Boy and Rocca, Part I

(7/15/08) – by Lise N. McComiskey

Photo ©2008 Jeanette Althans

Photo ©2008 Jeanette Althans

They are disinterest, dislike and distrust; They are the left behind, unwittingly, unwillingly or without care, they are a mystery; They are the curiosity that bends with persistent hunger; They are the glimpse of another society; They are the mud under my fingernails, nails hidden in the everyday world of corporate law; They are the hole in my shirt, the rips in my jeans, the tear in my glove.

They are the scratches on my face, the bruises on my legs, the rusted nail in my foot; They are the tools of my life, they are catch-poles, leads, choke chains, muzzles, stakes, bungee cords and bait; They are the crawlspace I navigate, where I lie under a rotted house, silent, as a lone junkie aimlessly wanders onto this deserted street; They are the rats, the snakes, the bugs and everything that crawls around me in the darkness; They are the machete I wield for vegetation that grows taller than me and the pocket-knife I hope to never wield; They are the rotten mold from washed-out front door to washed-out back door and every nook and cranny in between.

They are the smell of death in so many vacancies and the picture of a life that used to be; They are the all-night trapping session, two blocks from yet another murder; They are the ceiling I stare at when sleep won’t come; They are the maps I plot, every street, every bayou, every dead end, with points taken from photos, sightings and best guesses; They are the blowout on the interstate, the tire sliced by a city of trash.

They are the smell of hot dogs on my vegetarian fingers; They are the New York taxi whistle, and they come, now, but only if they are in the same section of this ravaged city that I am; They are frustration and anger, hindsight and if-only’s; They are determination and drive, they are my inability to give up or give in; They are the business suit covered in wet mud, burrs and thorns; They are the endless strategies and well-honed plans but they refuse to stay within the parameters; They are the traps set along the way when they won’t be found; They are the turning point of trust obtained in a place without boundaries, a place where it is theirs to give, not mine to take.

They own the city but the streets have become my playground; They roam the night and the skin I walk in begins to feel like something other than human; They are the surveyors flags, the colored chalk, the paw-prints in the dirt; They lead and I follow, through, in, out, around and over ten miles square in any direction from their epicenter, ultimately covering 100 square miles of disaster ravaged Gentilly, Lakeview, Mid-City, Treme and the East.
They are my most ambitious project, a year long plus, the alternative choice to do nothing; They are my education in feralization, triangulation, domestication, the complete and total grasp of things beyond my control, nature, God’s will and life; They are my own magnificent obsession and I have become their most easily acquired possession; They are my success, they are my failure, my highest highs, my lowest lows.

They are two bonded canines, two dogs who roam a city laid waste to Katrina, and I am their tracker, their stalker, their shadow, their menace and their friend; They have changed my life more than I have changed theirs; They are Rocca and Boy.

Photo ©2008 Lise N. McComiskey

Photo ©2008 Lise N. McComiskey

Rocca’s trust came fairly early on, his [Boy’s] would be much harder for which to win. With claim to a large territory and no rules, no restrictions, it would be months in between their visits, but as the walls of distrust were broken down the visits became longer. I first spotted Rocca in February of 2006, and wrote about her and our then year-long journey together, “Still Here, Still Counting on us in NOLA” nearly a year later, I did so with the mistaken assumption that the feral and huge male dog she traveled with was the pup I had first seen her with but it would be many months before I would be able to put all the puzzle pieces together. By the Spring of 2007 these two dogs and I interacted from afar, but nevertheless there was an interaction… They managed to make me feel ‘safe’ in an otherwise unsafe way to spend my time in this city, alone on the street with the goal of rescuing animals. Things changed however not long after that and it wasn’t until after I posted their story in February 2007 that I began to see this pair more clearly because the responses were amazingly unexpected. It turns out I wasn’t the only one in the city who knew this pair of dogs.  Over the next few months, I compared notes, photos, sightings, all with other rescuers, feeders, people still working to reunite, people still here in this city and people who had been here shortly after Katrina. We all soon learned that the story behind the story of these two dogs was something surreal and something we would likely never truly know and it was the catalyst of my reaction, a reaction that would ultimately push me to limits I might never have known I had.

