When Roo was Deathly Ill

One of Bearface, Jr.'s attempts at getting comfortable wen she wasn't feeling well.

One of Bearface, Jr.'s attempts at getting comfortable wen she wasn't feeling well.


That illness Roo went through didn’t so much end as taper off. The course it ran was an example of how confusing diagnosing and treating a sick dog can be. This post is for those of you who’d like to hear the whole story. 

Her trouble started in early November. My buddy, Rockin’ Dr. Jim Raker, and I were hiking Roo on a lakeside trail in Maine when Roo, who was running around like her usual mad dog self hunched over and released an explosive bang of a poop. Someone once joked that if aliens were examining the Earth from a distance, they would conclude that it is run by dogs who lead human servants around on strings to clean up after them. Though this was in the woods where no scooping was necessary, of course I had a look at it. This was not your grandfather’s diarrhea. This was a noxious mixture produced by a disturbed gut.

“I don’t know,” I said to the Doctor. Dr. Raker is in fact a real doctor, but in reality he only practices medicine in order to finance his alter-ego, who is a bluegrass guitar picker. “That looks like she might have picked up some giardia.”

“Could be,” the Doctor said. “Or just a bug of some kind.”

We continued our walk. Roo started digging for a mouse at the roots of a tree, bringing Dr. Raker closer to murder than ever before in his life. Years of abiding by the Hippocratic oath won out in the end, though, and he spared us.

Now, every dog picks up a stomach bug from time to time. A day or two of diarrhea isn’t anything to get upset about. I expected it pass. For the next couple of days, Roo had to go urgently three or four times a day. It’s a lucky thing our security state hasn’t yet advanced to the point where you have to go through bomb sniffing machines to go outside, because whatever the chemical reaction inside Roo was would have gotten her placed in a steel canister and detonated in the middle of a closed-off street. She seemed to be carrying a load of cherry bombs around. Roo always resists going out after dark, preferring to hold everything in from sunset to nine or ten in the morning when she finally feels like rolling out of bed. If I could spare her I would loan her Science to be studied at a veterinary college for her ability to do this. But for a couple of days, she had 3 AM emergencies.

At first, I gave her Pepto-Bismal and fed her white rice and cooked chicken or ground meat and after a few days she was back to normal. But then, some days later, out would plop another wet stool or two. Then she would get better again, then worse, and back and forth like that it went. Her loose stool was the only problem. She never lost energy or appetite or seemed to feel at all bad. So, I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Up in Maine, winter held off for an unusually long time, but when a week of temperatures in the single digits was predicted we headed south and then west to Oklahoma. The pattern with Roo stayed the same. Soft stool came and went but she was otherwise fine. She didn’t slow down at all or want to exercise less or bother me less about being taken for walks or getting her treats. And, as will be clear to forensic biologists monitoring mouse populations in the future, her crime wave never let up at all.

A few days later, after an accidental overnight at a nudist colony in Georgia, we were in Oklahoma. Roo was again putting out the occasional loose stool, and even though there was no sign of worms, I dewormed her for good measure. That just added to the confusion about her growing sickness, because at first it seemed to return her to normal.

But then there were the first signs that something more was going on. It was subtle. She was happy and interested and hungry, but I started to wonder if I was watching her start to slow down a little, that perhaps I was just noticing her start to act her age. She didn’t seem sick. She just wasn’t running around as crazily as she always had.

And then, damn it all if after a few days her diarrhea was back.

This is one of the confusing things: if a dog appears to be healthy, and the only thing that’s off is loose stool, and then it goes away, was it a mistake not to have gotten her to a vet sooner? As it turned out, bringing her in wouldn’t have changed anything, but it wouldn’t always be that way. It didn’t matter because even after the many vet visits and treatments she was about to have, no amount of diagnostics would ever determine what had happened. 

I took Roo to see Dr. Randolph Stokes, who, thankfully, turned out to be a thorough veterinarian of the old school, the kind who takes his time and discusses everything with you. I would see over time that even dogs who don’t like going to the vet seem relieved when they find out it’s going to be Dr. Stokes at the controls. He gave Roo a good once-over and found nothing wrong with Roo. Her fecal exam was clear. Everything else about her looked healthy. Glowing coat, clear eyes, pink ears, good weight, even an extra pound or two. I told him that there had been a small change in her appetite, which amounted to her putting breakfast in ed off until she reached the dining room, but in itself that wasn’t much. There had been other times when she didn’t eat in the morning. She didn’t seem to be exhibiting any signs of discomfort, so there wasn’t a sense of urgency. He listed several things that could have been the cause. The only ones that I could do anything about right away were pancreatitis and irritable bowel disease. Even though nothing showed up in the fecal exam, we agreed on a course of metronidazole to kill giardia or other canny parasites that might have been holing up and keeping quiet with guns drawn in her gut to avoid detection, what with the way this might have started in Maine (another possible source of confusion—that might have been when it started or it might have been coincidental).

The meds did nothing and Roo kept losing energy. This is a dog unsatisfied with a hard run of an hour, but now she began to ask to end her walks after only a few minutes, employing her signal of asking to carry her Flexi leash or my hat after only a few minutes. She started to dig the occasional hole, but lost interest in them and the bounty of mouses they promised, and then stopped digging entirely. Even jumping in the lake lost its appeal. She just wanted to lie on the floor looking miserable. Once in a while she moaned, and then began to grunt. She was having a godawful stomach ache. For a dog as tough as Roo to express discomfort it had to be bad. Then she began to emit a constant, sick-smelling, gas, which I at first didn’t recognize as coming from her because it smelled more like something chemical.

One morning, Roo woke with a terrible bout of acid reflux. She’s always had a bit of a sensitive stomach, and her cure has always been to jump up and down to be let outside so she can eat grass to make herself throw up. Usually I let her, though on the occasions when she takes it too far I stop her, worrying that if she ingests too much some won’t come up and will only make her feel worse. And there have been times when that’s happened and some strands come out the other end. There have been times when I’ve had to fashion a forceps with a pair of sticks to help pull a few particularly long strands out of her butt when one is stuck half in and half out and she tries to force it out but it is too small an item for her machinery to expel. It’s one of the funnier instances of human-canine cooperation, though not much of one to look forward to.

