It is six-thirty in the morning and I am standing in my backyard, armed to the teeth, watching my two dogs do “business.” Mostly I’m watching the smaller one, the half-pint rescue pooch we call Frodo. He’s finicky about placement of said business—too distracted to settle on a viable spot. Frodo circles and sniffs and glances over his shoulder, a naturally nervous dog made fully paranoid by the randomness of nature, by the laws of the quick and the dead. Frodo is waiting for the coyote to return. And the coyote, I am quite certain, is waiting for the chance to oblige him.
In my left hand I hold Frodo’s retractable leash gizmo, and in my right I hold an officially sanctioned police baton. The police baton weighs at least three pounds and seems to have a metal core. The stick has a checkered grip and a short handle sticking out at right angles. The heft is imposing, exhilarating. When you swing a stick like this, you instantly sense how cops in riot situations could get carried away, could administer a few bonus licks after a suspect has been “subdued.” The damn thing nearly swings itself. Possessing a police nightstick in California is legally dicey. My son, Anders, found it at the base of a rock formation in Oregon. How it got there, we have no clue. Despite his parent’s misgivings, Anders lugged the baton home on spring break as a souvenir. The weapon resided at the back of a linen closet until our local Dog Wars escalated. In the now-sinister patch of Serengeti that doubles as our yard, a police baton is standard equipment.
This whole arms race was instigated one recent morning when my wife, Anastasia, was performing dog duty. She stood on our freshly irrigated lawn, holding Frodo’s leash retractor while he ruminated. Anastasia looked away, then glanced back to see a big male coyote grab Frodo by the face. The attack was one of those frozen moments wherein Stasia’s perception funneled down to a single focus point, our dog’s head engulfed by slavering predator jaws. Frodo, Stasia recalls, issued a terrified squeal. Anastasia screamed bloody murder, screamed like a Manson victim. The coyote had not previously noticed her, had not realized that his breakfast was tethered to a human. Our other dog, a refreshingly fearless Labrador bitch named Arwen, exploded out of a thicket on our hillside to see what the row was about. At that point, the coyote cut his losses and fled with the sound of Anastasia’s screams echoing down our sleepy suburban street.
No one responded to those screams. No calls were made to 911; not one neighbor stepped outside to investigate. (Apparently the “bystander effect” and the legacy of poor Kitty Genovese isn’t entirely an urban myth.) I have to include myself in that sad fraternity—but only because I like to sleep with earplugs. When I did join the aftermath in the yard, my opportunity to intervene, to slay the aggressor and save the day had passed. All that remained was to comfort Stasia, and to check Frodo for punctures and lacerations (He suffered only a minor scrape). For Anastasia, the attack validated her dual fears: 1.) That Frodo is a helpless, oblivious target without the ability to watch his own back, and 2.) Our neighbors are a bunch of clannish, indifferent imbeciles. Had Anastasia been targeted by a human aggressor—well, you get the idea.
Aggressive coyotes abound in Los Angeles County, ranging throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, the Hollywood Hills, and—clearly—our neighborhood. We live in the north end of the San Fernando Valley, hard against the foothills of the Santa Susanna Mountains. Huge boulders dominate the topography; the area is ideal for hikers, novice rock-climbers, and movie locations. The Santa Susannas served as a backdrop for countless Republic Pictures westerns and television series featuring The Lone Ranger, Palladin, and Matt Dillon. Roy Rogers used to own ranch property just up the street. Just west of our house is an abandoned reservoir; perhaps forty acres of urban prairie where there once was a lake. The area supports plenty of wildlife; ground squirrels, red-tailed hawks, and of course, coyotes. And although the rabbit population seems to be thriving (we typically see several on our dog walks), nothing says dinner quite like a scruffy lap dog, a wayward house cat, and the odd Chihuahua—or two. We live in the urban outlands, at the choke point where forage ends and pavement begins. Proximity, opportunity, and instinct collide here, and the result is the kind of attack that poor Frodo barely survived.
