Beastly Business (excerpt)

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What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.

Chief Seattle

Chapter 1 Chapter 2

Approximately thirty-six hours before Monica Sonco and her dog died, a paralyzing shriek sliced through the early morning darkness surrounding me like a bolt of aural lightning.

“It’s only the fox,” I reminded myself, ignoring the quickened pulse and accelerated heart rate palpably signaling, “Run!”

Nor did it escape me that I said the fox, not a fox, even though many foxes live in this part of the Connecticut River valley. You begin to sense them about ten miles north of Brattleboro, Vermont, where the number of exits on Interstate 91 rapidly dwindles and the green signs marking them bear nothing but the names of towns and villages somewhere off in the trees. The signs don’t say much, and that says it all: If you don’t know what gas stations, restaurants, or other services that particular exit leads to, you have no business going there.

Foxes like that kind of privacy. So do I.

My side of the river—the New Hampshire side—can’t claim Vermont’s carefully cultivated mystique. That doesn’t bother me, though, because it spares us the herds of flatlanders (tourists from southern New England and New York) who wander through Vermont sipping cappuccino and nibbling biscotti as they seek to become one with Mother Nature and her factory out-lets and boutiques. Of course a lot of the natives in Somerset, the town where I live, consider me a flatlander, too—even though I migrated here from Pennsylvania twenty-five years ago. They could view me that way because my tastes run to herbal tea and vegetarian tacos. But it could also be because they don’t consider anyone a native whose ancestors moved here after 1750. I lose additional points because I don’t live in the town proper, the town proper consisting of a post office, bank, diner, combination convenience store/gas station, hardware store, and a collection of retail businesses that take up residence and disappear so quickly on the ground floor of the otherwise abandoned Somerset Hotel that most don’t even bother to put up signs any more.

Somerset proper all huddles on one side of Main Street, surrounded by a flock of some lovely, some downright ugly, but all definitely old and thus historically significant houses that give it a certain charm, if not necessarily a marketable mystique. The entire town sits in the middle of a second-growth forest like a tiny island held up by the highway leading into and out of it. On either side of the highway, nonhistoric businesses like Wal-Mart and used car lots periodically pop up like cement frogs perched on asphalt lily pads, flicking their gaudy banners to lure shoppers from the hills on both sides of the river.

Somerset’s a town that’s pretty much stayed put in the past and doesn’t seem inclined to move much in the future. Such sanctioned lethargy appeals to me because…

The fox screamed again, instantly obliterating all thoughts of my adopted home. Once again I stood rooted in front of my old farmhouse on the ridge above the rain-swollen river, this time awaiting a third scream I knew would never come.

Because it didn’t the last time, either.

“Shit, Matty, don’t do that!” Mattisse, a.k.a. Matty, the orange tiger cat who had suddenly materialized out of the darkness and wrapped himself around my legs, added a few more gray hairs to my middle-aged head with his surprise greeting.

I picked him up and scrubbed his head in an effort to calm myself while I tried to pinpoint the fox’s location. As a biologist who studied animal behavior I knew what those screams meant to another fox.

Danger. Beware.

But as a veterinarian who studied companion animal behavior and human-animal interactions (i.e., a veterinary ethologist), I knew something else, too. The instant that fox screamed, it became a symbol so potent it made the hairs on my neck bristle.

Those screams meant danger to me, too.

I’d heard that fox before.

A year and a half ago.

The night before Bob died.

* * *

I retreated into the house, threw a log in the woodstove to banish the early morning chill, and brewed a pot of tea. As had become my custom in the years since Bob first became ill, I intended to write until daybreak, then assume my current role as a professional working widow. According to the list on the table beside my cup, today I’d run some errands in town, do the laundry, and work in the garden. Two, sometimes three days a week I saw clients, usually those experiencing behavioral problems with their pets—provided there were any to see. In spite of the fact that euthanasia ranked as the number one killer of pets in the country and that many of those animals had treatable behavioral problems, the idea of taking an animal to a someone like me hadn’t exactly taken the area by storm. On the other hand, the clients I did see were all extraordinary in one way or another and that, plus participating in a wide range of animal-related teaching and writing projects (most of them unknown to the local residents), had enabled me to keep a roof over the pets’ and my head since Bob’s death.

However, just because the natives felt little need to understand, let alone avail themselves of, my services in no way prevented them from keeping tabs on me, a local pastime I didn’t become aware of until shortly after Bob first became ill.

