It was an idyllic scene. Walking the beach at Carrickalinga in the late afternoon sunshine, the remnants of the previous days’ storm surge crashing onto the golden sand. My parents, grandmother, Boy Z, Timmins and I strolling along the beach, intermittently tossing a ball to the dog. The sound of Boy Z’s laughter and the rhythmic surf lulled me in to a state of serenity. I had turned up the beach, watching the sinking sun glint off the waves.
And that peaceful feeling was irretrievably shattered with two sounds, near simultaneous – a growling roar and a piercing scream.
The next few moments are still a blur. My head whipped around. I saw my son prone on the beach, my dog standing over him. I saw blood. I bolted to them, scooped my son into one arm and grabbed the dog’s throat with the other. I slammed the dog into the sand and clenched. I was driven only by adrenaline and a primal instinct to defend my young.
The only thing that stopped me killing the dog right there on the beach was my father’s gentle hand on my shoulder. “Don’t do this, Chris. Get Boy Z back to the house. Don’t do this now.”
I sprinted off the beach, Boy Z screaming and bleeding against my chest. I ran and ran. Busted into the beach house we had rented for the week. Shouting to Dr. O’C, “Come now! Boy Z is hurt. The dog.” And when she saw the blood streaming down his face, she gave voice to the decision that I had made the moment I heard that roar, “That’s it. The dog is getting put down.”
You see, this wasn’t the first time that Timmins had snapped at Boy Z, but it was the first time he had made contact. Boy Z has been harassing Timmins with the unrelenting persistence of a toddler for six or eight months now. And 99% of the time, Timmins had borne it with the patience of a saint. But every now and then, he had lost patience and growled/roared in a disturbingly lupine way in Boy Z’s face, usually resulting in several minutes of tears and sobs from his torturer. These incidents had worried both of us, had resulted in rules regarding dog and boy never being left alone without adult supervision, had planted niggling doubts about the tenability of the situation in my head.
But we were on holiday. And on holiday, the rules tend to ebb with the tide . And there had been adult supervision on the beach. And boy and dog seemed to be playing happily.
I don’t know what happened on the beach. I really don’t. There was a tennis ball – always the source of ownership disputes. I don’t know if the dog intended the same thing as he had done in the past – issue a stern warning – but Boy Z had flinched the wrong way or Timmins had misjudged. I don’t know what happened. It went from an idyllic family vacation to a scene of horror in the blink of an eye.
At the beach house there were shouts for ice and flannels. There was a frantic call to 000 and a panicked discussion of the nearest medical facility. There was so much blood – the front of my shirt was covered in my sons’ blood – and the bites were so close to his eyes. Deep cuts below just below each eye, so much blood that I didn’t know if Boy Z would lose an eye or even both. There were hurried negotiations and moving of cars and handing off of a now screaming Not Max and the squeal of tires and we were off. To Yankallilla then, after a call from the SA Ambulance Service, to Victor Harbor. 32 km away. But the longest 32 km I’ve ever traveled. I sat in the back with a now sobbing Boy Z, pleading with him to keep the ice on his face. Dr. O’C drove as fast as she could around the winding, undulating roads of the Flerieu Peninsula.
I tried, for Boy Z’s sake, not to cry. But it was my fault. I should have seen it coming. I should have done something the first time the dog snapped at Boy Z. I should have been closer to the dog and Boy Z on the beach. And my beautiful son was bleeding all over me. And I knew that the dog would never live with us again. I tried, for Boy Z’s sake, not to cry.
We got to the small hospital in Victor Harbor about five minutes before Dr. O’C’s Mum and one of her cousins burst into the ER like J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. I still don’t know how they made the 90 minute trip from Adelaide in just over half an hour, but I don’t care. This horrifying Sunday night reinforced to me the wonder that is family. My father’s intervention on the beach. My mother and grandmother taking on Not Max with no instruction. Dr. O’C’s aunt working the phones with emergency rooms all over South Australia. Her uncle giving temporary sanctuary to the dog. They leapt into action, without reservation or selfishness. In a way that only family can do. Without them, I don’t know if I could have coped.
