I recently learned that an old acquaintance died — was killed, in fact. No, tortured to death, actually.
It was a threatened desert tortoise I knew in Yucca Valley, Calif., near Joshua Tree National Park. Its home was the scrub and rocks near a former neighbor’s rural home, and it would trek to her doorway every spring to search for water and lettuce handouts.
My first year there, the neighbor called to say her visitor was back, and I went down for a look. I was stunned by the grandeur of its ponderous movements. Every step suggested determination, and the leathery swing of its beaked head hinted at ancient knowledge.
This spring, the tortoise was met on its return by a pack of loose dogs. The neighbor was out of town. When she returned, she found her yearly visitor an upended shell, its limbs torn from body cavities by marauding mutts.
The dogs were drawn to her house in search of her own dog, one of their running companions. Like a lot of rural residents, my old neighbors let their dogs run loose. And why not? It is a neighborhood of large parcels and dirt roads, without fences or traffic.
But loose dogs are among the plagues that follow our sprawl into rural places, and fragile habitats cannot withstand them.
Domestic dogs become blithering idiots when allowed to run loose. Transplanted to a rural area, the family dog is on the lam from years of backyard confinement. It drinks in the wild landscape like a deckhand on shore leave. Too many dog owners think their subsidized predator is cute. But the threat is so great that the Desert Managers Group, a panel of government officials in the Mojave, is studying the feral dog problem.
I took some pictures of the tortoise I met that day, and now they haunt me. The hard truth is that my own dog, Molly, might have been among the killers.
Molly was a stray. My wife and I took her in after seeing her running loose in the area for weeks, wild-eyed and half starved. She may have been abandoned. It’s also possible she was born to a feral pack. Much of her behavior is not dog-like.
She bucked like a wild bronco the first few times we leashed her. And she was utterly unaccustomed to verbal commands, relying more on body language than most dogs. She only became house-trained, for instance, after I began an evening routine of demonstrating the correct habits myself, out in the gravel driveway under the stars.
Molly was content to stay near home those first months of her domestication. Then she began to spend more time running with our neighbors’ dogs. She’d be gone for hours, sometimes all day. Finally, we faced a choice: Do we let the wanderlust prevail, or do we force her to stay home?
We chose the latter, and Molly basically stayed indoors unless we were outside, watching. Even so, she would often slip away if I was distracted while patching the roof or digging a hole. The pull of the pack was strong.
Wildlife killing by dogs is especially tragic, because it’s not a biological mystery. It’s not even a reasonable predator-prey relationship. The cause is carelessness. Many dog owners think Fido is just off "having fun with friends" when they let their pet roam loose.
On the urban edge, it turns out, dogs may do more harm to tortoises than coyotes and foxes, according to Kristin Berry, a tortoise expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. In some areas, tortoise numbers have plunged to just 10 percent of their size in the early 1990s.
"One of our hypotheses is that dogs inflict more damage to the shell and limbs of tortoises than wild canids because they are involved in play and chewing rather than in eating," Berry recently told the L.A. Daily News. "In contrast, the wild canids are interested in the tortoise for food and will kill it and eat it rather than chew on it and then leave it."
We now live in the city, and, I confess, we let Molly chase tree squirrels during our walks along the river. I figure that’s OK, because Molly is now under voice control, and she can’t climb trees. The squirrels stay just out of reach, flicking their tails, taunting her.
That’s a relationship we can live with.