“Chip Slayton saw yer light on ’round three the otha mornin,” Joe Talbot, the local postmaster and resident oracle informed me shortly after I initiated my early morning schedule. “Somethin’ wrong?”

I had no know idea who Chip Slayton was or how he managed to see my light in the one, miniscule opening in the woods from which the house was visible from the road below. However, I did know that I didn’t want Joe (and hence all of Somerset) to know I got up then because I was sick of waking terrorized by unremembered dreams, then lying in bed listening to Bob’s erratic breathing. Instead, I told Joe that the lack of distractions in the wee hours made it easier for me to concentrate on my writing. Evidently he found that too dull because the explanation for the early morning light at the Brown/Upton residence got into local lore somewhat differently.

“StClair Upton.” Lionel McPhail, the hardware store’s proprietor, pronounced my name “Saint Clair” rather than its actual “Sinclair” as he studied my credit card then me very carefully. I remember this clearly because it was the day I bought Bob a grossly over-priced portable drill with a screw-driver attachment the manufacturer claimed could screw anything, anywhere. In retrospect, this was a rather fitting final gift.

“You the strange vet lives on the old county road?” Lionel peered at me like an amateur entomologist who hopes the bug he just caught belongs to a rare species. “The cat-shrink what gits up in the middle of the night?”

Although I desperately wanted to enlighten the man regarding my credentials and standing in the professional community, I merely nodded. The idea of telling him about my well-regarded text evoked images of him eagerly calling the editor of the Somerset Eagle and setting into motion a string of events that ended with a front-page article entitled “Local Vet Will Shrink Your Cat.”

But in such a way Joe transformed me from a mere cat-shrink into a strange cat-shrink and, when Bob died and I went to pieces (half out of grief and half out of relief), the locals appended that description to “poor, strange, cat-shrink.” Just how poor and strange they believed me to be became apparent when perfect strangers felt obligated to fix me up with their poor, strange friends. After an endless evening with a burned out rock musician who tried to smoke my aloe plant and another interminable interval with a lecherous orthopedic surgeon determined to suck what he assured me were my petite, but perfect patellae, I decided that after one tossed one’s genes into the gene pool (which I had twice), men were a lot like moose: interesting to study, but much too much trouble to live with.

During my first year alone, I also stacked a lot of wood. Twenty cords in fact. Well, only five cords, but I had to stack them four times until I figured out how to do it so the piles didn’t fall over. With the help of theReader’s Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual, I even replaced the broken belt on my clothes dryer. The toughest part of that job was persuading Lionel to sell me the necessary part, even for an outrageous price. Turned out he was Chip Slayton’s brother-in-law as well as Joe Talbot’s cousin by marriage and thought I planned to use the belt for suicidal or illicit sexual purposes.

Naturally, being a taciturn male Somerset native, Lionel didn’t come right out and say this. I learned it later from his first wife’s sister when she delivered a load of top soil. Lionel merely said he didn’t think I should repair the dryer because I might rupture something, the exact identity of which he did not disclose. But while a certain shyness probably motivated him in this regard, he experienced no difficulty reminding me of the gory details of the untimely demise of Hannah Dierker Pearson whose henpecked remains were found beneath the rubble of her chicken coop after the tornado of 1887. You couldn’t live in Somerset more than a week without hearing about Hannah and the tornado or being dragged to the Somerset Historical Society museum behind the post office to view her portrait.

“She was a little mite of a thing ’bout your size, and lived alone out in the middle of nowheres jest like you, Doc,” Lionel concluded as if he were doing me a big favor by comparing me to a shrunken old crone who, judging from her portrait, had been done in by her chicken coop long before that tornado hit.

No doubt Lyle added his two cents’ worth to my legend when he saw me driving around town anatomically intact a few days later.

I could have hired someone to stack my wood and fix my dryer and do other odd jobs for me, but I needed those little accomplishments to rebuild myself without Bob. For more than twenty years he’d taken up so much of my life that when he died, even if in bits and pieces over several grueling years that culminated in a mind-numbing climax, I had no idea who or what I was. When I began putting myself back together again, I swore I’d do it in such a way I’d never need anyone to make me feel whole again.

But then last week while I was recycling my empty cans and bottles at the dump, I heard one of the area’s more erudite recyclers refer to me as that poor, strange, reclusive cat-shrink and began to wonder if maybe I’d overdone the make-over. True, I still enjoy participating in professional meetings and seminars and do relish the companionship of a few close friends. But lately I find I must talk myself into attending social events.

