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The Short Yet Semi-Happy Life of Zip the Dog

Column and Painting by Mel Brown

Ever since seeing an old movie long ago titled “The Biscuit Eater” I have been enamored of coon dogs. Something about their especially soulful faces and incredible voices has always touched me deeply, perhaps the result of some fifteen or so generations of Southern heritage. Whatever the reason, a couple years before marrying back in 1974 I had owned a Red Bone then later a Red Tick Coonhound. The former was a “gyp” or jip as many rural Texans call their female canines while the latter was simply a dog, the typical appellation of male mutts. “Ruby” was soon stolen from me since Red Bones were then considered rare and therefore desirable. The Red Tick, that I named “Zip” was a stray who showed up one day at the old farm house where I then lived, about ten miles east of San Antonio out on Saint Hedwig Road.

Zip the dog, and the barn

I was renting the old Mahula homestead while working in town and was there for only a couple of years before marrying and settling down in Austin. Anyhow, as Zip learned the hard way, that old place was just lousy with rattlesnakes, as some places are. In the brief two years I lived at that ramshackle, hundred year old farm house, I killed six of the pesky varmints within a mere hundred feet of the backdoor. That included one which buzzed at me in the dark from under my car one night. Perhaps the most memorable one turned up directly under the floorboards beneath my then new waterbed mattress not long after I’d fallen asleep late one evening. There are few sounds as unnerving as the hissing of a full grown diamondback rattler only a couple feet from your head. I can guarantee you that this uniquely terrifying sound will straighten out your spine as quickly as is possible without any concentration at all ... and it sure did mine that night.

My other gyp “Camille” had whelped that afternoon just under the house right beneath my bed and the viper found the newborn pups later that evening. It was actually a combination of Camille’s sudden, frantic barking and the snake’s full blown hissing that quickly got my somnolent attention. I’ll shorten this fretful digression by adding that after a few nervously flash lighted rounds of .22 long from the prone position under the house, the snake was dead but not before it had fatally bitten two of Camille’s five pups. But it is Zip’s tale that wants telling here so please bear with me because it is worthwhile or so I hope. Returning home from work early one spring evening, I was met by my neighbor/landlord who lived in the new house about a hundred yards behind my old one. He had just come from the equally ancient old barn between our respective homes and was obviously agitated. He quickly told me that Zip had been bit right smack on his nose by a large rattlesnake and was laying in the barn’s hay loft. We found Zip still there and in a heart braking, pitiful state with his head the size of a basketball, his eyes swollen shut, and him barely able to breath due to the awful swelling. I could see by the spread of the fang marks on the side of his snout that it had indeed been a big snake which had punished ol’ Zip’s curiosity with a hefty dose of “leave me alone juice” as someone once called it. Having a very low tolerance for the painful suffering of dumb animals, I headed for the house to get my shot gun with which to put that sweet but miserable boy out of his profound suffering.

My neighbor stopped me about half way there and said “Let me call my brother ... he’s a vet and might know something about this sort of thing.” We did and he did. He told me that the average, healthy, mid-size or larger dog can often survive such a bite unless it hits his throat. Then the swelling closes the windpipe and they suffocate relatively quickly, usually in under an hour. He said further that it sounded by our description like it had been at least an hour since Zip’s encounter and to leave him alone for now. This was tough to do but being one who subscribes to nature’s laws as much as is reasonable, I decided to take the vet’s advice.

With the sun slipping away, I remembered a recent purchase titled The FOXFIRE Book. It was a remarkable volume made up completely of the transcribed words and stories of Southern Appalachia rural folks on topics ranging from log cabin building, to still fabrication, from quilt making to hog dressing, mountain craft to soap making, plus various home remedies and coincidentally, snake lore. I had skipped through it then laid it aside a week or two earlier and now remembered within its pages a dog snakebite story. Sure enough, one of the tales told was about a hunting dog being bit on the nose by a rattler and what to do about it. In simple, West Virginia hill folk words it said to make a mash from turpentine, onion, and salt pork then apply that to the bite.

I had no turpentine so used some Coleman Fuel, an onion and bacon plus a lot of salt, all mashed into a pastey poultice. That odd smelling smear was carried back out to the darkening barn where Zip was still laying in the same spot. I also took a new, double edge razor blade and with it just lightly opened the two fang marks which had by then scabbed over. Zip was suffering too much to resist that but having a salty, burning paste smeared on his already tender nose was just too much; he raised up weakly and wobbled across the hay loft then collapsed in a heap still laboring with each difficult breath. It was nearly dark by then and the snake was still hunting mice somewhere there about so we left Zip alone to do or die.

Next morning just as it was getting light, I started out the back door to check on him and there he was, already about half way from the barn, head down with a slow but steady pace. I sat on the back step and let him come to me which he did and nearly all the swelling in his head was gone. A large amount of fluid had collected in the usually loose skin around his neck but he was up walking around and breathing almost normally. He had a long, slow drink then curled up under the rear end of my old 1955 FORD Fairlane where he napped for most of the rest of that day. Zip got over that snakebite but it aged him a couple years. Not six months later he came limping home one afternoon with a butt full of bird shot, no doubt the result of chasing somebody’s chickens. I drove down the road to a rural pharmacy that sold vet supplies, bought a hypodermic syringe & needle, a dose of penicillin and one of tetanus both of which went into Zip’s already punctured rear end. Most of the lead shot slowly worked itself out piece by piece and he got over that bit of self induced bad luck too.

Zip in the farm in Colorado
Zip in the farm in Colorado

A year later in June of 1974, I eloped taking Zip with me all the way to southern Colorado where some friends lived. They volunteered to keep him on their small farm while my new wife Lorraine and I went on and honeymooned the rest of that summer in my VW Beetle. By late August we had made it all the way out to San Francisco, then back to Colorado to pick up Zip before returning to Texas. Sadly the week before our arrival, a local rancher brought ol’ Zip down with a well aimed deer rifle because he was chasing the man’s cattle. That of course is a big no-no as anyone who lives on or around ranches well knows, so while heart broken, I accepted it as Zip’s fate. He was a dear boy who was also just about the most soulful but hard luck animal I ever knew, bless his heart and I still miss him.

This is one of three stories I could tell about rattlesnake bitten pets. One was a beautiful Pointer named Daisy, the other a tough little tomcat whom we called Flint. Both survived bad bites that each animal healed by being left alone to let nature do its thing thereby teaching me a lot in the process.
© Mel Brown
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
January 1, 2008 Column
Please send comments to: melbjr@earthlink.net

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