It was almost five o’clock and Miss Sloan had not shown up at the clinic yet. She was scheduled to bring in her dog Toby, a two-year-old bloodhound–Weimaraner cross, by four o’clock to be treated for an ear infection. I had met Miss Sloan only once before, when she brought in a vomiting puppy after hours. She was a single, rather eccentric woman who lived in a fairly remote area with twelve unneutered dogs. She never brought them in for vaccinations or routine procedures. The only time we saw them was when there was a major problem. The dogs, not unlike their owner, were not overly socialized, to say the least. They so rarely saw people that it made them extremely skittish when they were exposed to strangers.
“I tried to call her, but no one answered. She must be on her way,” Lorraine, our frequently blunt middle-aged receptionist, said to Christie and me as she walked out the door for the evening. “Be sure to lock up when you are done.”
Christie, my faithful, yet sometimes reluctant, young veterinary assistant, and I had already had a long day. We were just about ready to leave ourselves, when an old monster sedan pulled into the driveway, coughing smoke from at least three sides of its undercarriage. The metal dragon coasted into a parking space and backfired as the engine shut down. Out of the driver’s side appeared a seventy-year-old woman with unkempt gray hair, an antique ski jacket, and tan leather work boots. We could not help but notice a large dog bouncing around in the backseat while Miss Sloan fumbled with a leash. Christie went out to give her a hand while I got some sedative pulled up and ear cleansers set out so we could speed up the process. Just then, I heard some yelling coming from the parking lot.
Toby had freaked out, biting Miss Sloan on the right hand when she tried to get the leash on him. By the time I made it to the front door, he had leaped from the car and was running full speed across the highway into the subdivision on the other side. His long ears were flapping and his skinny tail was wagging good-bye to us. Miss Sloan held her lacerated right hand with her left as the blood seeped between the fingers of her good hand.
“Please don’t hurt him,” she cried. “He’s just not used to people or being confined.”
We certainly had no intention of hurting her pet, but we absolutely had to get him back. When an unvaccinated animal bites a person, the possibility of rabies becomes a huge issue. Legally, the animal has to be quarantined for two weeks, or a tissue sample from the animal has to be sent to a rabies-testing laboratory. Let’s just say that the tissues required cannot be taken from a live animal. If the suspect animal cannot be found, the bite victim must start a rather painful series of injection to counteract the rabies virus. Once a victim shows symptoms of rabies, it is usually too late to treat them successfully. We were going to have to find Toby.
“Miss Sloan, you will have to see a doctor about those wounds,” I told her as I examined her punctured hand.
She started to object, but Christie backed me up. “You need to drive directly to the medical office. You don’t want to get an infection. Do let them know that Toby wasn’t vaccinated.” Miss Sloan agreed, wrapped her hand in some gauze, and headed down the road.
Now we had to deal with Toby. “Christie, call Animal Control and tell them what’s going on,” I told her. “We will have to file a report; then they can try to find Toby.”
After Christie made the call, I sent her home and then waited for an officer to come by. About ten minutes later, a Ford Bronco with ANIMAL CONTROL printed in huge letters on the side roared up the driveway and a short, plump man in a uniform jumped out. I had worked with Johnny several times before on animal-abuse cases. He was a really nice guy and took his job very seriously.
“Hey, Doc! Sounds like we’ve got a little adventure on our hands!” he announced exuberantly. Johnny was about twenty-six years old and still completely enamored of his career choice. “We just got a new tranquilizer gun in, and I think today is the day to try it out,” he added. You would have thought we were going after an escaped rhino, not a scared canine. This was going to be interesting.
Officer Johnny had me fill out a little paperwork on the bite incident and Toby’s lack of vaccination history. “Well, saddle up,” he instructed me. “Let’s go find him.”
I was planning on searching for Toby, but not in the Animal Control vehicle. I could see, however, that it was going to be impossible to turn Johnny down, so I reluctantly crawled into the passenger side, kicking enough empty soda bottles out of the way to find a place for my feet. Johnny yanked the gearshift into drive. The rear tires dug into the gravel driveway, and we were off. I don’t know which smelled worse, the burning rubber or the overstuffed ashtray.
I heard Johnny say under his breath, “This is going to be so much fun.” It was obvious that he had watched too many cop shows and had forgotten that we were chasing a confused canine, not a hardened criminal.
We bounced down the driveway, across the highway, and into the unsuspecting subdivision. Johnny tore through the streets, passing cedar-sided houses and spinning out in the cul-de-sacs to change direction and check another street.
“He has to be around here somewhere. He couldn’t have gotten too far!” Johnny all but squealed with the glee of a schoolboy.
Luckily, it was dinnertime and all the children and their parents were inside eating. This whole episode was quickly becoming the highlight of Johnny’s week, and he was having way too much fun. After about the fifth street, and right at the peak of my car sickness, Johnny spotted Toby running behind a house and brought the Bronco to a sliding stop just in time to keep me from vomiting.
“Let’s get the tranq gun loaded while he is hiding. We’ll be ready for him when he comes out.” I wanted to reply, You’ve got to be kidding me, but I didn’t, as he seemed determined that this was the best way to capture the freaked-out canine.