And more and more often lately, I don’t succeed.

The disturbing idea that I’d become a hermit and liked it became a moot point, though, when the phone rang later that morning.

* * *

After spending forty-five minutes on the phone with Monica Sonco, I didn’t know much more about her and her dog than I did before she called. Aside from the fact that the dog was a pit bull and her soft, little girl’s voice didn’t bode well for her relationship with any dog, I knew nothing for sure except that she wanted me to see her and the animal the next day.

“What do you suppose the problem is?” I asked the pets as I wrote my new client’s name in my appointment book.

After Bob died I started talking to the pets and was surprised to discover that the quality of the conversation didn’t change that much. While this may have occurred because Bob’s and my conversations had deteriorated greatly during our final years together, I prefer to think I noticed little difference because my pets and I have a pretty decent rapport—or as decent as it can be considering I’ve tried practically every medical or behavioral gimmick on them that’s come down the pike over the years. In fact, there have been so many gimmicks coming down the pike lately, I’ve declared a moratorium to give us all a break. In my more poetic moments, I refer our current resting state as expressing our “interspecies zen,” But most of the time I think of it as “benign neglect.”

The animal entourage includes two dogs and Matty, the aforementioned orange tiger, a maddening, but lovable killer who keeps my old house rodent-free when he isn’t passing judgment on my activities. Like now, for example. When I asked the pets what they thought Monica Sonco’s problem with her dog might be, Matty made it quite clear by meticulously licking a front paw much longer than necessary that he felt we lacked sufficient evidence to come to any valid conclusions. Just in case I missed that point, he gave me his patented semi-disdainful “Beats the mouse guts out of me” look for good measure.

Compare this to what happened when I continued the conversation with Elizabeth, my Pembroke Welsh corgi, a breed I equate with a sawed-off German shepherd dog on her good days, and with a sausage-shaped, fat-footed, big-eared, stubborn alien mutant canine dwarf when she pushes my zen to the limits.

“Ms. Sonco says that her dog’s not aggressive, doesn’t mess in the house, and isn’t destructive.” I deliberately gave Elizabeth a severe look when I mentioned the destructive part because she’s not exactly what I’d call a good advertisement for a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral problems since we began the benign neglect phase of our relationship. “There go the usual reasons why people seek help from someone like me.”

Elizabeth grinned up at me, then plopped down on top of my sneaker and began chewing my shoelace. Theresa, my saintly husky, sighed heavily at this breach of canine etiquette and retreated under the table. I found her huddled next to a Catholic church during a snowstorm more than twelve years ago and she’s been eternally grateful ever since. Not enough not to shed great clumps of hair all over the house, mind you, but enough to behave most of the time with little or no effort on my part.

But in spite of my pets’ failure to supply any meaningful input into the conversation, Monica Sonco did offer one possible clue to her dog’s behavior: She said he didn’t like strangers, especially men. Granted I could sympathize with that sentiment myself on occasion, and it did describe a noteworthy chunk of the fifty-odd million dogs in the country. Still, just as “prefers adults” often translates “bites children,” the phrase “doesn’t like strangers, especially men” can encompass a multitude of canine sins. The fact that Ms. Sonco called me from the vacation cottage she rented from Joe Talbot and insisted I see her as soon as possible clearly proclaimed that something about her dog’s behavior troubled her greatly. While I couldn’t be sure until I interviewed her further, I was willing to bet my compost pile that the dog’s problem had something to do with a man.

Because Theresa normally looked thoughtful, she seemed like the logical quadruped with whom to share the most troubling aspect of my conversation with my new client.

“But why did she insist on meeting with me for a whole day if necessary, then refuse to discuss the dog’s problem in even the most general terms on the phone?” I stuck my head under the kitchen table and spoke loudly to the somewhat deaf old dog so she’d know I truly valued her opinion.

As usual she hung on my every word but, unfortunately and also as usual, she didn’t provide anything resembling a clue. However, when I thought about the kinds of canine behavior that would lead an owner to act as Monica Sonco had, only two came to mind.

One I’d dealt with before.

The other would be a first.

* * *

Monica Sonco’s faded blue eyes and chalk-white face were framed by shoulder length poker-straight blonde hair so pale I initially thought it was white. She looked like a frightened, lop-eared, albino rabbit. When coupled with her petite frame, she reminded me of a frightened, lop-eared, albino rabbit doll. She looked so sad and vulnerable that even before she opened her mouth, I knew I had to help her.