After an initial check in Victor we were sent back to Adelaide where there was an appropriate X-ray and eye specialists. Again, I was in the back seat with a now much calmer Boy Z. We sang together. I made him laugh with a baritone rendition of “Baa, Baa Black Sheep”. I tried to hold back tears when he touched his face and exclaimed “The dog bites. The dog bites.” I listened to Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” over and over because it was the CD in the car’s player and changing CDs seemed a trivial thing to do.
Things calmed down back in Adelaide with a series of positive test results – better pain relief, no fractures, eyes working normally, stitches unnecessary. But Boy Z cried every time a doctor approached and clung to me and I didn’t leave him for a moment. By the time we got home, he was almost back to his normal rowdy toddling self. In the days since, the swelling has begun to go down and the cuts have begun to heal and further tests have indicated that there will be no permanent damage. He’s begun to exclaim excitedly every time he sees a dog. And he has begun to ask about Timmins.
Timmins. While I decided his fate the moment I saw blood, I knew I couldn’t see him again. I said so at the emergency room and Dr. O’C’s family was kind enough to go and pick him up from Carrickalinga. I knew I couldn’t see him again, because as it became clear that Boy Z was going to be OK, I knew I couldn’t do what had to be done. Even without looking into his eyes, I began to have second thoughts in the hours after we stumbled home from emergency. I had second thoughts when Dr. O’C’s cousin told her how nervous he had seemed that night. I loved that dog – that poor, dumb dog. Surely he hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. He was as besotted with Boy Z as Boy Z was with him. It had to have been a mistake. Maybe we could work something out, find him a place at a no kill rescue shelter with a stern warning that he was not acceptable for families with small children. But Australian law is consistent with natural law – if a dog bites a child, no matter what the circumstances, the dog is put down.
The next day, on the way to tour Victor Harbor, the same town that we raced to the night before with our son bleeding in the back seat, I e-mailed permission to euthanize my dog to the RSPCA. And a couple of hours later, in a blustering wind roaring off the Southern Ocean, I described over the phone, in great detail, what happened the day before and confirmed that my dog had to be put to death.
The dog that I’d had for over eight years. The dog that I’d dragged over three continents. The dog that I’d loved as a member of my family before I had a family of my own. The big, useless sook of a husky that had burrowed his way into my heart and then broke it in a millisecond on a beach in Carrickalinga.
And I hung up the phone and sat, trying not to cry on a damn stupid horse bound tram plodding around Victor Harbor. And my son was whinging and high maintenance and driving me nuts. And, to be completely honest, I couldn’t cry because I was resentful that I had to kill my dog and my son, less than 24 hours after a mauling, wasn’t acting the perfect angel.
I’ve had moments that I could cry and that Dr. O’C and I could cry together. Moments when I go to the back door to let the dog in and realize that he isn’t coming in. When I put the frame of his bed in the shed and threw the padding in the trash. When tumbleweed of white dog hair blows past in the breeze. Now, the tears are gone for the most part. Life goes on because it has to. We have the blessing of being busy with two small children and overseas visitors and that restricts mourning to the rare quiet times. Like when my eyes finally close as I turn off the light at night. For the days since Sunday, sleep hasn’t come. What comes instead, unwelcome, is flashbacks to the beach and a vision of my dog – my poor, stupid dog – laying down and closing his eyes for the last time. And his body going limp.
I don’t know how long that will last. But a moment ago as I laid down next to my sleeping son, his face still scabbed and adorned with stereostrips. As I stroked his incredibly fragile limbs, I have no doubt that I did the right thing.
I hope you’ll forgive the length of this post. Actually, to be honest, I don’t care that much. This post was for me. For me to try to come to terms with the events of the last few days. I don’t know that it has. I hope, after you’ve read this, that it is obvious why I am not opening this post to comments. I also hope that you’ll understand why I’ve complied with Dr. O’C’s request that I don’t post any after photos of Boy Z.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to listen to Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” again without thinking of this event. While racing around the winding roads of the Fleurieu Peninsula from hospital to hospital, this album was on repeat play in the CD player. I heard it over and over and while I sang to my bleeding son and tried in vain to keep an ice pack on my face, the appropriateness of this album began to hit home.