Since I couldn’t come up with a better, less stressful way to convince Toby to go back to the clinic with us, I let Johnny proceed with his over-the-top plan. He fumbled to fill the tiny dart with a couple milliliters of sedative that we supplied to the Animal Control officers for just such an occasion. It appeared that this may have been the first time that this “big-game hunter” had actually darted an animal. Once the dart was loaded, he had to decide exactly how it fit into the gun. He held the apparatus up so that I could see, as well.
“What do you think, Doc?” he asked with a tinge of embarrassment in his voice. It was a new type of tranquilizer dart, so I was no help, and it was nothing like the large darts that I had used on buffalo in the past.
“You are on your own on this one,” I explained. “I have no idea.” Subconsciously, I think, I just really didn’t want any part in this debacle. I could not believe we were going to dart the poor thing, yet it was better than Toby getting hit by a car while on his escapade.
“Well, I guess I will just have to go for it. I hope that I can hit him!” Johnny said with a hint of disgust in his voice.
He did not seem to be pleased with my lack of expertise on the subject at hand. He mumbled, “I sure hope that this is right,” then placed the dart in the tranquilizer pistol and held it in the open window of the Bronco’s driver-side door, waiting for Toby to reappear from behind the house. Time seemed to slow to a standstill.
We sat silently in the cab of the vehicle, waiting for Toby to show himself again. At first, I told myself that it wouldn’t be long now, but then I began to wonder if he would ever come out. What could he possibly be doing back there? My mind began to wander. I imagined he had met other dogs back there and they were having a party, laughing about Johnny and me waiting in the truck. I pulled myself back from the edge and began counting the seconds between Johnny’s deep breaths. Johnny finally began to fidget. Up until now, he had held his ground quite well, but he was beginning to break.
“Where in heck is that dog?” he muttered. I almost brought up my theory of the dog party going on behind the house, but then thought better of it. Johnny might not see the humor in my imagination.
Of course, what seemed like an hour was in reality probably only ten minutes. The sun had just dropped behind the pine trees when I made out the tip of a nose and a dark eye peering around the corner of the house. It always amazes me how animals instinctively know exactly what you are up to. Johnny tightened the grip on his pistol while Toby made his way from behind the house into the shadows of the swing set a few feet away. From there, he could easily have made the twenty feet between the swing set and the next house. In a matter of minutes, darkness would be his teammate and we would be out of luck for the night. But Toby made a break for it a little too early, and I cringed when the trigger on Johnny’s tranquilizer gun clicked. I expected the next sound to be yelping as the dart punctured Toby’s skin. Instead, Toby stopped short, looking a little confused by the dart now lodged firmly in the metal support post of the swing set behind him. We had successfully sedated a child’s toy.
If dogs can laugh, Toby laughed at us. He was smiling from ear to ear, tongue fully extended. Even his eyes gleamed as he stared us down in defiance. Now the chase had become a game for him, and he was winning. Toby lifted his leg and urinated on the swing set as if it were his trophy. He wagged his tail, turned, and pranced off into the dark.
“Now what do we do?” asked a less enthusiastic Johnny.
“We retrieve the dart from the swing set and call it a night,” I replied. “The next thing we hit might not be as innocuous.”
This comment seemed to get the point across to Johnny, and he sank down into the seat while he drove me back to the clinic after prying the dart from its metal victim. I got out of the truck and said good night to Johnny.
The clinic was dark except for the glow from the small yellowish lightbulb above the door. The stars were bright, not a cloud in the sky and not a sign of Toby. The Colorado night air made me shiver a little. It was either time to go home or to come up with a new plan. The clock behind the reception desk read 8:00 P.M. as I unlocked the door to the clinic. I couldn’t stand to think that Toby might be running around out there in the night with mountain lions, bears, and every dog’s worst enemy—cars—on the prowl. I sat at my desk and leaned back in the chair, desperately trying to think of a way to retrieve the elusive dog, but all the awful ways that Toby could meet his demise kept running through my head, blocking my ability to come up with a solution. I was sure that Johnny was home by now, probably in front of the television, a beer in hand, a feeling that the ball was back in my court. He’d be free of any guilt, since he had literally given Toby his best shot.
I walked to the front door of the clinic and stared out through the glass in the door. All I could see through the darkness was the occasional headlight on the highway. As I gazed dumbfounded at the periodic lonely car, I thought I saw a shadow cross the highway. Squinting to search the area, I convinced myself that my mind was just playing tricks on me. After rubbing my eyes to clear them, I checked again, and there was that shadow in the dark again. It had to be him. The shadow paced back and forth near the road, debating its next move.
I opened the door and did what any desperate human would do. I yelled, “Toby, come. Toby, please come!” He did what every panicked dog would do: He disappeared into the darkness. So much for that well-orchestrated plan. I was going to have to do much better than that.
