The Short Yet
Semi-Happy Life of Zip the Dog
Column and Painting
by Mel Brown
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.
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
|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.