A dog comes face to face with the Wild West

 

This June, I attended my first snake class. It was not a tutorial on snake charming, but rather a training session designed to teach dogs to avoid rattlesnakes.

Classes like this take place in many Western states where rattlesnakes slither – from California to Idaho to the Front Range of Colorado, where I live. My dog and I were candidates for such a class because Uinta, our big German shepherd mix – the jury is out on whether she's part husky or wolf – likes to investigate anything that moves, especially if it's on the ground.

Last summer, a rattler worked its way down South Table Mountain, which backs up to our yard in Golden, and bit Uinta multiple times on the snout. One look at her sorrowful caramel-colored eyes, and my longtime stance on limiting the amount of money I thought we should spend on our pets changed as quickly as Uinta's neck swelled. Anti-venom injections, a three-day hospital stay and thousands of dollars later, Uinta returned home in one piece.

The reality of owning dogs out West had finally sunk in for this former cat owner and native of Washington, D.C. But I had to admit that this was not Uinta's first time at the wildlife rodeo. From batting paws at a cougar to taking down an apparently rabid deer to defending our home when a bear tried to raid the kitchen, she's no stranger to the local wildlife.

This may be because the West enjoys wide-open spaces and relatively few people. With the exception of California, all the states in our region settle into the bottom 50-percent of states ranked by population density.

If you live in the rural areas or mountain towns that dominate much of the West, your dog-walking trails, like ours, are likely to border public land containing mountains, canyons and forests. We live in semi-wild country, where open space meshes with our yards, and where feral, as well as wild, animals roam alongside our domesticated pets. So our dogs don't trot around in embroidered sweaters and booties; instead, they display the marks of old battles -- scars and ripped ears from predatory run-ins with other creatures.

My first lesson in this fact of life came several summers ago, when I housesat a condo in Mt. Crested Butte, Colorado, with two black Labs and a cat named Kitty. Casey, then my boyfriend and now my husband, often stayed over, bringing Uinta to play with the Labs -- grumpy old Holden and energetic Piper. The Labs, I'd been warned, should not be let out to roam together or they'd get into trouble -- namely by messing with the porcupines that called the surrounding hillsides home. Several times in the past, the dogs had escaped only to return with quill-decorated faces.

Sure enough, they ran off together under my watch. We'd tied up Holden in the back yard, but he soon managed to chew through the climbing rope, determined to join Piper in her porcupine-seeking quest. When we found the dogs several hours later, Holden looked like the victim of an acupuncturist gone mad; surgery was in order. On another occasion, Uinta and Holden disappeared for no more than 15 minutes, yet Uinta returned with 10 or so quills pocking her face.

Later that summer, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of pots clanging and dishes breaking. When I saw Uinta pawing and barking at our closed bedroom door, I finally realized what I'd been hearing: A black bear was preparing a little midnight snack in our kitchen. We called animal control, and luckily, only a few warning shots were necessary before the bear decided to exit through the window it had broken to enter, leaving behind broken dishes, scattered Cheez-Its, and a half-drunk can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Good guarding, Uinta.

Uinta has been helpful in other ways, too. On a run one winter's night, when I heard a mountain lion yowl, she helped me stay calm as she trotted by my side. Then there was the embarrassing time she tackled a sickly deer in the parking lot of the nearby Coors Brewery, as dozens of tourists looked on in horror. I'm sure there are many late-night encounters with wildlife that we'll never know about — and it's probably just as well.

Is it risky owning pets in the Wild West, where adventures like this can be commonplace? And does it get expensive when those risks become realities? Yes. But I'd rather Uinta and her canine colleagues continue to explore the wild that their ancestors once inhabited, long before we tamed them.

Maya Silver is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is an editor at DiningOut magazines and the author of "My Parent Has Cancer And It Really Sucks." She lives in Golden, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....