When the acid first hit that morning, I let her eat out to graze on the Oklahoma pasture grass. But this time it was obvious that this was different, because she didn’t just eat a little—she tore at the grass feverishly, and when that bucketful came up, it did nothing to help her and she wanted to get right back to it and I stopped her from eating more. Pepto had been relieving her but now it did nothing, and Nexium, which usually helps her quickly, wasn’t relieving her, either. We were back at Dr. Stokes’s office within the hour.

Though a lot of confusion ensued over the next weeks, none of it was because of any lack of attention, thoroughness or competence on the part of Dr. Stokes. I’ve only had total confidence in a few vets over the years, but Stokes is one of them. He’s one of those smart, caring top-rate vets. He did everything possible and warned me from the outset about further steps that might be necessary if his testing didn’t yield a diagnosis. It’s just a fact of medicine that not everything shows up on bloodwork or imaging.

The first thing that was different on this visit was that Roo reacted ever so slightly to having her belly palpated. She didn’t do that on previous visits. Dr. Stokes explained that a dog should show no response to the pressure at all, and though I couldn’t see it, he said that Roo was reacting. He guided me through it, and even then I couldn’t really tell. But I’m not an old pro like Stokes. The needle went in Roo’s neck for blood, and the results from what they could do in the office lab were all normal. The next day the results from the lab the rest had to be sent to came back. All of that was normal, too, with the exception of an ever so slightly elevated indication of pancreatitis. That number, however, was so minimally out of range that it wasn’t at all definitive. It was a number that appeared often on dogs with no pancreatitis at all. But as the only lead, we followed it.

First things first, though, and the immediate goal was to get whatever was going on inside Roo to calm down. She was suffering. Her gut was churning. The vomiting had to stop. Her insides had to be given a chance to relax so they could try to get back to work. Dr. Stokes prescribed Cerenia, an anti-vomiting med, and, in conjunction with the Nexium and Peptos, she began to feel a little better right away. The key to her relief was ending the nausea, and the Cerenia did that effectively. Roo was exhausted and couldn’t do much more than lie around, but at least she wasn’t gulping in pain from the acid or vomiting any more. In the meantime, Dr. Stokes got to work on the next step of diagnosing Roo, which would be a visit to an internal medicine specialist. The closest one was in Tulsa, 140 miles away.

Now, I never knew the first thing about pancreatitis before. The main thing that provokes that is fat. And carbohydrates, which dogs don’t need to begin with, don’t help, either. Roo wasn’t getting a lot of fat to begin with, but she did get some. A few pieces of cheese, a little half-and-half when I made coffee. A piece of pizza on the rare occasion when I bought some or a small burger on the even rarer emergency occasions when we stopped for fast food. And those of you who have been reading about Roo for a while might remember her love for things like the tortilla she scarfed up in the parking lot of a Nogales Motel 6 and bread, like the garlic toast that someone happened to knock off an outdoor restaurant table and into her path in Asheville once and that she pounced on instantaneously. I never stuffed her with bread, but I always gave her a little. I’ve always said that Roo is like Tony Soprano—she always got a taste of everything. No more, though. Sorry, Bearface.

This led to the next level of confusion. Roo was now on the anti-vomiting meds, the omeprazole and Pepto for the acid. Her diet went through an immediate change. So, with so many things being thrown at her, it’s impossible to know which one might be doing the trick. And maybe it was none of them. Maybe, given the chance to stop the nausea, she was just mending as she would have anyway. Who knows.

It’s amazing how Roo understands the relationship between pills and feeling better. After all, a dog can be bitten by a rattlesnake and swell up in agony half an hour later and still not connect the snake to the pain and go after another snake the next time they see one. But to this day, if she shows any sign of stomach discomfort and I take the bottle of Nexium from the drawer, she wags and comes right over and sits down to let me jam it down her throat. She is such a good girl about taking her pills, which was lucky, because what with food being an iffy proposition to begin with and her having to take so many of them, feeding her a constant stream of delectables while treating a digestive problem was something I preferred not to do. 

Relieving Roo of her pain helped Roo quickly. Though she was weak, she was resting more easily, and, within a few days, she started to show signs of wanting to go out more. I didn’t wait for her to nose me for the Flexi, instead I kept her walks short just in case. She started to notice with a combination of frustration and glee that the mouse and rat populations she thought she had wiped from the face of east Oklahoma were beginning to reestablish themselves, and that interest was a good sign.

The earliest appointment the internal medicine clinic had been able to offer was a week after the last visit with Dr. Stokes. They said I could bring her in any time as an emergency, but, as Roo was starting to feel marginally better and they were 140 miles away and the staff had warned me that it wasn’t ideal to come in as an emergency, I called Dr. Stokes for his opinion. He recommended against it. He said that while they would work her in, they would be rushed and she might not get thorough attention. And there was always the option to bring her in if she got worse.

In the course of that week, she started to feel better. Her energy began to improve, she started exercising more and sleeping better. The Cerenia completely knocked out the nausea and her reflux was abating. By the time her appointment for the ultrasound in Tulsa rolled around a week later, she was starting to feel pretty good. Nowhere near her old normal, but not bad.

The most worrisome thing was that she was still only dropping cow patties, which meant that her small intestine wasn’t functioning properly and wasn’t absorbing water properly. And the mystery surrounding that was troubling. Something inside wasn’t working and none of the things that would usually account for anything like that weren’t evident.

The internal medicine clinic in Tulsa was a big, new, state-of-the-art facility with granite countertops and three receptionists with a small decorative waterfall behind them and sparkling new electronic gear all over the place. I warned the vet about Roo’s fears and that she was terrified of flashlights, so to make sure they covered her eyes if they had to use one. She didn’t want to go in back with them, and I had to perform a minor betrayal by pretending to go through the door with her and then doubling back through when she went, which is something no dog would ever stoop to doing. When she saw me turning back, she lay down on the floor with her head flat on the linoleum to refuse to go farther. But once I got her up and told her there was nothing to worry about, as I have to tell her about 20 times a day and which she usually believes when I tell her, she went quietly.