After sitting on the lumpy, faded chintz couch in Joe Talbot’s Somerset Lake cottage with my new client for almost three hours, I still wanted to help her but I didn’t know how. To hear her talk her pit bull, Harley, was the best dog in the world and what few faults he had barely rated mention. Every time I tried to gain anything beyond the most superficial information about their relationship, her white face grew even whiter and she shrank into the matching faded chintz chair opposite me, looking more vulnerable than ever.

“Do you have any hobbies?” I intentionally changed the subject in an effort to gain her trust.

“I do volunteer work with AIDS babies.” Her faded eyes brightened and her tense body relaxed slightly when she spoke of rocking and playing with the “throw-aways,” dying little kids nobody wanted. “I thought maybe someday Harley could go visit them with me, but…”

Her eyes brimmed and she bowed her head.

I’d gone this route with clients before and knew that Monica Sonco approached the tipping point. If something didn’t compel her to tell me about Harley’s problem soon, she and her dog would disappear back into the city where she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it at all. Given the nature of the problems that led people to behave in this manner that, in turn, meant that someone could get hurt.

Badly.

“Monica, please tell me.” I deliberately spoke softly so I wouldn’t contribute to her already considerable anxiety. “There’s nothing you can say that would make me not help you and Harley visit those kids someday.”

She nervously played with the pleats of her shorts for a while before she finally spoke again.

“You really mean that?” She abandoned the pleats and began chewing a lock of the pale hair that fell over her face and curtained her doll-like features.

“Absolutely.”

“He..we..” Suddenly, she balled her hands into tiny fists and her whole body trembled violently as she struggled to get the words out.

Not knowing what else to do, I held out my arms to her and she threw herself into them. The words poured out of her in a sobbing torrent that confirmed my worst fears.

“Oh God, I’m so ashamed. I didn’t mean… I didn’t know… Oh, God, please, please don’t hate me!” she sobbed when she finished.

I held her close and murmured the kinds of things you automatically murmur to people whose anguish is so great you can’t begin to comprehend it. When her sobs finally subsided into soft whimpers, I heard myself saying over and over again, “It’s going to be all right.”

While I soothed her, I took little joy in knowing that I’d correctly guessed the nature of her problem. Nor was I comforted by the fact that, for someone in my line of work, it was bound to happen. And even though I’d just met Monica Sonco, it didn’t surprise me that it had happened to her. All the ingredients were there:

That soft, little girl’s voice that bordered on a submissive whimper even in normal conversation.

The total ignorance of normal dog behavior.

The apologies and excuses that underscored her every comment about her pet’s behavior.

Curiosity as well as professional interest made me study the dog now sleeping at our feet. Even with his loose lips flapping faintly as he snored, Harley was a damn good-looking dog. Much bigger than the average pit bull, handsome fawn color with a flashy white bib, and solid as a rock.

Having confessed the worst, Monica suddenly sat up and began describing her relationship with her pet, her petite hands fluttering anxiously at her boyish chest like birds at an empty feeder. Her halting phrases and sentences described a situation that, while hardly common, evolved in a predictable manner. As she struggled to describe the moment that would change her life forever, more tears cut trails across her delicate features and periodically splashed the tiny white fingers stirring the air between us.

So upset was the young woman that I did something I later deeply regretted: I didn’t take notes, even though I always take notes when I interview clients. However, I’d waited so long for that tortured stream of words to flow, I didn’t dare do anything that might stop it. Instead I sat and listened, barely breathing for fear I’d interrupt her.

“He’s not a bad dog,” she murmured softly when she finished, momentarily glancing at me before bowing her head again and clenching her hands tightly in her lap. “Honest.”

“I know.” I gave her another reassuring hug.” And you’re not a bad person, either.”

Monica Sonco lifted her tear-stained face and stared at me.

“You’ve got to help me, Dr. Upton. Right away,” she pleaded with surprising force. “There’s this guy…”

She stopped and looked down at her hands again while I pondered how many times the phrase “There’s this guy” has changed the course of some woman’s life—for better or worse.

“It was his idea that I rent this cottage so we could be near each other and I’d do anything for him, Dr. Upton. But I’ve already failed him once and I know I’ll lose him for sure if he finds out about Harley.” She re-established eye contact with me, then looked at her dog. “Can’t you give him something to make him behave?”

