Quick End for Beloved Belle

Since many of us count animals as companions and friends, and since many of us have dogs, please Dear Reader, allow me to remember Belle and recount how she died this week.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

You may recall her in another piece here. The Basset hound mutt with a yard-long body and short legs even made it into A Rider’s Reader. Notable as an independent spirit, Belle was her own dog.

On New Year’s Eve, as the day was fading into evening, Belle joined the rest of us on a walk down the road. The road is gravel, four miles long, and follows a north-south canyon with steep ridges on each side. Only eight homes have full time residents. It’s quiet, beautiful, and bordered by undeveloped public and private lands.

When we turned for home, it didn’t surprise or bother me that Belle wasn’t with us. She has a history of civil disobedience and I have loved her through gritted teeth. After all, she’s a hound and her nose demands far more attention than my calls ever did. In her 12-year old form, she’d also become a dawdler. She’d come home in due course. She’d stand at the door, give me that high-toned woof, and be let in. It happened every day, several times a day.

After an hour, though, we grew concerned. With my son, Cormick (home on college break), and dogs, I headed back out, into the dark and snow. We retraced our steps and took long detours into the juniper and scrub oak, using headlamps and calling her name. We followed the dogs as they picked up scents and dropped them. We listened.

Belle as a younger dog

Over the last week, Belle had been rejuvenated by short-but-sweet visits from my three sons. She loved them and they loved her. Aside from me, she was the only being who’d journeyed these 12 years with them. They shared histories of porcupine and skunk run-ins, humid Maine summers by the ocean, long wilderness treks, and long cross-country road trips. While less than obedient in the field, Belle was an in-house ham. She would sit, stay, lie down, and roll over, often in rapid succession. She would bark loudly or “air bark” depending on the request.

When I’d last seen her, she was bounding like a puppy, big ears flapping. She’d caught a scent and was following it with obvious glee.

As the calendar turned from last year to this year, I tromped through brush and snow with a fading headlamp.

Could she have fallen into a drainage?

Could she have tussled with coyotes?

I checked the shallow ravines and watched for any sign of struggle. (Productively following her tracks was nearly impossible with our other dogs in the mix.) We searched by truck, too, covering the length of the road with high beams, stopping to call and to listen.

In the morning, I got horseback and rode the fields, checking streams and peering into the timber for any signs. The challenge of searching miles of snow-patched ground for a snow-and-dirt colored dog struck hard. I started thinking about closure, the need to know, and how I might never know.

In the early afternoon, I headed out again. The falling snow made it too wet for a saddle, so I fitted Shea with a towel and bareback pad. Checking drainages, ditches, and scrub oak crannies, we worked our way up the ridge from where I’d last seen her.

The search had become something of a mind game. In the face of needle-in-haystack odds, methodologies of reason and intuition blend like chocolate syrup and milk. Doubt and determination ebb and flow.

The dogs, horse, and I continued to climb. Four years ago, a wildfire moved through the canyon. Scads of standing, charred trees remain. My white chinks streaked black.

We paused along the side of the ridge and I looked south across miles of country. Had the dogs not gathered to inspect, I might have missed her body, perfectly inconspicuous 15 feet down the hill. Belle looked asleep and almost unharmed save some blood on her side and her head.

Had she been shot?

Did she hurt herself and then die of exposure?

I took the towel from Shea’s back, wrapped her in it, and with Cormick’s help, carried her home, placed her in the bed of the truck, and studied her body. I called some ranching friends. Belle had rough puncture wounds above one eye and under her jaw. It appeared that her neck had been broken.

From all indications, I learned, this was a mountain lion kill. It had been quick and not motivated by hunger but more likely by aggravation. Belle pursued it and the cat had disposed of her. The image at right was taken by my friend a few miles away, earlier this year.

I’ve trained my dogs not to chase game, especially in the winter. They often wear electronic collars so if necessary they can be reminded with a tone or vibration that they must not bother the wildlife. Belle, I’d figured, didn’t need a collar. She’d grown too old and slow to be a threat. Most recently, she seemed to enjoy watching her buddies do all the running and playing.

