Rehabilitating a Homicidal Pet

Vixen. Photo by Babs Schmerl.

By Jane Parnell

Several months before having my right knee replaced, I adopted a puppy, my first ever. I purchased her from a rescue organization that specializes in stray dogs on the Navajo Reservation. She was seven weeks old. They said she was a husky-German shepherd like my previous dog, a stray I rescued myself on a hike in the mountains. I named my husky-shep Beast in hopes of transforming him into a beauty. Once he was neutered and trained, he turned out to be the best dog I ever had. He accompanied me on more than 100 peak-bagging ventures, and as the therapy dog for my department at the university where I used to teach, he developed a loyal following of students in need of unconditional love.

I named my puppy Vixen for her shameless flirtatiousness. Those long black eyelashes, which weren’t eyelashes at all but bristles in her brow, never failed to magnify the effect of her seemingly adoring gaze as she watched me fume over her latest demolition derby. I could forgive her instantly.

“What were you thinking?” said Nancy, a friend since 7th grade who moved to Colorado from Kansas City shortly after I did in 1968. She drove up from Buena Vista to see for herself. Vixen was not only a puppy but an Australian Kelpie bred for long work days, and prone to catastrophic boredom when deprived of adequate physical and mental stimulation – a trait we have in common.

What was I thinking? I was going to have major surgery. Within a week of my release from the hospital, Vixen appeared at the patio door covered in splinters. She had been chowing down on the back deck, free to wreak whatever havoc that entered her puppy mind, as I lay on the living room carpet, weeping from the pain of my twice-daily exercises. Over the course of the ensuing months, she finished off a third of the redwood planks.

More recently she developed a taste for ground squirrels and other small mammals, whose numbers have skyrocketed in the wake of a disease that decimated the fox population. The holes in my backyard outnumber the plants. Some of the holes preceded the adoption, but Vixen has enlarged them, digging additions to each of the original cores. I risk a broken ankle and another debilitating surgery the moment I step off the deck.

It didn’t take long to realize that I had adopted a serial killer. In the past two months alone she has dispatched three ground squirrels by the same method, two mice and a bunny, possibly twice.

My senses dulled by chronic pain and not enough outdoor exercise, Vixen’s homicidal tendencies escaped my notice until the afternoon I saw her take off like a 747 jet, landing seconds later on the same spot. Dirt flying in all directions, she morphed into a drone that could hunt down the wiliest of underground targets. Cornered, the squirrel was dragged out by the forepaws and teeth before being carted off in Vixen’s mouth. I am her owner. Does that make me an accomplice?

The mouse jumped from my live trap, thanks to the defective door, and into Vixen’s open mouth. She raced out the patio door before I barely had time to open it. I limped after her in hopes of rescuing her captive before it was tortured to death. She dropped the mouse of her own accord but before I could scoop it up with a napkin, she sat on it. Then she flipped over, flattening the mouse with the steamroller of her wriggling back.

The bunny made the mistake of taking up residence beneath the front step to my house. I opened the door, clutching Vixen by her leash, and she lunged and scooped a very startled bunny into her mouth. I pried her mouth open and the bunny fell out. It laid on the ground, squealing and twitching, until it went limp, a merciful matter of seconds. On our return from our walk, it was gone, saved perhaps by the feigned death that propagates the species in the face of an attack. The eulogy I had composed while exercising the dog would have to be mumbled over the corpse of Vixen’s next victim. How does one atone for the sins of an Australian Kelpie?

Last week, my handyman found the bunny’s remains or that of a relative under my back deck.

In May, I started rehabilitating both of us along the creek a mile and a half from my house. I had to hike at least four miles to wear Vixen out. By mid-June, when the snow was mostly gone, I could test my new knee and Vixen’s recently completed obedience course on some of the gentler mountains in the Mosquito Range. Mountains with trails to their summits, where I could feast on scenery worthy of an Albert Bierstadt painting, provided Vixen could sit still long enough for me to absorb the view.

Vixen is on the back deck at the moment, scratching on the patio door. I draw the curtain back. The sun is setting, marbling the clouds orange and purple. Vixen is standing on her haunches, splayed against the glass, her snout lifted so I can see the dead squirrel in her mouth. I think she wants me to congratulate her.

Jane Parnell’s mountaineering memoir, “Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies,” was recently published by University of Oklahoma Press.