Winner of the Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Contest
There’s no cutesy way of saying this: yesterday, just as our daily walk in the hills was nearing its bucolic climax, Hazel murdered a deer. As luck would have it, the bloody harvest happened across the street. What would the neighbors think?
I was about to throw her best ball into a cherished grove of live oaks when she spotted him. We were standing on the dilapidated tennis court where my kid learned how to ride a bike. The land was acquired by a developer. In a year or so, there will be a cluster of three-story houses glaring down at us. But for now, the abandoned tennis court is still a pitted, slumping stretch of macadam surrounded by trees. Lots of trees. A genuine wildlife corridor, as I preached to the City Council, using my most impassioned vibrato.
“Time’s up, Thoreau,” the head of the Zoning Board wisecracked.
It’s my fault. I tolerated these little games, which seemed so harmless. Keep dreaming Hazel. But Hazel is no visionary. She’s calculating, and predatory. “A perfect machine,” a rocket scientist remarked the other day, as we hurled tennis balls for our respective pooches near Lawrence Livermore Lab, where Oppenheimer built the first cyclotron. Her yellow lab was left in the dust. But I never imagined that Hazel could outgun a mule deer. They’re big, agile—designed for scampering up and down the Sierras. Fawns may fall to bobcats and eagles, but the bucks? They’re armed and dangerous. Their only predator, until the wolves recolonize, is the mountain lion. Five years ago, a stag gored a neighbor’s Irish deerhound. The hound’s owner, the head of the History Department, made a big stink out of it because it happened right in his backyard, and he figured the ungulate for a kind of Mongol invader, an avant-garde for sharp-horned legions ready to take over our elevated redoubt, chomping contentedly on “deer-resistant” hydrangeas and eviscerating our pets.
But Hazel is something else. An OBD, or Oakland Brown Dog. She’s all bizness, dawg. I’ve coined another term for our hybrid, because OBD doesn’t quite capture her bushwhacker’s soul: ridgebull. In Rhodesia, ridgebacks were used to battle lions, and they climb trees. Pits have a bite-force that beats most carnivores in their weight class, and those infamous locking jaws. As the Raiders were to the rest of the NFL, circa 1984, so ridgebulls are to the rest of the canine realm: stronger, faster, badder. When Hazel was still an adorable, pudgy puppy, she was found roped to a tree in West Oakland. The Post Office worker who untied her asked my partner for directions to the pound. Gaby didn’t lose any time texting me a close-up of Hazel. I responded “No Way. Really.” We already had Banshee, a.k.a. The Great White Dope. We had cats. Rabbits—all of them rescues from a neighbor’s cottage breeding facility, but it was beginning to look like Watership Down. What would I do with Hazel, besides, when I went back to France to enjoy my mother’s rural recipes? I had always taken Banshee along with me (he was practically an Air France mascot, and they allowed him to travel on the plane despite his large size), but pitbulls, or anything pit-like, or pitish, are banned. The anti-pitbull hysteria reached a paroxysm around the turn of the century. Today, following a nation-wide eradication program, the only thing that can elicit more Jacobin indignation than a woman wearing a hijab in public is a pit. Modernité be damned. That evening, the Post Office worker delivered Hazel to our doorstep. Resistance was futile.
The thing is, Hazel isn’t some vicious beast—she’s the ultimate nanny dog. She’ll frolic with the kids for hours, and more than tolerates the repeated attempts to ride her like a carnival pony. She cleans Baby Elwynn’s ears, which makes the little one shriek with delight. Zoe will dress her up as a princess, and stage elaborate wedding rituals with our cat, whom Hazel worships. She defers to Banshee, who’s getting on in years and behaves like a perfect curmudgeon whenever she strikes a playful pose. Hazel will stalk the rabbits, but once they are cornered she will lie down and whimper, lamenting her fate but ever-conscious of the constraints and responsibilities of her station.
Of course, there’s another side to her. In the three years since Hazel graduated from puppydom, the spate of car burglaries that plagued our street has ceased. Any suspect noise at night sends her careening to the front door, where she releases a thunderous rumble (“the death growl,” as Gaby calls it) that evokes a lioness making the case for her newborn cub. The nocturnal marauders have grown scarce. If anything, we are rather in awe of her Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine. It only makes her more endearing.
I should have known better. Squirrels send her bolting over the high fence at the dog run. I’ve witnessed a few other dogs give it a shot, but those other pooches invariably flounder and fall back down in an ungainly heap. Hazel is the only regular who can take flight. On the Cal campus, tempted by a sashaying tail a few dozen feet up a redwood, she tried channeling a mountain lion, and propelled herself a respectable distance up the hulking trunk. She ended up hanging off a low branch as the squirrel admonished her from the safety of an upper limb, and I had to break her fall as best I could—an act of interspecies empathy that has cost me the ability to raise my left arm above my shoulder. She captured a field mouse up at Tilden Park, dispatching it before I could extricate it from those heavyset jaws.