After the ultrasound the vet came to brief me. Roo was still in back in the examination room. Now, I’m sure this vet was a competent clinician—and he had a soothing and caring touch with Roo—but he had no capacity for communication. He volunteered only the basic outlines. Everything had to be extracted from him under interrogation. I considered strapping him to a chair and shine the exam light in his eyes to make him talk. A vet like that makes you appreciate one like Stokes all the more. 

The ultrasound had only added to the confusion. Nothing obvious appeared. The only thing was that Roo’s pancreas appeared to have been only possibly and ever so slightly swollen, so little that they might not have been swollen at all. They were in the range of what a dog could have been naturally endowed with. The vet said he saw this all the time. And there are colors that appear on the ultrasound to indicate pancreatitis, and none of those showed up. So, more tests were prescribed: a better, more conclusive blood test would rule pancreatitis in or out and another test for Addison’s disease, a hormonal problem originating in the pituitary gland in the brain that also could have accounted for her symptoms. He returned to pull the blood and I waited for Bearface in the reception area. When she came out, she wasn’t in bad shape at all. She was a little on the disoriented side but she didn’t appear to have been frightened so much as stressed. She was of course as glad to get out of there as any regular dog would have been and didn’t see the point of my taking the time to pay the bill, but otherwise she was fine. I walked her, she dropped a cow patty, and we drove the 140 miles back to were we started and waited for results.

We were taking a walk the next day when Dr. Stokes called with the results. I was glad it was him and not the name-rank-and-serial number guy. Roo was actually running around and chasing someone when the call came. Nothing at all on the pancreatitis, with numbers smack in the middle of the range. That was ruled out. But the numbers for Addison’s suggested she might have that.

Determining that, however, required more testing, so we went on the next tangent, a glucose stimulation test. I’ve had those when two out of five lab results came back when I was sick a couple of years ago and my doctor sat me down to tell me to pick out a brain surgeon before they figured out that the whole two-month-long brouhaha had been caused by a miscalibrated machine in the lab. They pull some blood to get a baseline, then shoot you full of glucose. That, in turn, makes some hormones secrete or not, and if they don’t, presto. So it was back to Dr. Stokes’s office for that the next day. Though Roo was not pleased, she accepted her fate with considerable dignity. 

It was odd having a few hours without Roo around. A definite step down. When I went back to get her, she was again glad to get out of there, but again surprisingly unbothered by her solo at Dr. Stokes’s office.

The Addison’s test came back negative and Dr. Stokes had conferred with the internal medicine vet. As Roo’s primary veterinarian, he relayed the internist’s recommendation for the next step, which was to run an endoscope run as far down both ends of her as it would go. For this she would need to be under general anesthesia. There was a caveat, though: the endoscope can not be routed into the tight windings of the small intestine, which was the very organ under suspicion for Roo’s persistent cow impression. And Stokes said that because of that, if they didn’t find anything, the next step the internist wanted to take would be exploratory surgery. I told him that in view of Roo’s improvement, that sounded extreme and he agreed. Dr. Stokes was careful to provide me with all the information necessary to make the decision. The risk was that Roo could get worse later on account of something that could only have been determined by opening her up, though no one seemed to have any idea of what that might have been. But she didn’t have cancer. Imaging had turned up no masses or any sighting more untoward a large pancreas. She had been imaged everywhere but up the Kahoo wazoo. 

In a case like this, it was important to rely on my own understanding of Roo as much as the veterinary input. Roo’s illness seemed to have been progressing along a smooth curve. First she got sick and the curve went down, then more sick to the point of seriously ill, where it bottomed out, and then the curve started trending back upwards after she passed through her crisis. Had the trend not improved—had she remained as sick as she was at her nadir—I would have gone along with more extreme measures. But not now. No way. Even the endoscopy sounded like a long-shot and unlikely-to-succeed prelude to elevating the case to perform abdominal surgery. Though whatever it was that was making Roo sick would never be determined, it seemed to be a problem in the one organ—the small intestine—that wouldn’t be viewable endoscopically. 

And slicing a good dog open without clear need doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do. Though anyone worries about the worst happening when their dog becomes too sick to move for a long time, she was on the upswing. Her energy wasn’t where it had been two months earlier, but she was getting stronger every day, feeling better, smiling more, interested in hunting again, reminding me again when it was time for her jerky and biscuits. If it wasn’t for the cow patties she was leaving in her wake, and if I didn’t have her previous energy levels to compare her to, it would have been hard to tell there was anything wrong wth her. And what about Roo’s view of the whole thing? All the work she had done to rid the Arklahoma border area of mouses might have been undone with the snap of a vet’s fingers. Perhaps new dog-resistant breeds would evolve, mouses with the jaws of chupacabras or who swam in boiling packs like pirañas might appear. They might never be conquered again. The psychological impact of seeing her life’s work disrupted like that that might have been too much to expect even a brave and singleminded dog like Roo to take. And what about the swimming problem? Under no circumstances would Roo give that up. She would have to be encased in a bathysphere and lowered into the water by a crane. No. I’m sure that if I cold have gotten her opinion, it would have been that.

Within another couple of days, Roo left something firmer than a cow patty in her wake. Not much firmer, but firmer. And within another week or so, the only thing she left behind were her days as a cow. She was back to normal. It’s been nearly two months now, but I still check her production every time and no one has ever been more glad to see a good, solid dog turd than I.

I was worried that all the downtime would be hard for Roo to recover from, and so I was careful to limit her walks for a while even though she wanted to do more. But finally, she was clear of whatever it was that had been ready to nail her, and all that was left of her recovery was to regain the rest of her strength, which she has. She’s as good as new. It’s once again certain that she will kill me with the amount of exercise she requires.

