for all the dog lovers
This is my favorite dog story, albeit bittersweet. I'm sure it will resonate with most everyone on R-T:
from Batfishing in the Rainforest by Randy Wayne White
copyright 1991 - The Lyons Press
Once, visiting the Key West docks, I struck up a conversation with a shrimper, a true Conch, which is to say he talked through his nose and wore white rubber boots. When I told him where I lived—a coastal town more than 400 miles away by highway he said, "Hey now, you ever heared about that dog what they got up there?"
“Yeah, that there dog. Dog can swim underwater and bring up cement blocks. Whole ones, from 15 feet a water, then swim them back to shore. Big brown curly lab. And understands words. Say this dog can swim down fish; catch them, too. Catches snook, reds; even a shark once. A friend of mine was talking it around the docks. An ol’ boy he knew knows somebody what’d seen it. Man, I’d love to have one a his pups."
The shrimper thought I might know something about the stories, me being from the town where this dog was said to live, and that led us into a discussion of other dogs; dogs that neither of us had really encountered, but had heard much about. The shrimper told me the story of the grouper boat cocker that had twice saved all hands: once by leading them to a fire in the dunnage box; another time by waking them when the anchor broke during a storm. Then he told me about the shrimp boat golden retriever that had dived overboard and drowned itself the trip after her owner was drowned. The golden, the shrimper told me, had a 200-word vocabulary and knew the days of the week. It was a great loss felt by all.
I had already heard both of these stones in various forms, and the shrimper had probably already heard my story about the feral hog that had killed 27 catch dogs but was finally brought down by a collie*rottweiler mix, and about the pit bull from LaBelle who would sink its teeth into moving truck tires and flop around and around until the truck stopped. All regions have their legendary dogs, and it has been my experience that outdoor people collect those stories, knowingly or not, perhaps because dogs, unlike people, are still safe harbors for exaggeration. We can tell the wildest tales about animals we have never met, absolutely fearless in the certainty that our wonder and our admiration will never be dashed by a “60 Minutes” exposé or Senate subcommittee hearings. That people are human is a reality now beyond escape; that dogs are not makes them, perhaps, the last stronghold of legend.
The shrimper wanted to know about the dog in my town; the dog that could retrieve cement blocks and outswim fish. The animal that understood words. But instead of telling the man the truth, I told him what he wanted to hear because, while I had not propagated the legend, I was, necessarily, through association and loyalty, another of its protectors. And I did know the truth. The dog he was describing was once my dog.
I called him Gator because that’s the animal he most resembled while in the water, and, like the reptile, he possessed certain quirks of character not normally ascribed to creatures allowed outside a zoo, let alone welcomed into a house. He was not a lab, though I often hear him called that. He was a Chesapeake Bay retriever, seven months old when I got him from an Everglades hunting guide, and already the subject of dark rumors, though I did not know it at the time. A wealthy northern client had given him to the guide as a present, but the guide, who favored tall pointers and catch dogs, didn’t know what to do with him. He kept him in a run with his pit bulls until the Chesapeake— then called Wolf because of his yellow eyes—opened the carotid artery of one of his prize bitches. The guide decided to try and sell the dog and, if that didn’t work, he’d shoot the damn thing and burn the papers. All this, I heard later.
Coincidentally, I had recently ended an 11-year association with a nice setter and was casting around for a new breed to try. Most people who like dogs have some vague mental list of breeds they admire and, at that time, I was leaning toward border collies, flat-coated retrievers, or a nice mixed breed from the humane society. See, the difficulty in choosing a good dog now is that some of the great breeds have suffered at the hands of pet store puppy factories and certain lowlife bench show fanatics who have bred only for confirmation or cash flow, and I did not want one of their mindless, hyperactive progeny. It was then that 1 happened to read a newspaper article about a Chesapeake Bay retriever that had, according to eyewitnesses, leaped into a flooded creek and pulled out a drowning child.
I liked that.
I had one very young son with another on the way, and we lived on a creek. I began to research the breed—just as anyone contemplating dog ownership should. There were relatively few registered Chesapeakes in the country (little chance of overbreeding), and only the most generous of souls would describe them as pretty (of no interest to the puppy factories). Everything I read I liked so, after having the dog xrayed for hip dysplasia, and after listening patiently while the guide insisted the dog had championship bloodlines (I’ve yet to see a registered dog that didn’t), Gator ended up in my home.
