It's not just cats; I'm convinced that some dogs have nine lives, too. We have three dogs here on the farm: Tessa, the Great Pyrenees livestock guardian; Scooter, the Australian Shepherd/Border Collie puppy; and Tabasco, the Red Healer. Tessa and Scooter are content to hang out with the livestock; Tabasco's preference is clearly for human companionship. Her coming to join us seemed like Divine Providence: she showed up at the local animal shelter on the same day (September 12th of last year) our beloved Collie, Cassie, was struck and killed by a car. We let it be known that we were looking for a replacement, and a few days later got a call from the animal shelter that they might have a good match for us.
Tabasco and I hit it off in the foyer of the animal shelter. She was scrawny and half-starved, but there was something about her sad eyes, and her whole demeanor, that told me she was the companion dog our family had been looking for. I drove her home in my convertible, her perched on the passenger seat, and I knew we were buddies already.
Back at the farm, without any training, she immediately went to work herding the sheep and other animals. She also proved herself a remarkable "mouser". She had an real knack for sniffing out field mouse nests, digging them up, and then destroying the mice. Although she and Tessa had a few fights, she held her own and seemed to accept her position as "beta dog."
Soon, Tabasco was following me to my office each morning, and loyally curling up on my couch as I worked. When I'd get in the car or truck to go somewhere, she'd jump in and go along as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I grew to love her companionship.
And then, last November, I went to New York City for five days to work as an Election Analyst for CNN. Two days after I'd left, Tabasco disappeared. My wife and the kids were worried sick, and so was I. My wife began researching the Red Healer breed, hoping for some clue as to what Tabasco might have done. It turns out, Red Healers are fiercely loyal to a single family --- and often to a single individual within that family. There was no doubt as to who that person was in our family, and no doubt that she'd left to go look for me. As I walked the streets of New York, I imagined Tabasco coming around a corner with a "there you are, I finally found you!" look on her face.
Miraciously, on election day, Tabasco turned up at a farm a few miles away. My wife and kids retrieved her, and locked her up until I returned. We were all overjoyed. Lesson learned, we put her in a kennel when we went out of town for Christmas.
And then, this morning, without warning, she went AWOL again. At 7:50, I'd driven into town. Both she and Tessa had chased me down the driveway and into the street, but broke off after 50 feet or so. When I returned at 8:45, Tessa greeted me --- but there was no sign of Tabasco. I drove to the neighbor's farm, but she wasn't there. I drove up and down our road, to no avail. All day, I whistled and called for her. I drove all over the country, whistling and calling. No Tabasco. My heart sank. Where could she have possibly gone? Why hadn't I let her ride to town with me?
This evening, as we started saying the Rosary as a family, each of the kids offered a single intention: For Tabasco. Usually, each of them has a slew of intentions; that each of them was thinking only of the dog was almost enough to make me choke up. My wife, for her part, promised St. Anthony that if he could find Tabasco, she'd have nine Masses said in his honor. That's how much this dog had come to mean to all of us. Seeing the kids' pure and simple faith, I wondered how God could not come through for them.
Before dinner, I got out a high powered flashlight and walked a great distance up and down the hedgerow behind our property, calling and hollering. I feared perhaps she'd gotten tangled up in the underbrush, and hadn't been able to free herself. No response. I called and whistled and whistled and called, but at last went into the house. We sat down to dinner, but no one felt much like eating.
And then, after dinner, our oldest son started shouting from upstairs: He saw her through a window! I didn't believe it, but ran to the back door and threw it open. And, sure enough, there she was.
The family all made a huge fuss over her. We fed her two cans of tuna, and all the goat milk she wanted. "Don't let her out of your sight!" my wife said. Once the excitement subsided, and Tabasco had curled up on the kitchen floor, we all gathered in a semicircle and recited the "Te Deum," a traditional prayer of thanksgiving.
One of the kids asked if we could simply keep Tabasco in the house all the time from now on. No, my wife and I reminded them, every animal around here has a job to do. We don't have any animals that are purely pets, and Tabasco is no exception. She digs up mouse and rat nests, she helps herd the sheep, and she barks at predators. We'll keep a closer eye on her in the future, but she can't be a full time house dog.
This incident was a good lesson in detachment. Farm life has been very healthy for our kids, because it's taught them the distinction between animals and people. We need to take care of our animals, and our animals can be good companions, but at the end of the day we must remember that they are not people and shouldn't be confused with human beings. Until she disappeared, I'm not sure we realized just how attached we'd grown to her. Going forward, we'll have to work all the harder to keep all our animals in the proper perspective.