And here’s a confession: in the period before she got sick, when she was still running around and raising hell, just not as much hell, and it seemed possible that she might just be slowing down after crossing the five-year line, I found myself thinking, a little guiltily, that that might not be the worst thing in the world. I mean, the amount of wear and tear on me from making sure she gets all the exercise she needs is pretty bad. By the end of her walks all I can think about is washing my next dose of Aleve and Tylenol down with some strong coffee.

But I knew the answer as soon as the question occurred. Of course it was no. No part of the answer was yes. I wanted her to get back to the way she was. She’ll get old too soon as it is. She gave up enough of her turn on the planet when she was a puppy. 

I wanted Roo to be Roo again, and as soon as she was, I let her fly.


Ticks Declare Intention to visit Switzerland

Roo and I were transiting northeastern Arkansas in an attempt to clear out of snake country when our windshield cracked in half. We camped and an installer came the next day to put a new one in. As soon as he had it in, he accidentally smashed the new one. Waiting for parts resulted in a six-day delay, which was put to use furthering this blog's chief goal: the science of analyzing highly specialized data, and the resultant warning: the most intense tick season ever recorded is here. If it hasn’t hit you yet, get ready. 

Take your pick of tick. We’ve got your tiny pinhead-sized nymphal ticks, medium-sized ticks and full-size adults. If you’re lucky you catch them when you feel their stubby little legs crawling on your skin. Usually you don't, though. They're too smart. They send some tick they don't mind losing ahead with instructions to tell your Golden retriever that there's a new kind of mouse under a culvert 15 miles south in Jonesboro and that if she breaks into a gallop now and doesn't let off, she could get there in a couple of hours and dig it up in another two. The ticks strike while you're trying to talk the dog out of it. They get on at the ankle and run the length of you before they plant their flag somewhere you can't see in a mirror. You wouldn't even know you had some of those places until a tick bit you there. 

Then, once you've found lots of ticks either crawling on you or buried in your skin in a short period, you start feeling like they're crawling all over you all the time. Ooo—like that! Feel that?! No. Wait. that wasn't a tick. That was just a dog hair... but THAT WAS! That was a tick! Ah, no. That was just my sleeve. 

My theory is that this accounts for the immense popularity enjoyed around here by the Mint Julep of the 21st Century: nine parts warm Bud Light with one part Copenhagen dip-spit backwash and an Oxycontin chaser and you won't feel a thing. You can get the first two down at the Kum 'n' Go and the rest from the guy in Adidas sandals, white tube socks and baggy plaid shorts who hangs out behind the dumpsters. If you ever make a movie about it, get Matthew McConaghey to play him.

The flea med Roo is on, Bravecto, has almost no effect on the Lone Star ticks who run this place. I've been finding at least 50 running wild on her per day with another dozen attached, in spite of an hour of careful brushing and de-ticking and then checking her constantly the rest of the time. Roo is quite put out by it. She considers this overtime. She already suffers from a severe load of chores, like standing there and having the mud hosed off her and having to be toweled dry and pleasantly brushed while she constantly keeps turning in whatever direction she thinks a squirrel may be in. If I were to comply with half the demands she makes for jerky and Milk Bones in return for her increased workload she would swell up like a bale of cotton floating in the ocean.

The ticks start their journey to me on board the SS Roo. The lazier ones don’t like hacking their way through her thick fur, so they in the lifeboats and wait for me to trigger the rogue wave that will set them free by brushing her and flicking them off the way paint splatters off a paintbrush on the side of the can, and they land on me in a wide spray and start acting like they’ve just escaped from a chain gang barracks and over the barbed wire into the open green pasture they've been taking turns looking at through a crack in the boards that the guards never plugged up. Their bushwhacking days are over. Every one of them heads north, as if they're sure Switzerland is up there. Think about it: have you ever felt a tick crawling down your leg?

Dealing with so many of them on such a concentrated basis, I’ve started to notice a few things about them. Their temperaments and attitudes vary and some of them are cuter than others. The majority of them mean no harm, while others were just born downright mean. I hope you don;t think less of me for believing in such a generalization, but I can't help it. Those bad apples make you appreciate the regular ticks more, the unassuming and polite ones, the ones who prefer that you don’t even know they’ve nudged their little nose into one of your pores and are macerating your skin layer by layer to sup on your blood and pump some ehrlichosis out of their gut as their way of saying thanks. If ticks share a common trait it would be the way they handle their poverty. They accept their lot in life. They make do. They don’t complain about they way things are or fantasize about how they’d like them to be. Okay, so some of them start to get to you—the ones who just want to be loved—but of course, it can never be. It’s better to maintain some professional distance, so usually I don’t even pin nicknames on them. Wiley or Scoot or Spot or Vlad, The Impaler.

l employ every precaution against ticks known to humanity, except the only one that would work: refusing to walk Roo. But then she would stare at me for hours on end in ways far deadlier than any tick attack. It would be worse than being chained onto a courtroom bench by bailiffs to face the family members of someone I might have killed in a senseless drive-by shooting so they could berate me and tell me how much I had robbed them of and how they couldn’t wait to savor the buzzing sounds I wold make and the way my head would start smoking when the screws turned on the juice to fry me in the electric chair. So, not walking Roo is out of the question. And nothing else works. There are too many ticks landing on you, in waves, the way Allied troops did on D-Day, or coming by air, the way neutrinos left over from the Big Bang continually wash over the Earth and pierce us by the trillions every billionth of every nanosecond. 

Even when you think you're in the clear and you’ve gotten them all picked off and Roo is washed and brushed and fed, you emerge from the shower and more ticks appear immediately. There are always five or six of them at a time, on the towel or clothes or crawling on your arm or trying to hide out of sight in your eyebrows. And those Lone Star ticks are aggressive sonsabitches. They keep an eye on you as if you’re the guy up in the tower running the searchlight on the walls. If they suspect you spotted them they start to run faster than a pack of tattooed rats and then start digging frantically the way Roo does when she believes she’s stumbled onto a lost civilization of subterranean mouses. Lone Star ticks that get dug in like that are nearly impossible to pull out because they have more backward-facing teeth than the average Confederate flag collector, let alone other ticks. Their most endearing quality is that they don't transmit Lyme disease. They've got every other disease known to tick, dog, cat, deer, horse, cow, mouse or man, but not Lyme.