Easter Sunday Miracles

It was like any other Sunday, traveling down S. Miro Street looking for signs of life. There was really no thought process to the whistle but she heard it, they heard it and there they were, after more than two months of not a single sighting. I wondered had they been rescued, had they been killed or were they possibly holed-up somewhere with a new litter?  When I discovered that others in this city, and beyond, were familiar with this pair of dogs, we all feared for them when a photo taken in late January 2007 by a rescuer in Lakeview revealed what looked like a nursing dog. Rocca had pups somewhere, but where? I myself had seen her only one time after that photo was taken and it was on that day, a cold February morning on the very same street that Rocca had allowed me to first touch her head. A year had passed since I first saw her, a pathetic and emaciated creature with her pup and they had been gnawing on a rotten, empty, molded pet food bag. Now here we were, a year later and finally she trusted my hand would not inflict pain, and I worked hard to contain my excitement so as not to lose that trust, and then she was gone. So months later on that Easter Sunday, when they appeared at my whistle, it was somewhat of a shock, and strangely she now wanted my attention. It was more than allowing it, she was soliciting it.  ‘What girl? Here you go, what’s a matter, you don’t want the food? What is it? What?’ And so I did what she wanted, she couldn’t talk and I hadn’t learned canine language but it was clear what she wanted and so we traveled the path together, she in front and then alongside my truck and me just going her way. She took me over a mile that day, into a part of the city I was then unfamiliar with and ultimately they would take me to places that aren’t on any map, but today there was a plan.

Click map to see a larger image

Click map to see a larger image

My life with Rocca and Boy changed that Easter Sunday and, although I will never know the reason, she took me to her solitary pup. Did she want her freedom back or did she want me to help the smaller version of her? I do know that she clearly and unmistakably brought me into her world.  Another zip code, another abandoned house, but underneath, a small puppy, hers…and possibly his. He followed us although I didn’t know it until he just appeared again, curled up, way back under the house, desiring not to be bothered, not to be touched. I did what I’m fairly certain she wanted, I took the puppy and she was long ago adopted. Did she look for me that day? Did she just stumble upon a familiar face? Did she give the puppy up so it could be safe or so that she could roam again?

Becoming Canine

Rocca drastically changed the moment I took her pup away, she grew loving and affectionate, but she was beyond my grasp because of him. ‘Boy,’ as I had named him, believing him to have been hers, was feral, was beyond feral…he was an elusive giant, a giant of a dog who hid in plain sight but who clearly was extremely bonded to Rocca. So where she went, he followed… at least I think he followed, he always just appeared and then would retreat under the house or building, whatever was close enough to shroud him from the world and me. I could have easily taken Rocca into safety, just like I had done with her pup, but what would happen to him? I knew enough to know that I would never see him again, I knew of his existence only because of her. So for the time being she would have to remain on the streets, unsafe and so often unseen.  As my bond with Rocca grew daily, I knew that they would eventually return to their nomadic life and so plans were made, traps were set, observation after observation was made and at a point in my life I never expected, I became a student again. The mission to take these dogs off the street became a full-blown study in canine behavior and I found myself knowledgable of another world, another life and unlike any classroom I have ever been in, this education was hands-on. In order to get the dog, I had to learn the dog and in order to learn the dog, I had to be allowed into their pack.

Leader of the Pack

Between Easter Sunday 2007 and the late summer, I learned, breathed, ate, slept and lived dog. I watched, waited, studied, read, observed, hung back, joined in, and worked to become part of their inner circle. Nearly all my research had to be conducted in the field because there seemed to be very little research anywhere regarding feral dogs or dog packs. Absolutely no information existed regarding packs that inhabit a disaster-impacted region, so I dug in my heels and began the journey to becoming canine, behaving canine, making them believe that I was yielding to their language, their behavior, their world instead of forcing them to yield to mine. I struck gold when I was able to find one man, a scientist, a man by the name of TJ Daniels, Co-Director of the Vector Ecology Laboratory at New York City’s Jesuit University, Fordham University. When I found an article, or a snippet of an article, he had written in the mid-1980’s regarding feral dog behavior, I wrote to him and begged him to sell me the article. Although it could be purchased, I would have to enroll at Cornell University to gain access to it. I had two dogs to rescue, I was fairly certain that Cornell was not in my near future. Dr. Daniels, with no other knowledge than my plea with a brief explanation as to why I wanted the article, was gracious enough to mail a package to me and in that package was pure gold. Dr. Daniels sent me a copy of every article he published during his graduate research and even after, at least a dozen articles on feral dogs, feral dog packs, feral dog behavior, feralization theories, etc. I would soon immerse myself into a feral world in order to gain a better understanding of what I was trying to do. The days and nights I spent joining Boy and Rocca’s pack was a once in a lifetime experience. But it was Dr. Daniel’s work and his publications regarding that work that allowed me to truly become somewhat knowledgeable about these creatures and for that I am eternally grateful.