Every dog I have ever owned learned the basic obedience commands—to sit, to stay, to heel, and to come—after about four weeks of short daily training sessions. Gator took twice that long, but once he learned something, it was as if it had been etched in stone—an appropriate metaphor, considering his intellect. The dog was no Mensa candidate, but the commands he did learn he carried out like a Marine. What I didn’t have to teach him was how to get things out of the water. Water was to Gator what air is to birds. On land, he might lose himself in the mangroves (more than once) or run into walls (often), but water transformed him into a fluid being; a graceful creature on a transcendent mission.
The mission was simple: There were things in the creek—many things—that needed to be brought out. Our backyard became a littered mess of barnacled branches, shells, and other flotsam, even though each exit from the creek required that he latch his paws over the lip of a stone wall and then haul himself over, an exercise much like a pull-up. Since the dog did these pull-ups hundreds of times a day, month after month, his chest and forearms, quite naturally, became massive. Freakishly large. And, as the dog grew, so did the size of the things he retrieved. Tree branches became whole tree limbs. Shells became rocks—big rocks—for the dog learned early on that if the creek’s surface was sometimes bare, the creek’s bottom always held treasure. On a flood tide, the water was 7-feet deep and murky, but it made no difference. He would dive down and hunt and hunt until I thought surely a real gator had taken him, only to reappear 20 yards away, a rock or a limb in his mouth.
One morning I was sitting on the stoop reading when I noticed a neighbor’s Boston Whaler drifting pilotless toward our property. I thought this odd until I realized my dog was towing it home. He had chewed the lines free with his teeth, and an emergency survey of other mooring lines in the area provided strong evidence that, had I accepted the Whaler, a 30-foot Chris Craft would soon follow.
At some juncture during that era of boat thievery, four more things occurred that enhanced his already growing reputation in the region:
He dove underwater and retrieved his first cement block, he caught his first fish, he jumped through a second-story window to attack a pit bull, and he got an ear infection. Swimming the block ashore didn’t surprise me, though the stranger who had come asking to see the dog and then threw the block seemed genuinely shocked. Catching the fish did surprise me, because I had watched Gator sit on the dock studying waking fish, only to dive and miss them year after year. Finally, though, he did manage to stun and swim one down, and he brought it to me, his tail wagging mildly (a mad display of emotion for that dog); a 10-pound jack crevalle that swam strongly away when I released it. The ear infection was a more subtle touch. It required an operation that left the dog’s head listing slightly to the left, and people who came to see him would say things like, “See there? He knows we’re talking about him, and he’s trying to understand,” for the tilt did lend an air of rakish intellect to an otherwise blank expression.
Added to all of this were Gator’s all-too-often public displays of his own dark nature. Spending his earliest months in a run with pit bulls had left him with a mean-spirited view of dogs in general and of pit bulls in particular. I could take him jogging on free heel, and he never looked at another dog. But if one strayed onto the property, bad things happened.
We were moving into a new stilthouse when a big pit bull came trotting into the yard, giving great ceremony to the decision of where to pee. I had been warned about this dog. He had free rein of the neighborhood, terrorizing pets and children, and the owners would do nothing. Gator was on the upstairs porch, watching with me through the screened window ... and then, suddenly, he was no longer there. It took me a long dull moment to understand what had happened, looking through the broken screen as Gator, making an odd chirping sound because the fall had knocked the wind out of him, attacked the pit bull. Gator accompanied the pit bull home, which is where the pit bull stayed—once his stitches were removed and he was released from the animal hospital.
I consider what my Chesapeake did that afternoon less an act of bravery than just one more demonstration that certain basic concepts—the effects of gravity, for instance—were utterly beyond him. I don’t doubt for a moment that he would have dived into a flooded creek to pull out a drowning child. But he would have gone in just as quickly to rescue a log or a Subaru. We love to attribute to animals those noble qualities we lack, though often long for, in ourselves. But Gator wasn’t noble; he was only pure of purpose. Other dogs suffered unhappy encounters with him. A few deserving people suffered too.