In what wildlife biologists call the urban interface, there is a case to be made for dogs of a certain caliber. Not long after our new neighbors moved in, their tomcat picked a fight with an industrious raccoon cub who was pilfering the kibble. It was a reckless gamble on the cat’s part, though not as reckless as putting the cat chow out on the deck in the first place. Within moments, Ace, a big bruiser who liked nothing more than to torture our own wimpy feline, was being swarmed by the entire banded brigade. I heard Gaby’s screams from the driveway, where she’d been putting out the trash. As the neighbor watched his cat being savaged from behind the safety of a screen door, I stomped up to the raccoons, bellowing and shaking my arms. Perfectly oblivious to my clownish antics, they continued their assault, a fanatical mass of surgical claws and gnashing teeth. “They’re killing him. Get Hazel!” Gaby wailed. The plaintive caterwauls coming from our neighbor’s hapless tomcat were agonizing, but I was torn about sending Hazel into the fray. The raccoons are a brazen bunch. In addition to cantankerous housecats, they will not hesitate to face off with canines that don’t adhere to their Fourierist belief system. Gaby could tell I was conflicted, so she took matters into her own hands, dashing nimbly to the front door, dreadlocks slapping down on whipcord shoulders like a sassy cat o’ nine tails. Hazel surged, her spring-loaded frame gathering momentum as she catapulted across our yard. Dispensing with formalities, she bounded over the half-open craftsman gate rather than squander an extra second navigating the narrow breach. As she neared the scrimmage line, my heart lodged in my neckline. Something terrible was about to go down, no doubt—bloody carnage and five-figure vet bills. But the raccoons must have sensed there was something different about Hazel. An undercurrent of savannah, of dusty rangeland and bushmeat. They scampered the moment they heard her distinctive roar, clambering up the tall wooden fence against which Ace lay, gasping. All but one. The kingpin himself, in his striped zoot suit, paraded atop the high boundary for a moment, growling (the sound resembled a pair of electric shears having a meltdown). Hazel, as was her wont, blasted off, landing squarely on the railing. The scowling kingpin scurried off to a nearby redwood, where the rest of his posse had retreated. They peered down at Hazel from a high bough. The wooden fence swayed under her bulk. On that promontory she maintained her balance, leopard-like. Hazel had treed the raccoons, and she spent the rest of the night patrolling the garden. Ace vanished in the confusion, and was never seen again. Cats prefer to die alone, when they can.
A set of sharp, slender antlers flared out from the top of the buck’s bony brow, narrowing near their extremity. Not an impressive trophy spread, but trident-like and deadly, if it came to that. Hazel did not balk. I called out to her, using my most commanding voice, but I was no match for her primal bloodlust. The buck bumped up against a tall chain-link fence on a grassy knoll north of the tennis court. He turned, springing back down the hillside, displaying his full girth. He was a force of nature, a coiled mass of muscles and bony protuberances. Hazel intercepted him. She grabbed a shank, but the buck gave a kick and she let go. Good boy, I thought. But in his panic, he collided with one of the oaks and lost his footing on the muddy slope. Hazel was on him in a flash of auburn, hackles raised high. She latched onto the nape, just behind that fairy-tale crown. Having achieved a good anchorage, she shook herself back and forth, trying to generate lethal leverage. By then I was running toward the scene and baying hysterically. “LEAVE-IT, DAMNIT, LEAVE-IT!” Within seconds, she dropped the fallen buck and came strutting toward me, satisfied that she had accomplished what she had set out to do. The stag attempt to stand, but there was something awry about the way he carried himself. His head seemed far too heavy. Listing like a sailboat that has hit a shoal and sprung a bad leak, he finally keeled over. One of his hind legs twitched feebly. He just needs to shake it off, I told myself. He will get up, he must get up.
I brought Hazel and my ancient husky back home. Banshee hadn’t even noticed the chase. It happened too fast, in less time than it had taken him to position his hindquarters favorably and drench the manzanita bush.
A few minutes later I walked out of the garage, sliding along the carriage doors and casting stealthy glances left and right before crossing the street. I jogged up the steep, curving access road that led to the decaying tennis court. Halfway up, I cut to the left, through the grove of live oaks. Beyond the oaks lay the remains of a large acacia grove, which the developer hadn’t wasted any time cutting down (there was a city ordinance protecting the native oaks, at least). Where the ground had been cleared of trees the sodden earth was already beginning to slump ominously. I thought about geotechnical questions not to dwell on the deer, and by the time I reached the area where Hazel had felled the buck, I was almost buoyant. Obviously, she could not have dispatched such a behemoth. This was no field mouse, and even a lion can’t kill a zebra with a single bite. Don’t the wildlife docs always showcase the desperate struggle between prey and predator? The buck would be long gone, how could I have doubted it?