A mountain lion after a deer kill, a mile from our home. photo by Cecil Thurman

I don’t harbor any ill will towards the cat. (Though that might change if it gets a taste for domestic dog.) It was doing what cats do. Belle was being Belle. Living here requires a balance of considerations: respectful coexistence whenever possible. Mostly, I think us humans get it wrong. William Kittredge wrote about land ownership and stewardship as he reflected on the unwitting havoc his family wreaked on thousands of acres in southern Oregon. His people never owned the land “not in any significant way,” he wrote in Hole in the Sky: A Memoir. We’re all just passing through.

It took a while to dig through the frozen ground and shovel deep enough to discourage coyotes from rooting out her body. We buried her on a knoll above the house, under a tree. It was a spot Belle often chose to survey the neighborhood. I think the old explorer might have approved.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

Posted in Dogs and Horses, Reflections and tagged , .

14 Comments

  1. Ahhh, I’m so sorry for your loss Maddy. Our animals do become such an integral part of our families, homes, and even our souls. The beautiful and unique memories you all have of Belle will hold tears for awhile, but at some point those same memories will make you smile. Thank you for sharing some of these memories with your friends and fellow readers.

  2. Hi Maddy, I am sorry to hear of your loss, but I do believe that she went as she wished. I am glad you found her and were able receive closure. That is a gift in itself. I do honor the belief that we are stewards of creation so thanks for sharing the quote as well.

    All the best to you and the family during this time and the new year.

  3. Maddy & family,
    Losing a family member is never easy. Your loss brings tears of sadness but your story is a wonderful tribute to her. You’ve done her proud.💓

  4. Oh Maddy, I am so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you found her body and were able to bring her home for a proper burial. I’m with you, can’t blame the cat for being a cat, but it does not decrease the heartache of losing your beloved Belle. Please know I am thinking of you and sending hugs. It was brave of you to share your feelings. I appreciate it.

  5. Hi Maddy, I’m sorry to hear about your dog! Living in tame New England, I didn’t guess that a mountain lion would explain her absence. We have a dog now, my first since living at home with my parents. I love dogs, but didn’t want to own one. My daughter, Celeste (age 10), was desperate for a pet so we went to the shelter and brought home a beautiful, fluffy, black, adult schipperke named Koda. Now I see how dogs become members of the family. Love to you as you go on without beautiful Belle.

  6. Hi Maddy
    I had a dog you was very similar to Belle, in shape to! We called her Hope. She got the name because of her stubby legs, “hope I get legs”. She was that dog just as you describe Belle. Its so hard to loose them and Im sending you a big hug and much comfort in this hard time.

  7. The majestic photo of Belle on the ridge taken recently by Beau is how I like to remember her, the explorer surveying her magnificent playground.

  8. So sorry Maddy. My heart goes out to you and your family. Thank you for sharing such tender moments with us.

  9. Dear Maddy,

    I am so sorry for the loss of your Belle and can only imagine the hole she has left in your heart. I also know that you gave her the most wonderful life that any hound could imagine, as she got to follow her instincts and her heart during a life of dog adventures.

    Your tribute to Belle was beautiful and your acceptance of the circumstances of her passing clearly comes from the heart of an amazing woman!

    Wishing you and your herd of two and four legged ones a healthy and prosperous New Year.

    Love, Barbara

  10. As I read your beautiful tribute to Belle, I was reminded of something my
    Father used to say. It was also the way he wanted to go: “Died with their boots
    on…” She was doing what she wanted to do and went fast. I hope I go that
    way, myself. May you be comforted in the fact that you and Belle had a wonderful life together. She felt your love, you felt hers.

  11. Oh, Maddy, I’m so sorry. I’ve waited the long hours, and trekked the miles searching for missing animals. I hope you are comforted by having found her, and knowing that she did not suffer, alone, waiting for you.

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