Although her hands still trembled noticeably, her troubled eyes didn’t waver a bit when she made that understandable, if naive, request.

I opened my mouth to discuss the limited utility of drugs or any other quick fix in Harley’s case, but she suddenly let out such a sharp cry of surprise, I gawked at her instead.

“Oh, dear, our time’s up!” She sprang off the couch and peered anxiously toward the broad expanse of glass overlooking the lake behind me.

I started to point out that, at her request, our time wouldn’t be up for hours, but the low growl that rumbled in Harley’s throat when she leaped over him distracted me. However, before I could determine what had upset him—and her—she thanked me for coming, begged me to return at noon the next day, and unceremoniously shoved me out the front door.

All the way home, the memory of the pit bull’s dark yellow eyes tracking the distressed young woman’s every move haunted me.

(return to top)


Chapter 2

At seven o’clock the next morning, I sat with another client on the floor of the small room my friend, veterinarian Tony Minnini, had converted for my use in his clinic. Jay was eight-years-old and learning-disabled, and scars on his arms marked where a neighbor’s dog had bitten him. As biting cases go, it was pretty typical. Kids sustain far more than their share of bites, boys get bitten more often than girls, and their own or their neighbors’ dogs do most of the biting.

This case wasn’t typical, though, because unlike the majority of kids bitten, Jay then became very afraid of dogs. The school psychologist suspected the bites were the last straw in a year that included his parents’ divorce, a new home, and a new school. All that plus not being able to read as the other kids. She wanted to know if Elizabeth and I could help.

So here we were and, for as often as Elizabeth seems determined to ruin me professionally with her behavior, she takes her job as a reading therapy dog very seriously. While Jay and I sat on the floor reading books to each other, she lay on her pillow on the opposite side of the room with her big brown eyes glued on him. His slightest look in her direction caused her airplane ears to prick up and her whole body to quiver in anticipation, but she didn’t budge an inch.

It had been like that for almost two months. One, sometimes two mornings a week, Jay’s mom would drop him off at the clinic on her way to work, and he and I would read or talk while Elizabeth watched until it was time for me to drop him off at school. During our last meeting he said that Elizabeth could ride to school with us—if she stayed in the back seat of my old Saab, which she did.

Today’s session started out like all the others except that Elizabeth wanted to give that child a doglick more than ever. Had she possessed the necessary muscles and nerves to do so, I’m sure she would have curled her fat little toes around the edge of her pillow to keep herself from bouncing over to him. Everything about her radiated the same message: When?

But I couldn’t tell her when because that was a question only Jay could answer.

When the answer did come, at first it was so subtle that I missed it. However, Elizabeth did not. It began when Jay started periodically tapping his fingers on the floor beside him, keeping time with a poem I was reading about marching ants. Every time he did this, Elizabeth would prick up her ears. When he stopped, her ears would sag. Soon boy and dog were involved in a finger-tapping, ear-flapping game that made him forget his fears. Once I realized what was happening, I kept reading the same stanzas over and over again so I wouldn’t break the tempo that sustained the game.

Suddenly Jay laughed and called, “Elizabeth, come!”

Elizabeth leaped to her feet, then froze and looked at me. I nodded and, in a gesture that canceled out all her past dog-sins and elevated her to the level of corgi sainthood (if such exists, which seems doubtful), she slowly crept toward him, gently laid her head in his lap, then sighed as if she’d just died and gone to dog-heaven when he began petting her.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

* * *

Just to show you how crazy working with animals can make you, though, my benevolent feelings about Elizabeth experienced a complete reversal less than two hours later when I arrived home and grabbed the ringing phone at the same time I noticed my best pair of panties, minus the crotch, under the kitchen table.

“You support a dangerous dog ordinance for Holderness County, Doc?”

I stared at the chewed panties as the caller’s words flowed into my ear.

I wanted to say, “God, yes—especially if it includes the dangerous dog currently sitting on my foot! Off with her big-eared, pointy-nosed, undie-eating little head, I say!”

But because I expected the reporter from the Somerset Eagle to ask my views on barking coyotes, foraging bears, blanket-sucking cats, or some other animal behavior like he always did when he called, I merely said, “What?”

“The dangerous dog ordinance. The one everyone’s been talking about since that pit bull killed the woman renting Joe Talbot’s cottage.”

Jeezus.