If I wasn’t sure climate change is a hoax, I’d really start freaking out. But Dear Leader has comforted us all by setting us straight. Hell, I believed in the whole hoax before the President of the United States marshaled the resources of the federal government to shoot the whole wild idea right in its rabid head, right there on Fifth Avenue. Especially since he’s going to prove it by countermanding all regulations whose enforcement might trick everyone into believing that reducing carbon monoxide could possibly have any effect at all. Or exist, even. I mean, have you ever seen carbon monoxide? With your own eyes? Okay, then. Case closed. Why, you could hook a hose up to the exhaust pipe of your car and breathe it for a week and all it would do is clear your head. In fact, car exhaust is the way the planet makes oxygen naturally. And isn’t it a comfort knowing that if there really was such a thing as climate change, it would be at least 120 degrees in mid April instead of a cool 90, in which case you wouldn’t even have to put clothes on, because we’d all be wearing a suit of ticks? I’m hoping that Trump will cap his first brilliant 100 days of constant winning with an executive order to disburden Lone Star ticks of all the anti-Lyme disease regulations Obama and Pelosi and the rest of the Deep State used against them. It would be another masterstroke. Get those regulations out of the tick’s way, the Free Market will keep Lyme disease at bay, and that’s how we’ll know that whole thing was nothing but another hoax, too. I’ll be glad not to have to worry about it any more. Thanks, Obama. You should have let the ticks make an honest buck while you had the chance. But no. You had to be the Party of Nobama.

If you come down here to Arkansas, you might work up a brown lather of ticks, but you'll be disappointed in the snakes. There aren't even enough of them to weave a carpet. Not wall-to-wall, anyway. Sure, there are plenty of copperheads, but the Free Market has gotten rid of the cottonmouths here by letting everyone dry out the streams by diverting them to car washes and mortuaries, and thereby sending them all packing to Oklahoma and Louisiana, where the Free Market will douse them with crude and set on fire with the tinder left over from tearing the pine forests down. At the local pond here all you’ll see are plain-bellied watersnakes, who all look like they’re auditioning for cartoons. As soon as one of them sees Roo splashing in the water they stop swimming and freeze on the surface in mid-squiggle before they duck under and swim away, though not as fast as a tick. Harmless, though, unless you’re prone to coronaries and like to dangle a stinkfoot off the end of the dock when you're fishing for crappies.

We finally got our windshield fixed, though, so we’re free to leave tomorrow. Before we go, I have a request: if you happen to know any of the guys around here whose knowledge of history is limited to what they acquired at that highest form of American education—homeschool taught by dedicated meth heads—and who have embarked on their careers of driving around in pickup trucks with broken mufflers and festooned with both a Confederate flag and a United States flag, please inform them that, as it was the United States that ground the Stars and Bars into dirt by 1864 and spat it out in 1865, flying the two together is like featuring leprosy in a Bain de Soleil suntan oil ad. Or showcasing syphilis next to a bottle of penicillin.


On second thought, maybe don't put it that way. They’d just take syphilis every time. They proved that in the last election. Tell ‘em it’d be like serving Krispi Kremes on a horseshit platter. 

No… not that. Same problem. I don’t know what to tell them. How about, it's like crapping your pants and calling it a hole-in-one? Nope. Won't work, either. They'll just say it was Hillary.

I’m out of ideas. In fact, I'm fresh out of everything but one hell of a good dog. And  Wiley, Scoot, Spot and Vlad. 

Every one of them is staring at me. The big one is going to win.



Today, no matter where we turned, a snake awaited us. Five of them, no two alike. If you ever run out of places to view snakes, head straight to east Oklahoma. This one I stopped to get out of the road. I'm not sure what it is, but not venomous, by the look of that skinny head. Probably just some kind of racer. Of the many snakes that keep popping up, I'm pretty sure one was a cottonmouth. I didn't see his head, but he was too fat to be anything else. Those, and the huge selection of rattlers here, are the most dangerous. 

The strange thing is that I have no personal fear of snakes. I don't like handling them, but I have. And whenever we bump into one, other than the shock if it's a surprise, they don't frighten me. But the fear of Roo being bitten again more than makes up for it. Every minute of the day is about worrying about snakes. They poison me with worry about Roo. Especially here, where the population of them seems so high.  

I was hoping to stick around because it is difficult to work on a book when traveling in that camper. But it's clearly time to move on. I have an opportunity to see one of my oldest friends for a few days if we rendezvous in south Arkansas. Snakewise, it'll be just as bad. Alligatorwise, worse. Roo will just have to tolerate a few days on a leash. I didn't let her run around at all here today.  

When I tell her that the reason why she's not getting to run free is because of the snake, and I touch her arm where she was bitten, she makes a doleful expression. I'm sure she knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

We were going to leave tomorrow, but now there are severe thunderstorms, which created a scene with Roo. They'll end soon, thank God. The atmosphere of fear, these years of it, is not easy. And please, those of you who complain that with a fearful dog I have no right to take her where there are thunderstorms, all I can say is there is no such place in America. None. Not even in the desert, and those are crawling with vipers. So, spare me. 

I just received word about the two strays. Both tested negative for heartworm and are healthy. They're headed to Minnesota in a couple of days. How strangely things work out for some dogs. One minute they're running around an Oklahoma street, the next they're traveling cross country. Or one minute they're on death row in Los Angeles and the next they're swimming in a mountaintop lake. 

Roo would identify.  




Cited as possibly the greatest crime wave to befall Poteau, Oklahoma since Bonnie & Clyde (well, Clyde, anyway—Bonnie's leg was too rotted from burns and gangrene by then to come along), the two juvenile scofflaws discovered in an attempt to disrupt traffic last week have been successfully liberated from the captors threatening their lives.