He wasn’t. There was blood trickling from his wide muzzle, which had colored the damp leaves an autumnal red. I grazed one of the long, donkey ears. It was already cold. I cupped that cartoonish ear and gave it a little tug, just to make sure he wasn’t about to resurrect, Lazarus-like. Something inside his neck made a muffled sound. A vertebra letting go of its tenuous hold on the spinal column. Great. Now what?
A few months earlier, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I had stumbled upon an abandoned cabin in the redwood forest. In it I found a worn green fascicule entitled Feral Forager: a Guide to Living off Nature’s Bounty in Urban, Rural and Wilderness Areas. “Our future vision,” it stated, “is one of a horticultural, village-scale, community located near a wild area, but as we are still landless, our current dietary habits combine backyard-scale gardening and bulk organic staples, along with wild edibles and scavenged roadkill.”
A “scavenger-forager lifestyle” (to avoid contributing to the military-industrial complex) constituted the practical and philosophical underpinning of this intriguing, primitivist society. “The highly sought-after roadkill deer” was a prime target, but the authors (it was an collective work) didn’t hesitate to harvest dead raccoons, foxes, opossums, birds, and just about anything that could provide “untainted meat.” They called themselves roadkill vegans. “Although some die-hards may want to leave civilization behind, set out for the wilderness and practice primitive hunting and gathering techniques, we are more interested in bringing wild food gathering and roadkill scavenging into our daily lifestyle.”
I found this neo-Neolithic perspective persuasive. I had become a pescatarian because I was sickened by the plight of stockyard animals, from industrial feedlots to mechanized slaughter. Yet, despite years of deprivation, I wasn’t quite cured. I wasn’t using, but the craving for a juicy flank steak, properly aged and lightly seared over a bed of mesquite coals, had never dissipated.
Abandoning so much prime meat to rot on the hillside felt like an insult to this magnificent stag. Daunting as I found the prospect of cutting into the fresh carcass at my feet, I resolved to harvest the meat. I was no stranger to dead deer, mangled deer even. Most of the mountain lion studies I had joined up with use roadkill obtained from National Parks or Forest Service personnel to lure the big cats into cage traps so they can be sedated and outfitted with GPS collars. I did my share of dirty work, lugging bloody deer carcasses up remote mountain ranges. But this was different. The line between life and death feels so extreme, so unyielding, and yet nothing had really prepared me for the precarious nature of that divide. Just minutes ago, the buck had been prancing blissfully, browsing on the abundant fresh grass and sedges the rain had brought up. Spring was finally here, and apple blossoms were alight in the neighbor’s manicured orchard, beyond the tall chain-link fence that had created a death-trap for the luckless ungulate, courtesy of our devoted dog. Maybe we should finally re-baptize our ridgebull, I reflected. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, would be more fitting.
I selected the sharpest knife I could find in our kitchen, but it wasn’t quite sharp enough to slice through the thick mule deer hide. Not easily that is, and it was getting dark. Working quickly, which isn’t a good idea when you are field-dressing your first deer, I reached inside the body cavity to cut the windpipe, which allows the guts and organs to spill out of the carcass if you do it the right way, on a slope with the head facing uphill. But in my haste I grabbed hold of something else, not the trachea, and cut through that instead. Immediately, I smelled the stench of decomposing vegetable matter. At least, when I pulled out the guts, everything came, the way it ought. There was a cupful of brown fluid inside the empty body cavity, not enough to taint the meat if I flushed it out. I moved the organs off to the side—the scavengers would make quick work of them. I saved the liver, for Hazel and Banshee. Then I skinned the deer, which took a long time in the deepening dusk with my dull blade, and finally managed to hack out the haunches and the ribcage.
I grew faint at one point, and I must have swooned because I opened my eyes with a start and saw that my knife had fallen inside the bloody, gaping cavity. It was an ordeal, cutting into another sentient being, but I was hopeful that even Gaby (who hasn’t tasted any meat since she was Zoe’s age) might try some haunch of venison. The argument for veganism is societal and ethical (as they’ll tell you at Farm Sanctuary benefits), not gastronomical. This musky flesh would represent the sum total of my carnivorous passion for this season and in all likelihood for many seasons to come. My flash syncope was merely a symptom of my own depleted nature. Harvesting the slain deer wasn’t just the proper thing to do, in theory, it also felt right—far less dislocating than buying a slab of meat whose existential framework, from birth to the processing plant, was a study in degradation. I felt more human afterward, not less.
I left a bit more than the innards for the hardcore cleaning crew, those masked banditos and the over-communicative crows that woke me up at the brink of dawn most days of the week. All the scavengers deserved their fair share after all, not just me. Before Hazel entered our life, I’d spotted a bobcat sitting calmly on his haunches on the game trail that winds along the edge of our neighbor’s house. He was unfazed, and we locked gazes. All of a sudden, the mystery of our fish basin’s dwindling koi population was resolved. The remains of the dead buck would serve to sustain more than the local carrion-feeders, it would nourish the entire carnivore guild. Our friendly neighborhood apex predator, otherwise known as Hazel, was providing for the entire food chain.