20 May 2012

From Panama to Providence: a Sunday story

I just got off the phone with my good friend Jim. I've known Jim for more then ten years. He and I met in Panama in the spring of 2000. We were two guys with similar interests who were pretty serious fish out of water in that land of rain forests and Canal Zones.

We struck up an easy friendship then, one that continues to this day. Of all the people I've come to know in my life, Jim stands out. He's a giant among men and I'm glad to call him my friend.

When he and I met in that land far away, he called Providence, Rhode Island home and I lived in St. Pete. When we said our goodbyes in Panama I never thought I'd see him again. Kismet intervened however, and we stayed in touch after we returned to the US.

Jim had some kind of vague business career I never quite grasped and about six months after we came back to the US he had an opportunity to take a position in San Francisco.

Jim called me one afternoon to ask if I'd be interested in joining him in a road trip from Providence to San Francisco. Jim had a greyhound named Alex and he didn't want to fly her to the opposite coast. Besides, he had a car he needed to get to California and he'd already decided to drive himself. Having me along would make the drive easier for sure. Further, if I were along we'd take our time and get a feel for the US as we drove.

Our plan was to drive south from Rhode Island, through Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania on Day One. We were going to head south before heading west. Day Two had us driving through West Virginia, Virginia and into North Carolina. Jim had friends who had a cabin in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and he wanted to spend a few days with them before we headed west in earnest.

We arrived in North Carolina with few incidents and were all ready to spend a great weekend in the mountains with Jim's friends.

Jim's friends were amazing and I'll keep them nameless here. They were gracious hosts and their cabin turned out to be so much more than what I'd expected. However, they had an old cat named Punkin and we had a greyhound.

Most retired greyhounds that get adopted can't be around small animals. Their chase instinct is too strong, when they see something smaller than they are and it's moving, they can't help themselves but to chase it down.

Knowing this as we headed into the weekend, all of us decided that we keep Punkin and Alex separated so that Alex in particular would never see Punkin, and Punkin would remain oblivious to Alex.

A great weekend revealed itself. The four of us played board games and cooked up a storm. There was no TV and no interference from the outside world; it was four people enjoying one another's company in the middle of nowhere. We ate, we talked, we laughed and we told stories. It pretty much defined my idea of an ideal weekend and the backdrop of the Smokies made it all the more perfect. The goodwill just flowed and the four of us bonded tightly.

The weekend was winding down by Sunday. Jim and I had to head west and our hosts had to go home to their regular lives in Greensboro, South Carolina. Jim and I had a full day of driving ahead of us and so as Jim packed the car, I decided to take a quick nap.

Within a half an hour I heard a wail from one of our hosts. He was beyond wailing actually, he was keening. His mournings were the sharpest calls from a man in pain I'd ever heard.

Just then, Jim came barging into the guest room with Alex the greyhound in tow. I asked him what was going on and he said "Stay here and hold onto Alex. She just killed Punkin." He was gone in a flash.


I shook off my sleep and walked out into the kitchen while leaving Alex behind in the guest room. I grabbed Jim and asked him what was going on.

Apparently, Jim was loading the car and had Alex outside with him. Our hosts had no idea that Jim and Alex were outside so they let Punkin out the side door.

As Jim was loading the car Alex walked up to him with something in her mouth. He assumed it was a squirrel but he realized (and to his horror) it was Punkin the cat.

Alex had just killed our host's cat.

How do you come back from that? Alex was just being herself, a dog. However our hosts had just lost a member of their family. My heart goes out to them still but the relationships formed that weekend were destroyed utterly.

I don't blame them really. And how to deal with it from Jim's and my perspective was a total mystery.

Really, what do you do when your pet kills a friend's pet? Miss Manners never addresses situations like that.

Our hosts were the very picture of graciousness after the fact and I have nothing but good things to say about their response to the situation.

Jim and I didn't linger after Punkin's murder, in fact we drove twice the distance we were supposed to that day just to have some distance between us and the event that ended up defining that weekend. By the time we'd reached Columbia, Missouri we figured we'd come far enough and stopped for the night.

Alex the greyhound didn't seem to be affected by what had happened in North Carolina though Jim and I were torn. Alex was learning how to be a dog after seven years of being a racer. Jim and I were trying to express our condolences and save face at the same time.

We talked about nothing but through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Before we knew it we'd crossed the Continental Divide and as amazing as the experiences we embraced were, there was a shadow over all of it.

Our relationship with our hosts that weekend never recovered and a week after the fact we were in San Francisco.

I don't really mourn the loss of Punkin, but I do mourn the loss of two good people. I wish I could have the friendship back that we forged that weekend. But alas...

But really, what do you do in a situation like that? What's the appropriate response? How do you bounce back from a murder among pets?


  1. Your weekend guests were probably more upset with themselves than with you, Jim or Alex. You had an agreement and they probably feel as if they failed Punkin by not protecting him as they had promised -- to themselves, to you and Jim and to Punkin. Still sad.

  2. Sad indeed Rufus. The whole episode borders on the surreal, even after nearly 12 years. Our culture equips its members with the tools to deal with all kinds of situations; except for this one. I still don't know how to deal with it.

  3. Years ago when we lived in Michigan I adopted a parakeet. We had the bird less than 24 hours when one of our schipperkes (who had the intellect of a 6 year old human) killed and consumed the bird. I was devastated and felt tremendous guilt but a simple statement from my boss at work, a no-nonsense Brit, changed everything. I was blubbering like an idiot and recounting the incident when he looked at me and said simply "But he's a dog". Those four words snapped me back into the reality of the situation and forced me to see the situation for what it really was.
    Sometimes people forget that dogs are indeed dogs and that their cute little fluffies in their pink sweaters would really rather be rolling in a dead groundhog carcass or eating cat turds.
    As far as the friendship goes, that's tough. Greyhounds, no matter how far removed from their roots, are coursing dogs. They were developed to be hunters and I doubt that will ever leave them. It's unfortunate the cat was killed, but accidents happen and you can't prevent a dog from carrying out its basest drives.
    What a nightmare though. I'd feel bad too, but I hope they realize that it truly was an accident.

  4. My initial response was to dismiss the whole situation with "But she's a dog." Twelve years after the fact however, that provides little comfort. Alex is long gone and a fractured friendship remains. If Alex had to exercise her chase instinct, I'm glad it was a cat and not a child.

  5. I have been thinking about this post for a few days now Paul, especially as a dog owner. It grieves me that a wonderful friendship was destroyed because a dog did what dogs do. Melody is right. My dogs have never shown aggression to humans or other animals but I would never leave them alone or even unleashed with small children or any small pet for this very reason. I also immediately leave a dog park if people bring their small children inside the dog area. I can't even imagine the horror of the experience for you, Jim, and the two friends especially after having been so careful all weekend. I don't know if it would help, or perhaps it has already been tried, but a letter stating the feelings about the loss of friendship might help bridge the hurt.

  6. We tried the letter routine about a week after the fact but there was too much anger and mourning already. This many years down the road the whole thing's just a bad story to tell.


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