Thanks to the generosity of so many of you, those two sweet strays I picked up last week have been spared the guillotine and are off to begin their new lives. I just received this message from 3 Girls Animal Rescue in Poteau, Oklahoma:

"We just pulled them out of the pound! They are both covered in some of the biggest ticks I've ever seen! We're headed to the vet to get heartworm tests and rabies and then we'll get the ticks off of them. Thanks so much for making sure that they are saved."

Those thanks go to all of you who donated to 3 Girls Animal Rescue for the bail. That rescue is doing an enormous amount of daunting work around here, and your money will be well spent. Even better news is that you donated something over $440 (I don’t know the exact amount because some of you may have sent donations directly to 3 Girls that I don’t know about). Hopefully those two haven’t got heartworm, which God seems to have put on Earth to torture dogs AND make rescues go broke, but if they do, at least there will be a head start on their treatment.

But let’s not worry about that—they’re out of jail on sentences they never deserved, for just trying to do what dogs do: relentlessly trying to make the world a better place for all. Which, as anyone knows who tries that, is generally considered revolutionary by half the population.  These two, at least, will be able to shed their disguises (they probably covered themselves in ticks the way I might wear a fake mustache into a bank), and retire from the front lines to be healthy and start their journey to the kind of homes they, and all dogs, deserve.

Over the weekend, I found myself a bit conflicted about their rescue.

On the one hand, they were healthy and groomed. On the other, they were running in traffic without collars (fat chance that they had chips), the little one looked like she had been pregnant, and they weren't claimed immediately. Who lets their loved dogs languish in a pound? Strikes against previous owners.

But, and admittedly this is pure speculation, but if true would make it a bit of a tragedy,  they might have belonged to one of the many migrant families working the farms and ranches around here, and they could have been scared to be deported if they contacted the police. That would be sad for the dogs, because someone did love them, even if they didn't take proper care of them. In Mexico, as Roo will tell you, no self-respecting dog doesn’t spend much of the day lying around in the street. When Roo visited Mexico, she considered that a civilized and proper thing that she herself joined the other dogs on her street to do frequently. To this day, she likes to do it, though her street-lounging options are limited in America. So, we are not too quick to judge just because not every custom doesn’t travel well.

But, then again, if the border collie’s limping was something that needs medical care...

Then again, again, sometimes dogs manage escapes, no matter how much security they’re under. I know some people are absolute in their belief that anyone who ever allows a dog to get out doesn't deserve a dog, but I don't believe that's true when someone has tried in earnest and a dog is determined to defeat every measure. Dogs are smart, and a dedicated dog not only enjoys confounding authority, they are also capable of going to great lengths to do it. I had a dog who shut down Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. He got out of his crate in the belly of the 747 we landed in and when they opened the cargo door, he jumped the 18 feet to the ground and started running around on the runway, enjoying the cool evening and open spaces. Flights had to be diverted for half an hour before half a dozen police vehicles with bubblegum lights finally caught him. 

When they did, the German authorities provided him with a dinner of fresh raw steak, eggs, and all sorts of toys. Naturally, you use soft methods first when you want to get someone to speak. I’m sure he was ready to spill the beans, but luckily I got him before he opened his mouth. Later, I learned how he did it. He was able to escape from a standard airline crate by placing his rear legs on the back wall, stretching himself out like a rubber band and pressing his nose on the steel door until he got it open an inch. Then, with the sharp steel pinching his nose, he just kept twisting his head and pushing until he made it through. He had the capacity to squish himself like a rat. Nothing could hold him. And, eventually, nothing did, but that's a sad story and not one I like to think about, have ever discussed and maybe never will. 

But it did teach me not to be too absolute about any beliefs that all dogs can always be contained. Most of them don't watch the Weather Channel or documentaries about Mongolian funerals, like Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Your usual suspect dog tends to be an aficionado of The Great Escape, and there are dogs who have seen it one too many times. It gives them ideas. And a dog with that kind of idea tries to break out of the cooler on principle alone. You can't really blame them for trying. Most dogs are terrific believers in themselves. It’s natural for them to think that anything Steve McQueen could do, they can do better. This is why you must never give a dog the keys to your motorcycle. Teach them to fly, if you must (as I have, and for which I received a lot of criticism, though most of it was for starting the dog too young), but never let a dog ride a motorcycle unsupervised, no matter how good they are at it. 

Anyway, enough digressing. These strays have been saved. And even if someone lost them, they’re off to good lives. 3 Girls has earned a great reputation for seeing to that.

HUGE thanks to Carol Levin, Tammy Laub, Debra Young, Mary Vineyard, Nina Keneally, Cristina Liriano, Sherri Cleek, Susan Greer, and anyone else who donated. Even if I don’t know who you are, I love you for it.

[I think I got them all, but if you sent a PayPal donation to me and I somehow neglected to send you the receipt for passing it on to 3 Girls, please let me know and I'll send it to you. But I forwarded all the PayPal donations as soon as I was notified, so don't worry-all of them have gone to 3 Girls.]

NOTE ON THE PATREON CAMPAIGN: Please remember that you can always go to the Patreon page and edit your campaign pledges downwards. Though the day will never come when I post here daily, assume that if I do, you won't get a bill for more than you wanted to spend. At Patreon, you can limit the monthly amount of your pledge down to as little as a buck per month. If this is something that any of you meant to do, or found yourselves being billed more than you wanted to be, just let me know how much to refund you, and it shall be done gladly. And thanks again!]

Today's Strays: More dog trouble, and it could be bad this time

If I knew then what I learned later in the day, I might not have caught these two dogs. I didn't realize I was placing them in danger of their lives.

My theory is that dogs are bad with traffic because they’re wired to get out of the way at the last second and they expect other creatures to do the same thing. You know how a dogs will run straight at you and not turn until they’re about to collide. These two were in the middle of the busiest street of this Oklahoma town. About half the cars didn’t even bother to slow down. So many people just couldn’t give a damn if they hit a dog. One of the dogs, the border collie, was limping. His left foreleg was injured. He was agitated and wary. While I pulled off, they made it to the other side of the street and headed for a yard where old garage trucks are parked. They were traveling together. They probably came out of the same yard. Neither had a collar, but they were both similarly healthy. 

