Raising Bella in springtime


Spring can be a time of quirky deception in the Rocky Mountains. All manner of creatures are born into this seasonal maelstrom, where soothing sunshine one moment can give way almost instantaneously to a howling snow squall.

I pity the frail calves and lambs born wet on the High Plains. They trudge dutifully behind their mothers in all manner of mucky weather, perhaps all too acutely aware that a belly full of milk is all that stands between them and the ever-opportunistic coyotes. I had filled the bird feeders outside my back door out of concern for the house finches and juncos foraging in the recent snow. But stepping out to check on the feeders, I surprised a cooper's hawk neatly camouflaged among the branches of a mountain mahogany. It would seem that my intent merely to feed the birds had a deeper, graver implication than I had imagined, especially if I was enabling one species to snatch and eat another.

The world can seem cruel or harsh in this respect, and a long winter can engender a kind of desperation — not just to feed oneself, but to feed the soul as well. I suppose this is why many people flee mountain towns and cities for tropical destinations — skin cancer from too much sun, airline congestion, bed bugs, pickpockets and gastroenteritis bedamned. But I wouldn't miss a Western spring for the world, from the first flowers struggling up through the cold ground to these first warm days. Then, there's the lilting, liquid song of the meadowlark, harbingers of longer and milder days to come.

This last autumn, my old dog Blue finally succumbed to an aggressive tumor. He just seemed to melt away, ravaged by the disease at the end. We buried him in a corner of the property just before Thanksgiving.

I endured winter without my dog, and when the wind came up to scour the earth away from the tufts of needlegrass and blue grama, Blue7;s red sandstone marker tilted crazily in the incessant gusts. Come vernal equinox, I had had enough, and I began to hunt through those free papers filled with ads that you find at grocery and hardware stores. When I saw the ad for heeler puppies, I was over at that ranch within an hour, but only when I returned the following day with Susanne and the kids could we collectively reach a decision.

My new dog, Bella, came home smelling of grass hay and afterbirth, and only after we'd bathed her could we see what a true beauty she was, with her pugilist's black-eye ring, the heart-shaped, motor-oil-colored stain on her rump, her luxuriously plush coat the color of desert sand.

At eight weeks old, Bella shares few human concerns, busying herself with terrorizing her new human pack-mates, savaging an old shearling wool slipper, and grabbing the odd bite of puppy chow before napping for hours.

With each awakening, her world is new and fresh. A panoply of sights, sounds, textures, smells, intriguing toys and ready playmates appear as if by magic before her spotted muzzle. She is a small, yet potent herald of spring, new life sprung from the chasm of winter. I revel in her detachment from the cares of the world; I like seeing in her the essence of spring.

Another bleak, wind-scoured day of early spring, and from a small, battered radio in the kitchen early in the morning, an announcer intones endlessly about the war in Iraq, the spiraling price of a barrel of crude, climate change. Just then, a small tawny pup parades by, dapper in her fur "onesy," holding proudly aloft in her small jaws a set of underpants pilfered from the laundry pile. I fall about the place laughing.

Rob Cordery-Cotter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a veterinarian in LaPorte, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.