I went back in and sat down in my chair. Evidently, he had some interest in returning to the scene of the crime. He may have been looking for the last place he had seen Miss Sloan, especially since he wasn’t at all acquainted with the area. The poor guy didn’t know where else to look for a familiar face. I would have to take advantage of this interest in order to recapture him. All I could think was what they would do on those Animal Planet shows in a similar situation. Then it hit me. I remembered a particular show where wildlife officers had used beefsteak laced with sedatives to help them capture a troublesome bear that was looting a campground at night. I didn’t have access to or a budget for steaks, but there was plenty of canned dog food in the clinic, and bottles full of doggie downers. It was time to attempt to outsmart Toby. I figured he had to be hungry after toying with us in the subdivision earlier. As long as Toby was near the clinic, it was worth a try. Just as I was about to set my trap, the phone rang.
This was a long time before caller ID, but I knew there was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would be Miss Sloan, checking up on Toby. After debating for the first three rings, I grabbed the receiver just before the call transferred over to the answering service.
“Hello, this is Dr. Wells,” I said cautiously. After a slightly longer-than-normal pause, the female voice on the other end replied, “How’s my Toby? I wondered if I could still pick him up tonight.”
She was assuming that Toby was safely tucked back into the clinic and I was just hanging out, waiting for her call. How I wished that were the case. I realized I would have to pick my words very carefully now. Clearing my throat, I said, “Toby is doing fine. He is still outside, but I am sure he will be coming in soon.”
Another hesitation on the other end, then: “You mean he is in one of the dog runs outside?” asked Miss Sloan.
“Well, not exactly. We still haven’t caught him.” I hated to admit it. “But I am sure that I will have him inside any minute now.”
I was afraid that she would want to come in and help me capture the elusive pup, but she acknowledged she was under the influence of painkillers and would not be able to drive safely to the clinic to help me right then. She would be there first thing in the morning, however. Trying to help me that night would have been just an additional liability, especially if she was a little dopey.
I ended the conversation by saying, “Call before you come in tomorrow”—just in case things didn’t turn out as I had planned.
Now it was time to get back to coaxing Toby into the clinic. I opened several cans of dog food and placed equal amounts in three food dishes, one for each door of the clinic. Then, after carefully positioning several yellow pills deep inside the food so Toby could not easily spot them, I set a dish in front of each door. The clock behind the reception desk showed it was almost 10:00 P.M. when I kicked back in the chair underneath it to wait for Toby.
A scratch on the front door jolted me out of my slumber. I tripped over myself in my half-conscious rush to the door and dropped onto the linoleum floor. After struggling to my feet in a combination of sleepiness and head-trauma daze, I squinted to focus on the clock only a foot in front of me. It read somewhere in the vicinity of midnight. Another scratch at the front door helped to remind me where I was. I opened the door, and there was Toby in a sedated stupor below me. The pride of escaping us earlier in the day was gone. He no longer held his head in defiance. Now his nose scraped the ground and his tail was literally between his legs. Without hesitation, he stumbled through the open door and collapsed onto the floor. He put his brown head between his paws and looked up at me with half-open eyes.
“Come on, big guy,” I whispered as I helped him stand as best he could. Then I escorted him to the nearest kennel in the back room. It was a bit like helping a drunk get to his bed.
He nestled in on top of the old blanket I had placed inside for him, immediately giving in to sleep. The trick worked well, I thought as I gathered up the remaining drug-laced dog food in front of the other two doorways. I didn’t want to have a pile of doped-up coyotes sprawled in front of the clinic in the morning, or, worse yet, a mountain lion. In the meantime, I had taken the opportunity to clean out Toby’s ears and fill the swollen red canals with soothing medication.
The next day, I arrived early to explain the situation to everyone and call Miss Sloan. “Yes, he is going to be just fine.… No, we didn’t have to dart him.” I did not feel the need to fill her in on the swing-set incident. “Yes, he will have to be at the county shelter for ten days to be observed for rabies before you can take him home,” I continued.
That was the law in this situation. If the accused does not show any clinical signs of rabies within ten days of the incident, then he can be assumed not to have the disease and will be released. For those who have never seen Old Yeller, the clinical signs in dogs can involve aggressive behavior, excessive salivation, and/or neurological problems.
I had no sooner hung up the phone than Lorraine was yelling to the back, “Johnny from Animal Control on the line.” I knew this call was coming.
“Doc, you got him alive? How’d you do it?” Johnny was practically begging to know.
“It was just my irresistible personality,” I replied, teasing him. “Come get him while he is still a little groggy,” I added, hanging up the phone before he had a chance for rebuttal.
In actuality, I did want him to take Toby to the shelter right away. The dog was doing fine, but I did want to take advantage of his hangover. No sense in waiting for him to get back to full strength, increasing the chance of another one of us getting bitten.
During Toby’s incarceration, no signs of rabies were noted. In fact, Johnny had taken this opportunity to socialize him. When I arrived on release day to administer Toby’s rabies shot, Johnny held him quietly on a leash, petting him gently as I gave the vaccine.
When we finished, I made the mistake of asking, “How did you change his attitude so quickly, Johnny?”
He had been waiting for me to ask, and he replied smugly, “Oh, Doc, it was just my irresistible personality!”
Copyright © 2011 by Jeff Wells