Dog Days of Summer

And so I joined Rocca and Boy’s pack and learned not to worry as much about them. If they were in the area of the city that I was, my whistle would give away their location every time. Over time Boy became less guarded and more curious until the day came where he came nose to nose with me as I sat in the grass. He was huge. He had always given clear warnings to me when I would try to coax him out from under whatever structure he was hidden, and so when he placed his snout next to my ear and I felt his hot breath, he standing taller than I sat, I was terrified. Of what might happen, and more terrified of him knowing my terror, so I didn’t breathe. After deciding I was not dinner he turned and walked away, and only then did I regain movement, and what a charge of electricity went through me.  Whatever the change in Boy, it was a change. He was behind me without a sound and then his giant face was near mine, sniffing for an indication that he should bite that face, but he didn’t. Over a matter of days, weeks, he would allow touch, human contact with his fur, his many scars that lined his face, his head, his ears. Was he a fighter, maybe bait, or just her protector? This gigantic creature who had previously shown no desire to interact with me, or any other human, had taken steps in a different direction. I wondered, can we go farther down this path or will the lack of boundaries prevent this journey? The city was theirs and ultimately, their actions with me was theirs to choose. Would he, like Rocca, choose me, a human? Would he interact with a species that evidently had no control over him?

As the summer months became unbearable, I began to see the pair more often, not always in the same part of the city, almost as if they had a better read on my whereabouts then I had on theirs.  The traps and poles had long been put away and instead my tools of choice were hot dogs, canned food, my whistle and my affection and they were all working.  Boy was beginning not only to enjoy my attention but to solicit it. If they came running when I whistled, it was Boy who eventually would be in the front, tail wagging and a huge grin-like expression. Boy’s expression was almost clown-like, he always seemed to be laughing at me and so I laughed at him and eventually it was as if we were all laughing together. But I knew this would have to end and my plan to take them off these streets would have to come to fruition, but how? Their trust in me was undeniable, their affection for me was mutual as I came to love them but not like any other animals I had rescued. I began to love them and understand them for what they were, or so I thought at the time, but I still had so much to learn.

Labor of Love

When all my attempts to leash Rocca failed because of Boy’s possessive-like ownership of her, when all my attempts to lure them both into my vehicle with hot dogs, when all my attempts to trap them, one way or the other, had failed miserably, a decision had to be made. Rocca was once again pregnant. It was late August 2007 and she would be delivering soon enough. The decision to take her off the street and to ARNO was ultimately made by a vet student. She did not care that they were bonded, did not care that Boy might disappear, did not care that I had not seen Boy for two days now, she wanted Rocca in now. I am eternally grateful for her decision, one I couldn’t make. Rocca delivered four pups by c-section the week of Labor Day. We were told that had I left her on the street to deliver (as we waited for Boy to reappear), she and the pups would have died due to a breach presentation and the first pup stuck in the birth canal. So now I had Rocca and her precious pups, but as much as I loved Rocca, Boy was the one who had my heart. I had believed him to be Rocca’s feral pup and then believed him to be her mate, but it wasn’t until one of our last times together, all three of us, that I knew I would never know Boy’s story. As he groomed himself one lazy summer afternoon, I saw it or rather I didn’t see it. Boy was neutered! There was nothing there that could have meant he was the father of Rocca’s pup and more importantly, it was on that day, nearly a year-and-a-half after first seeing Rocca and that pup, that I finally realized Rocca was not the only owned dog prior to Katrina. Boy was neutered so Boy was someone’s dog at some point. This realization hit me hard because Boy was human-aversive, human-avoiding, human or at least fear-aggressive and I had worked for so many months to gain his trust and his companionship and now I learned he had been part of the human world after all.