Lots of pets don’t. The most prominent recent example was Daisy, a two-year-old Maltipoo belonging to singer (?) Jessica Simpson. In 2009, Simpson joined a grim fraternity of celebrity coyote victims that includes Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne (“Little Bit” R.I.P.) Katherine Heigel, and Eddie Van Halen. And for every pet death recounted on TMZ.com, there are a hundred anonymous ones, disappearances that prompt the many phone-pole postings and hand-lettered appeals we see at local intersections: REWARD: LOST CAT…LOST DACHSHUND ...ANSWERS TO “BUSTER.” The truth (what his bereaved owner must suspect) is that Buster has left this earthly coil in the stomach of a predator, and won’t be answering to anything ever again.
So there is the anonymous death toll, and the very personal one. About a month after Frodo’s assault, we awoke on a Sunday morning to find the carcass of my neighbor’s dog in our side yard. We never knew the pet’s name, but we were quite familiar with the inquisitive little terrier mix, for he had wandered the street at will for weeks. He belonged to our one celebrity neighbor, a television actor that I’ll call “Dave.” Dave, who is young, single, and a denizen of the club scene, displays fidelity to girlfriends but promiscuity with dogs. He tends to retain the girls and discard the dogs, if you follow my drift. In the five years that Dave has resided across the street, he has had pit bulls, a couple of German shepherds, and an array of teacup-sized designer dogs that we associate with the girlfriend. As a television day-player, Dave occupies a nether-place among the nouveau riche; he’s too busy to walk his own dogs, but not quite rich enough to hire a professional dog walker. So Dave’s current guard dog—which we have never seen—lurks behind a fence, yowling from boredom, filling his static days by barking the scales, barking Dixie, and barking at the echoes of his own barks.
Dave’s girlfriend, whom we have seen plenty of, brought her own animals to the relationship; a hamster-sized Chihuaha and the doomed terrier. The teacup remains in the house, but Dave gave the terrier the run of the yard. That would have been a humane choice, except that Dave’s fence had a prominent hole. Dave never to repaired the fence, so the terrier roamed at will for most of the summer. The animal was lunch waiting to happen, and I warned Dave about that repeatedly. The dog was skittish, and because I did not know its name, I could not catch it and return it. We could, however, herd the little scamp back through the fence, which both Stasia and I did on several occasions. After the Frodo incident, I taped a note to Dave’s door, describing how I had again found his dog wandering, and that it was only a matter of time…
There was no consolation on being dead right. And it was almost worse to find the animal not devoured, not disfigured save for the jaw-marks on its throat. The terrier died in a mortal struggle, its legs poised as if in the midst of a bounding leap to freedom, to the safety of Dave’s porous yard. Its death rattle went unheard, just like Anastasia’s desperate cries.
Dave collected the terrier’s carcass that afternoon. In subsequent days we have noted a bit more vigilance at their home with regards to the teacup dog. Dave seems to have learned the lesson about the fence, and he does not let the miniature wander his yard. His guard dog continues its mournful serenade, broadcasting to a captive audience of neighbors, yard-workers, and the Susan G. Komen adherents who march past in lock-step, training for the Walk for the Cure.
As for us, we keep to the code and never let Frodo explore the property unleashed or unsupervised. Each morning I shuffle down to the kitchen in the predawn haze and affix the dog’s harness. I let our big labrador make an exploratory circuit before emerging from the house, cudgel in hand, my reflexes fully engaged. In any other yard, in any other context, arming oneself to supervise dogs would seem excessive. But unlike most of our neighbors, our fears have an actual face—and a body count. We know that coyote is poised and lurking out there, just beyond the fringe of light. And experience has taught us that when he returns there will be no reinforcements, no vigilante neighbors snatching up their own weapons and rushing to our aid. Our yard is an urban frontier, and we are truly pioneers.