Feral dogs are more common in the rural West than bathtub methamphetamine labs or chainsaw carvers. They roam dumps, harass and attack wildlife and livestock, and, I know from painful experience, they lie in wait on two-lane roads to discipline bicyclists.
“Rez” dogs may be famous for scavenging in roadside ditches outside Tuba City, Ariz., and Gallup, N.M., but chances are, if you’re living anyplace in the rural West — and that means not in a resort town — you’re going to meet a feral dog.
This leads me to suggest the feral dog as the region’s mascot. Sure, there are those who will protest; they’ll say wolves or bears or wild horses stand for the wide-open spaces of the American West. Thing is, there aren’t that many wide-open spaces left. Feral dogs, on the other hand, can be found in every corner of the region. They also better represent the sort of freedom -— libertarian, hardscrabble, pathologically independent, persevering and often ugly — that we embrace here in the rural West.
Take the pack of feral pups that gained semi-celebrity status in our spread-out county in western Colorado. Someone must have been unable to care for a couple of border collies, so the dogs were abandoned. Perhaps they were just left to fend for themselves, or they were dumped at the end of a gravel road at one of those places where people drop off old televisions, and where teenagers pass the time by holding kegger parties and shooting at road signs.Eventually, the collie couple took shelter in a line of rusty cars sinking into the dirt. There, they bred without restraint, and by last fall the pack’s numbers had grown to some two-dozen animals scraping out a bleak existence. They ate roadkill and chased speeding cars down the highway, occasionally getting caught and crushed beneath the tires.
This was made possible, in part, because here in Delta County we don’t have a tax-supported animal shelter; in fact, we lack a lot that government normally provides. As is the case in much of the West, the loudest among us don’t want elected officials messing with our guns, our private lives, our homes, or even our neglected pets. Zoning is the “Z” word, and we can pretty much do whatever we want with our property. That means you can build some kind of ultra-efficient hippie home with composting toilets, or stack a few trailers on top of one another and call it a modular mansion. It’s fine until someone opens a hog farm or a gravel pit next door.
In the West, we’ve been so successful in keeping the government at bay that we’ve begun to look as ragged around the edges as a feral dog. Studies show we are less likely to have health insurance than anyone else in the nation, and adequate medical facilities are few and far between. Spending on public education is pathetic in this region, lagging far behind other states. Mental-health care is under-funded, and adequate care can be a day’s drive away, though many of us would probably rather be left alone anyway, to self-medicate. There are more substance-abusers in the West who need treatment, but don’t get it, than anywhere else in the country.
When you stop and think about it, we’ve a lot in common with feral dogs. Perhaps equity refugees living in half-million dollar homes in the region’s resort towns can’t relate; for them, a well-groomed golden retriever that accompanies them on the morning run is a more appropriate mascot. But in the other West, the often-forgotten West — the underbelly where the housekeepers, dishwashers and other workers live — there’s the feral dog, the little pit-bull mongrel that can pierce a $100 running shoe and rip through an Achilles’ tendon in under a second.
In my county, the border-collie brood was finally gathered up by a volunteer animal rescue organization, which then spread the word that some 24 bred-to-herd, highly intelligent border collies needed homes. It didn’t take long for people from all over the country to swoop in and adopt all of the pups. Even semi-wild canines, it seems, can reverse their fate.
What that symbolizes, I can’t say. But as a feral Westerner myself, I’d be happy to sit around and talk about it. You bring your guns. I’ll bring the beer. We’ll go down to the end of the road and shoot up some signs or something.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the paper’s associate editor.