The rich green scent of dairy cows wafted off the pasture and blew the bitter blue diesel smoke away from my face as I drove our tractor to dig a grave for Cooper. Sweat poured out and soaked my shirt with a toxic cocktail of shock, grief, anger, and guilt. Only a few hours had passed since Cooper was brutally murdered by my neighbor.
What if I had reacted more quickly? What if I hadn’t been so busy watching the new puppy? Had any aspect of the day gone just a little differently, Cooper would still be with us. Five days later, the guilty self-recriminations still loop relentlessly as my mind continues to replay the last few seconds of this beautiful dog’s life.
Cooper was the sweetest most innocent guy I’ve ever known and he joyously greeted every visitor to our house. When people came to fish in the pond, he always accompanied them and made sure they were doing it right. He even went ice fishing in the middle of winter. He was a Corgi mixed with some sort of hunting dog – maybe a Bassett Hound or Beagle. Whenever the tenant farmer came to drop off or pick up his cows, Cooper always helped load and unload the trailer. He was shaped like a fat sausage with short, stubby legs and his head was a little too big for his body. We often called him names like dork and shrimp but it didn’t seem to hurt his self-esteem a bit.
My wife always said that Cooper should wear a cape. He flew around the yard like Super Dog with a huge smile on his face and it was hard to believe those little legs could propel his chubby body so quickly and with such precision. When we gave him and Riley beef bones, they would go to separate sides of the yard to chew. Cooper would soon be slinking off with his signature Elmer Fudd swagger to bury his bone and then return to steal Riley’s.
When he slept in our bedroom, Cooper would throw the same little tantrum every night. He would get on his Sealy Posturpedic dog bed, roll around, and whine about having to sleep on the floor like a dog. Once we were sound asleep, he would quietly climb on our bed. If my stepdaughter was here, Coop would almost always sleep with her. She provided him with a pillow and blanket right next to her and I dreaded breaking the news to her most of all because of the deep bond that had developed between them.
Last year on Memorial Day weekend, only a few weeks after the passing of my English Shepherd, Birdie, some hunters we know stopped at our house with Coop in the front of their truck. They had found him wandering the woods on Armenia Mountain and brought him to their cabin for the night so he wouldn’t be devoured by the local coyotes. They said they were looking for the Animal Shelter, but that was total bullshit. They knew I would give him a home. My wife was in the shower so I took him upstairs on a leash to get her approval.
Who knew then what trouble he would be? We live on a two-mile dirt road with only four households on it. There is little traffic most of the year and we have over 1000 feet of fence surrounding our yard which we began shoring up immediately. The larger dogs can’t escape, but the system wasn’t designed for dwarves. We succeeded in securing the roadside fence but there were still places he could fit through on the pasture side.
Cooper never respected the fence and he was constantly escaping and running down the road. When I called for him to stop, he would turn around, look at me, and then make a mad dash for it. It was a game. As a jolly trickster, he loved all games. I would dutifully hop in the car to retrieve him and sometimes he would run a mile or more before he was out of breath. Then he would just hop in the back seat and ride home content that he had outsmarted me yet again. Over the last year, he had gotten better about the running but never gave it up entirely. Recently he had taken up woodchuck hunting and I was there for his first confirmed kill.
We tried a shock collar starting last fall, but he didn’t seem to care. Once he was running after something there was nothing that could make him stop. One night last winter, I chased him across a field of deep snow as he ripped across the frozen pond to see what the coyotes were making such a fuss about.
Cooper was a tire biter. He didn’t just chase cars; he went to the front and would try to herd the vehicle. On the few occasions when this happened, I was usually already out in the road trying to stop him. Invariably, the people would laugh, stop their cars, and wait for me to catch him. Sometimes they would even open their doors to hop out and pet him as he innately trusted all people. Our road isn’t really on the way to anywhere and people generally aren’t in a big hurry to get nowhere. Like almost all dogs, most people are decent.
Last Wednesday, Cooper had snuck out to hunt woodchucks and finally came back to one of the gates. I called him in but he wouldn’t come. I had our new Great Dane puppy on a leash and I had to take her and Riley inside and lock them in my office. I didn’t need three dogs out in the road. When I got back outside, Cooper had already dashed off to the field across the street. I walked down to get him and he wouldn’t come so I went back to the house to get truck keys as he almost always comes to me if I am in a vehicle. I glanced out the window and saw my neighbor driving down the road very slowly and Cooper appeared from nowhere nipping at the SUV’s front tires. The vehicle was moving so slowly that all the nasty old curmudgeon had to do was stop. At that point I was already in motion and heading out the door. I was only out of sight of the incident for a few seconds.
Once I got out of the gate though, I could see Cooper lying in the road and panic set in. He was rolling his head around as I called out to him and the old bastard’s vehicle was long gone. Coop’s eyes said it all to me. “Jeff, I really fucked up this time, but why didn’t you keep me safe?” The old shit had slowly run him over, dragged his body 25 feet down the road, and sped off. Cooper’s lovely life force blew away with the wind as I held him.
There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that this was malicious intent. He killed Cooper on purpose.
My neighbor is the sort of mean junkyard dog who only bites when your back is turned. He is always snooping in everyone’s business like a malevolent Gladys Kravitz and he is the type who drops a dime if he sees you doing some work on your property without a permit. A malicious gossip, I have never heard him say a kind word about anyone over the 35 years I have known him. We have done him and his family a number of favors related to their property but I can’t think of a single time they have ever reciprocated. A poisonous, greasy trail of bad karma lingers wherever he has been.
My experience with dogs is that they will always come and apologize for some bad deed, but my neighbor hasn’t been dog enough to knock at my door and explain himself. The difference between dogs and humans is that badly behaved dogs can generally be fixed — they almost always want to be good regardless of the abuse and maltreatment they may have suffered previously. While humans have the choice and the capacity, they rarely choose to become better people. This is why relationships with dogs are generally more rewarding than those with humans.
In his late 80’s, my neighbor will be meeting his maker before long and I suspect he will have a great deal to explain when that time comes. I hope an accounting for what he did to Cooper is at the top of the list. While my neighbor qualifies for several of the circles of hell, there surely must be a tenth circle for cruelty to animals.
Digging Cooper’s grave allowed me to take my mind off of the horrific chain of events for a little while. I am not the best front end loader operator and digging in the rocky, Pennsylvania soil is always a challenge. I decided to bury him next to Lucy, our Great Dane who passed away in 2016. Cooper never knew Lucy, but he loved all dogs, people, and he even tolerated cats. He is now part of the DNA of this land forever.
The laughter, joy, and happiness Cooper brought to our lives will be with us for the remainder of our days, but we are all still devastated. I can’t help but feel that my wife and stepdaughter both hold me responsible, and I can’t blame them if they do. It was my job to keep Cooper safe and I failed when he needed me most. It’s a painful addition to a long list of lifetime failures – the things I have gotten wrong — the failure to recognize what was important in real time rather than in retrospect.
While the guilt will fade over time, it will come back periodically and stab me in the heart with its cruel, razor sharp blades.
Rest in Peace, Cooper. I’ll try to do better.
© Copyright Jeffrey Morgan, 2018