For the first time ever in this town, an the first time in at least six months, I had just bought a couple of burgers. One for me, and one for Roo. Good thing, because that became the bait to catch the dogs. That, and some of Roo’s jerky and biscuits. I turned into the dirt yard where they were, and Roo had to wait. I knew taking her burger was going to be a major insult, so I broke a third of it off and gave it to her before I got out and left her in the car with the air conditioner running. Good thing, too, because it would take about an hour and a half.

Neither of them were willing to come to me at first and both of them took off. The little one, though, who looks like a Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, was less of a problem. She turned at a whistle and was interested as soon as she saw me holding something up for her to see. When I threw the piece of Roo’s burger in her direction, she stopped and wagged. She was quite a waggy little girl. Somehow the border collie noticed that she was eating and stopped running and stayed put to see what was going on. He was so skittish, though, that just tossing a piece of the burger in his direction made him bolt, even though with my debilitated shoulder I could only toss it about ten of the fifty feet between us. He acted like the dogs in the Third World countries who, I learned long ago, you could get to back off when they were getting aggressive by pretending to pick up a stone, because they are used to getting pelted. I backed off in the direction I wanted him to come—away from the road—and eventually lured him in with more pieces.

I had taken the couple of leashes I had in the car and got one of them on the little one pretty easily. The border collie, though, was a tough customer. He would come closer to eat, but any sign of the leash made him skitter. He understood leashes and he didn’t want anything to do with them. That dog had eyes like a wolf’s and seemed to be one of the shrewdest dogs I’d ever met. He was filled with a general suspicion of the world and though he wasn’t old, he understood that in the world, it was humans you had to be suspicious of.

With the little one tied to a dead tree, I concentrated on him. Even though after a while he got comfortable enough to take food from my hand, and I held the leash in the hand to get him used to it, he knew, and he was opposed to any hint of it going around his neck.He was going to have to soon, though, because even I was about to run out of food. They had gone through the remaining five or six pieces of jerky and I was down to breaking the biscuits into crumbs. The burger was the most appetizing, so I kept as much as that for as long as possible.

Finally, what with his injury and the heat, he lay down in the shade. Inch by inch I got closer, and after lots of getting up and running 20 feet away, he finally gave up and took the last piece of burger and let me put the looped leash around his neck.

You never saw a dog so disappointed in someone. He had let his guard down for a few seconds and now he was tied. Now he wasn’t just suspicious, he had had his suspicions rewarded. He didn’t think much of me. I tried to make friends with him. 

Here’s the problem. In this small town, there’s a Humane Society. I had spoken with them another time when I was trying to catch another dog, and I had no idea that they weren’t the only dog operation in town. They don’t kill over there, and why with these dogs seeming to be in good shape, they just needed to get somewhere safe so their owners could find them. When I called the Humane Society I got their voicemail, and on it they said to call Animal Control. That resulted in four calls from me to the dispatcher at the police department. Finally, they got around to sending the animal control officer over.

He arrived in a pickup with a steel cage in back. The officer clearly liked dogs a lot. He tried picking the little one up, but she was frightened and nipped at him. He scooped the border collie up, probably surprising him, and without any difficulty put him in the cage. I picked the little one up. She was shaking when I put her in, and the officer thanked me and left.

Later, I was walking Roo when the phone rang. It was the woman from the Humane Society. She told me that Animal Control had their own pound and that that’s where the dogs would go. She said the police would hold them for five days, and then, “They’ll take then to the vet.”

Oh, no. 

“They don’t gas them here, though,” she said, “So at least there’s that.”

So, since then, I’ve been trying without success to get animal control on the phone. There’s a local rescue here, and the woman from the HS told me that if the dogs weren’t claimed by the time their five days ran out, they would take them if they had room.

So, that’s where it stands. The idea of taking the dogs off the street only to get them killed has become a preoccupation, but I haven’t even been able to find out if the dogs have been claimed. I’ve left messages but no one calls back. The best hope is that someone came home from work and found their dogs missing and did something about it. But maybe they didn’t. That border collie might have had a good basis for his suspicions. If no one claims them and the rescue doesn’t have space, I’m going to have to figure something else out. Maybe pay the rescue. Please: do not start telling me to take the dogs. Roo and I liven a space that has 20 square feet of open space and apart from that I can not take care of more dogs. If I have to spring them, I will, but I can’t keep them. 

That’s the news from east Oklahoma. Dog trouble.

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In which my pilot Tony calls my Jimmy Breslin story and raises me a Cary Grant

Tony shows up for work.

Tony shows up for work.

One of the many problems with operating a biplane ride business is that almost no one is qualified to fly the old crates, making it hard to find pilots. The type we flew at Black & White Biplane was a WACO YMF-5. Ninety percent of them have crashed because of pilots losing control. The crashes are almost always on landing. The one we flew—99 Yankee—had three accidents before I bought it and rebuilt it. First it was flipped onto its back on a screecher of a landing. Then it was taxiied at high speed into a pickup truck. After that it went swimming in the Atlantic when someone lost control of it while looking at dolphins and hit the water upside down. The plane had a nice, quiet career at Black & White Biplane, where it flew hundreds of passengers over Los Angeles by day and had me wrench on it by night. It didn't suffer another crash until I sold it to its next owner, who totaled it. It now exists only on the old web site for Black & White, the old web site for which I leave online for sentimental reasons.

So it was hard to find pilots who can not only fly them, but fly them to a high commercial standard. Safety of course came first, sort of (after all, it was a 60-year-old engine bolted onto a wood-and-fabric 1935 design), but a pilot had to be much better than just not liable to turn the thing into a pile of matchsticks. A professional had to operate smoothly while assessing how much of a thrill the passengers could tolerate and then maneuver as little, or as much, as they might enjoy. No loss of control, not so much as a bump, was tolerable: the requirement, the ethic, called for a greased-on landing every time. The ethic was key: passengers were trusting us with their lives, often on important occasions, two of them sitting together in the front cockpit on dates, anniversaries, birthdays or even marriage proposals.

