On the loose

“No way.”

Those were the approximate words my soon-to-be-betrothed used way back when, after learning of my plan to adopt a dog with a trashed leg and a track record to match.

Needless to say, I ignored the advice. From the second I saw Bilbo that fateful night seven years ago, leg bandages trailing in the gutter as he scrounged for trash under the streetlight, he stole my heart. See, for a couple of years, Bilbo had been a sort of vagrant dog – making the rounds among friends while his owner pursued his dream guiding on the Grand Canyon.

The lack of supervision only fueled Bilbo’s predilection for late-night, self-guided tours of local alleyways, and unfortunately, he eventually landed himself on the losing end of a hit and run. Although the metal plate in his front leg put a dent in his mobility, it did nothing to damage his appetite. And thus, on this particular night, he slunk away from his current foster home and made his way across town in search of the finest vittles Durango’s dumpsters could serve up. When he was noticed missing, I volunteered for the search party.

Call it destiny, but within a few blocks I spotted him. I opened my car door and called to him. Must’ve been a slow night for local grease traps, because he took me up on my offer and jumped into the passenger’s seat. But don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a slobbering, lick-your-face Lassy kind of entrance. It was more of a cool, stand-offish, James Dean to-do.

Anyway, due to some uncontrollable urge – you know, the same one that draws sane, respectable women to the “bad boys” they know deep in their hearts that they’ll never be able to change – I soon found myself adopting the wayward mutt with the bum leg and aloof disposition. Something told me I could tame the beast, teach him to catch Frisbees, shake, roll over, fetch my slippers and who knows, maybe even stay put.

My better half knew better. “It’s your dog,” he cautioned.

Of course, over the next few years, those words came back to haunt me. Like when an elk carcass mysteriously showed up on the front lawn or the frequent occasions when the dog returned from a long absence reeking of eau de fish guts. And then there was his running – more of a disappearing act, really. There one minute, gone the next. No fence, window, door, leash or car could contain him, sort of like a canine Houdini. Often, I would leave him enclosed in the yard, only to come home to find him sitting outside the fence, a smug smile on his face and an empty pizza box nearby. And the worst part was, I fell for it every time – a total sucker for the fuzzy face and one floppy ear.

Needless to say, it soon became apparent who was schooling who, and any hopes of slipper-fetching or Frisbee championships went out the window, along with him. Amazingly enough, on all his sojourns he managed to avoid the long net of animal control. Call it luck, but I think there was a higher intelligence at work. I often joked about making a “dogumentary,” complete with helmet-cam just to catch him in action. (Disclaimer: Roaming dogs within city limits are strictly illegal, even if said dog is more like a big cat with a gimpy leg and teeth like an Appalachian hillbilly.)

Anyhow, as the years went on and Bilbo’s sight grew dimmer and his hearing more selective, we began to fret more over his unchaperoned outings, which often took him across busy thoroughfares. Each time he wandered off, we won

dered if it would be the last. Unfortunately, with the distraction of two small children, it became easier than ever for him to sneak away. But at the ripe age of 13, his stealth skills weren’t what they used to be. After waking me recently at the vulnerable hour of 3 a.m. to go out, Bilbo’s secret mission was betrayed by a motion-sensor garage light.

“He’s making a run for it,” Sean shouted as the outdoor bulb went on, flooding the bedroom with light. He looked out the window just in time to see Bilbo rounding the corner into the alley. We jumped to action, only problem was, neither of us were dressed for it. Sean’s T-shirt and boxers trumped my nightshirt, and like a circus firewalker, he dashed barefoot out the back door, through a several inches of crusty snow and down the icy alleyway. Bilbo had made it to the next block by the time Sean corralled him. As luck would have it, it was a slow night, and both parties returned home without incident or citation, although frozen appendages were a different story.

Little did we know, that night would be the first – and last – time we would catch Bilbo in the act. Maybe it was the sight of a grown man in his underwear chasing after him, but from there on out, Bilbo stuck close to home.

About a month later, he was diagnosed with the big “C” – that dreaded six-letter word all dog owners fear. And looking back, I think Bilbo knew it all along – his 3 a.m. mad dash was sort of his last hurrah. Which isn’t to say he gave up completely. In fact, for the few weeks following the news, he took complete advantage of his diagnosis, living life to the fullest, snatching bowls of ice cream off the table, wolfing down T-bone steaks, polishing off unattended kids lunches and washing it all down with slobbery trips to the toilet bowl. In fact, he lived his final days with such gusto that I began to doubt his death sentence, thinking he would outlive us all.

But as predicted, the sinister disease caught up with him, and I was faced with the hardest decision a dog owner in denial can face: saying goodbye.

“You’ll know when it’s his time,” friends who had undergone similar ordeals told me.

So for the next few tenuous days, I watched and waited for “the sign” – you know, maybe he’d look me in the eyes and communicate telepathically. Or he’d do something so out of character, like lick my face or snuggle up to me, that I’d instantly know. But nothing ever happened. And then I found it: an unscathed half of a grilled cheese sandwich under the kitchen table.

“Maybe he just didn’t know it was there,” offered Sean.

But I didn’t buy it – not from a dog who could catch the scent of a wiener sizzling on a hibachi 10 miles downwind or hear an electric can opener the next county over.

This was it.

And thus a few days later, with a heavy heart, I scratched that special spot behind his ears and buried my head in that mangy neck one last time. I hung on tight until it was time to let go, hoping that some day he would be able to forgive me.

Long may you run, buddy.

– Missy Votel