Once a burly lawman I did not know arrived at the house in a van. With the barest of introductions, the lawman told me loudly that he did not believe the stories he’d heard about my dog, but he’d come to see for himself. Then, as if to underline his contempt for exaggeration, he slid open the van’s side door and two big Doberman pinschers jumped out—inexcusable behavior on the lawman’s part, but that’s exactly what he did.
Gator was in the creek tearing out mangroves when he wind-scented the Dobermans, and he came charging over the bank, blowing water from his nose and roaring; roaring because that was the only noise he could make with a tree limb in his mouth. The Dobermans were too stunned by this draconic vision to move and so fared badly in Gator’s attack from the sea. The lawman could move, but moving was exactly the wrong thing to do, which is why Gator turned his attention to the lawman, who was trying feverishly to drag his two dogs back into the van. The lawman left, making threats out the van window. My dog had bitten him, and also injured two trained police dogs. I would hear from the authorities, he promised. And he kept his promise.
The next day, a squad car pulled into the drive followed by a van from animal control. They wanted to see my dog. I whistled for Gator, and he came trotting around the corner carrying, to my surprise, a 20-pound hammerhead I had been dissecting on the dock. From inside the animal control van, I heard one of the men say, “Holy Lord, he kills sharks, too. I’m not getting out.”
But the men did get out. They watched Gator retrieve bird dummies. They watched him retrieve the cement block. They saw how he worked on hand signals. And when Gator had finished doing all this, one of the men said, “See how he tilts his head when we talk? It’s like he understands what we’re saying. Man, I’d love to have one a this dog’s pups.”
Gator’s reputation spread.
Television stations sometimes called to see if I would allow them to do a piece on Gator (always refused) just as the friends of friends sometimes stopped to watch the dog who swam underwater and caught sharks. More than once, in those years, I heard a stranger de*scribe my own dog to me with details as wondrous as they were exag*gerated.
But, in reality, Gator was probably not much different from dogs you have known or owned. He was a good dog, which is to say he minded well, and he was mine. When I got up to leave the room, he followed. He was good with the boys, didn’t yap, didn’t hump, didn’t whine, didn’t eat the furniture, didn’t jump up on strangers unless he meant to bite them, only stole the one boat unless you count canoes, and he wouldn’t have gone for the cavalry if I had waited a year.
He wasn’t an overly affectionate dog, either. He liked to have his ears scratched, but I can remember only one time in our nine years that he actually licked me. I had given up hunting because I simply took no joy anymore in killing for sport those same animals I loved to watch while on the water or in the field. But I had made that decision, I saw now, without giving any thought to the dog I had trained exactly for that purpose. I had, I realized too late, defected, in a small way, to the ranks of bad breeders and bench show fanatics by robbing another working dog of its heritage.
So I decided to give hunting one more try.
I loaded Gator and shotgun into the boat and ran the tidal creek to a saw-grass marsh where, I knew, there were brackish ponds that held scaup and mallards. It would have been a bad day for fishing anyway, but it was a fine day for ducks: February gray and windy, with sea fog over the bay. Gator felt good, I could tell. He kept his ears perked like a puppy, and his yellow eyes glowed, and I wondered, How can he know?
It had been years since we had hunted together. But now, as then, he understood that this was not just a boat ride. This was not playtime. Cement blocks and sunken logs were meaningless; swimming before a shot was fired, unforgivable. This, he knew, was work.
I positioned him at the water’s edge, but close enough so that my left hand could reach his ears, and we waited. I missed two easy shots before I finally took a single—a mallard drake—and Gator vibrated beneath my hand, listening for the release, Bird!, before sliding into the water, throwing a wake in the dark chop as he found the mallard and pivoted as if equipped with a keel.
I watched him swimming toward me, that big brown tilted head and those eyes. He should have brought the bird to my feet and then sat, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. His hips were ruined by disease, and he licked my hand as I scooped him up, telling me that it hurt when I held him that way, but there was only one alternative, and that would soon come.
I carried Gator back to the boat and placed him on the deck by my feet. Then I drove the legend homeward, toward his rendezvous with 9 ccs of pentobarbital, and the grave I had already dug for him.