When I needed another pilot, it was a lucky thing that my pal Tony, could fly the old bus just fine and had a commercial license. Tony wrote the article linked below, which my post about meeting the iconic reporter Jimmy Breslin when I was a kid reminded me of. But, before you read that, let me share something that happened at least half a dozen times in the hangar at Black & White.

Tony would return from a flight and taxi back up to the hangar. The eight-foot wide wooden propeller would flutter to a stop, shaking the plane from side to side a couple of times, and the passengers were always, without exception, exhilarated. They had just had a thrilling and unique experience. They would be happy. Tony would help them unstrap their buckles and help them out of the cockpit and down from the wing, and they would come into the hangar and gush about what a great ride they had. Some passengers would pass you a tip—usually 20 bucks, sometimes $50, though the first one I ever flew gave me an extra C-note and said it was the best money he ever spent. 

The first time anyone tipped Tony, he politely turned it down. I had to put an end to that. A tip wasn't about the pilot, it was about the passenger. Turning it down was a personal rebuff. From then on, Tony accepted the tips. He created a kitty in a coffee can. I believe I was the only beneficiary of those.

So, one day, a guy and his date got out of the plane. Like all passengers, they were flushed from the excitement of their 45 minutes squeezed together in the front cockpit (the pilot sat alone in a separate rear cockpit) right behind an engine radiating heat on a thrill ride around skyscrapers, then buzzing the Hollywood Sign close enough to see the carpentry of the scaffolding, through a mountain ravine and then a power-off descent straight down to the deck for a run ten feet over the Pacific at Malibu before a steep climbing turn to Venice Beach and back for the landing at Santa Monica. It was a hell of a ride for them, fun for us to fly, and the fact that it made our customers so happy was rewarding.

After I ran the guy's credit card at my desk at the back of the hangar, he went over to slip Tony a folded bill in the traditional handshake maneuver. Then he went to put an arm around his girlfriend, who was admiring a huge movie poster on the wall. It was for the World War One epic Flyboys. In the poster, tjhe star of the movie, James Franco, was wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles.

The woman said, "Oh, Flyboys! I LOVED that movie! And now we've flown in an airplane just like those." That made the memory of this day even better, and they snuggled a little.

"No kidding," I said. "Dja hear that, Tony? Loved Flyboys." And then to them: "The guy you just flew with? He directed it."

Naturally, that sounded a little odd. The looks on people's faces when that happened was always like, "Hunh?" I'd point at the credits on the poster and say, "Here. Tony Bill. That's your pilot."

And, in a sign of how much they had enjoyed their ride, no one ever looked like they wanted their tip back. 

Only in Hollywood.

Click here to read Tony's story. It's a good one.

This was a commercial for the company. I know it doesn't quite look like all the of $100 spent making it was put to good use.






PHOTOS: Chicken Creek, Utah, last spring

This alarming-looking but harmless snake was particularly well-mannered, as every creature, human or otherwise, I ever met in Utah was. I nonetheless still recommend not inviting one into your sleeping bag unless you have exhausted every alternative to get rid of mouses.

This alarming-looking but harmless snake was particularly well-mannered, as every creature, human or otherwise, I ever met in Utah was. I nonetheless still recommend not inviting one into your sleeping bag unless you have exhausted every alternative to get rid of mouses.

One of the most secluded and prettiest camps we ever found was in the Manti La Sal National Forest. If any of you ever need recommendations for really off-the-beaten path places to camp, let me know. In the American West, if you're willing to brave some roads like the one below, there are tons of places like this to camp. The harder the road, the better the camp. We never saw another person at Chicken Creek for four days.


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Tracks like this usually have signs at the beginning warning drivers not to attempt them with trailers. I never saw one I didn't ignore, though I would have if an idiot of my caliber happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.

Tracks like this usually have signs at the beginning warning drivers not to attempt them with trailers. I never saw one I didn't ignore, though I would have if an idiot of my caliber happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.

Roo demonstrating her savant's capacity to pre-locate and mentally catalogue every mouse within 1000 meters, making for more efficient disposal later.

Roo demonstrating her savant's capacity to pre-locate and mentally catalogue every mouse within 1000 meters, making for more efficient disposal later.

If you can ID this for me, please do. 

If you can ID this for me, please do. 

This is the way any retriever worth her salt navigates treacherous waterways. As you can clearly see, Roo was flailing wildly in the torrent as she came under a brutal pirhaña attack. 

This is the way any retriever worth her salt navigates treacherous waterways. As you can clearly see, Roo was flailing wildly in the torrent as she came under a brutal pirhaña attack. 

Just outside the frame is a small-sized dinosaur, no more than 7-800 pounds. She was camera shy, so you'll have to take my word for it. It took almost no time at all to train her to peck bread crumbs off the ground like a pigeon. And, yes, dinosaurs turn out to have lovely, multicolored feathers.

Just outside the frame is a small-sized dinosaur, no more than 7-800 pounds. She was camera shy, so you'll have to take my word for it. It took almost no time at all to train her to peck bread crumbs off the ground like a pigeon. And, yes, dinosaurs turn out to have lovely, multicolored feathers.

The curse of remote areas is that there isn't much to do, so people tend to develop odd hobbies. Bulldozer and grader whittling is a popular pastime taught to small children because of the whimsical results you can expect from them.

The curse of remote areas is that there isn't much to do, so people tend to develop odd hobbies. Bulldozer and grader whittling is a popular pastime taught to small children because of the whimsical results you can expect from them.

As soon as you get out of Utah, manners fall apart and revert to their usual American standards. This example is somewhere north of Chicken Creek and serves as a reminder to screen bears carefully before inviting them to camp with you. 

As soon as you get out of Utah, manners fall apart and revert to their usual American standards. This example is somewhere north of Chicken Creek and serves as a reminder to screen bears carefully before inviting them to camp with you. 

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