to please at all costs. Humans adore and manipulate the natural. They cannot help it. And, seeing dogs in the woods, in rivers and lakes, on beaches, a tiny little glimpse into their once natural surroundings, makes them even happier. To top it all off, if you’re lucky enough to get a human companion that lives in the West, well then you’re lucky enough.
When the elk was put down, it had been raining for days. Even before the elk’s splattered blood was fully washed away from the grass, the clouds broke and we had a lovely end to that early November week. In the couple hours before Walter left us, he still raised his head like a quadriplegic and begged for more peanut butter, manipulating his human friends to the end per his typical style.
We said goodbye to him on the back porch, in the sun. They call it putting them to sleep. Calm and seemingly natural, just drifting away like he was meant to, as we naively imagined he would have done were he ending his life in the woods like his wolf brothers up on the hillside behind the house. Or, like that elk might have had ended its life, finally succumbing and laying down to “sleep” in our yard, after days of pacing and wasting away. Instead, only feet away from each other, in our small little corner of Idaho, both animals were put out of their misery, the pain halted, it being the right thing to do. Humans are not so bad sometimes, after all.
And, dogs, well, we’ll always be willing to wear hats for pictures and respond to your loving cooing and pats, as long as you take us with you when you’re having fun outside, in our rightful place, and not make too much of a fuss when we accidentally forget to be civilized and eat your shoe.