An elderly friend once told me, "Everyone is entitled to one good dog." I buried mine two years ago. He was 14.
Actually, Percy wasn't mine. He much preferred my wife, and for good reason. Ruth was the one who turned my golden retriever into a pampered pet. She fed him three times a day, usually right from the table. She brushed him. She chauffeured him around. It made no difference if he was covered with mud, had rolled in manure or had just picked over a well-seasoned road kill. Percy sat right up front, with his head out the window.
We purchased Percy in the summer of 1974. He was the pick of the litter, a little ball of fluff who soon matured into a classic golden. Percy was perfect of his breed except for one—better make that two-things. First, he was sterile. When we told the breeder, she insisted on giving us half our money back. "You only got half a dog," she said with obvious disappointment. I never felt that way. Unlike most goldens, Percy had no urge to roam, which undoubtedly contributed to his longevity: No trucks come through our backyard.
Percy loved to retrieve balls: tennis balls, baseballs, softballs, anything he could get into his mouth. But he only retrieved for recreation; that was the second exception to his breed. Percy rejected retrieving as a profession right from the start. The first time I fired a gun over his head, he looked at me in terror and ran straight to Ruth. The first time I introduced Percy to water, he waded out stomach-deep, floated for a second and then paddled back to terra firma. And the first time I put him onto a live bird, he missed the point.
In truth, as a house dog Percy wasn't much better. Though I specifically banned him from the living room, almost every morning I would find him asleep on the couch. And though I specifically banned him from upstairs, almost every night I would catch him asleep on our bed.
There are many Percy stories. Most of them are about things he did wrong, the things all retrievers do wrong, such as fighting with skunks, porcupines and other dogs, or stealing pies, turkeys and hams people had left outside to cool. But the time he got into real trouble was one of the rare moments when he did what he was told.
We, like all people who feed birds, have a squirrel problem. Our problem is aggravated by the fact that I actually enjoy watching our squirrels outmaneuver the "squirrel-proof" feeders. I admire creativity, ingenuity and persistence, and there is nothing as creative, ingenious and persistent as a squirrel around a freshly filled feeder.
As a professional conservationist, however, I became concerned when our squirrels turned into a bunch of fat, lazy freeloaders. They had lost all interest in collecting nuts and were living almost exclusively on the dole. I don't like upsetting the balance of nature, so I appointed Percy the official watchdog of the feeder. Percy was touched. He took his job very seriously.
Over the years, our routine never changed. At first light, Percy would thump upstairs, where he was not allowed, and nuzzle us until we got out of bed. Then we would follow him to the sliding glass door in the kitchen. There were always at least half a dozen squirrels plundering the feeder out back.
Percy would bark and jump up and down. He was ready to go to work. At that point, we would tap the glass, open the door and watch the fun. The squirrels would be off and running at the first tap. Percy would burst through the door after them. In his younger days, he would actually shinny two or three feet up the big beech tree to which the squirrels always retreated. Thanks to our warning, there was no way that Percy could make a kill. But he never lost heart; the next morning, he would be upstairs nuzzling us and ready to go.
All was well until Ruth's 85-year-old grandmother came for a visit. Tillie was deaf, but refused to wear her hearing aid. Otherwise, she was in wonderful shape. On the first night of Tillie's visit, Ruth finally decided to enforce the "no Percy upstairs" rule. The last thing anybody wanted was Percy nuzzling Tillie. That meant Percy was not nuzzling us; we overslept.
When we finally got up I realized I was going to be late for an important meeting. I quickly showered, shaved and got dressed while Ruth made the bed and cleaned up after me. It wouldn't do for Tillie to think she was a lousy housekeeper. Percy was forgotten. I had to get going, and Ruth was trying to coordinate her plans for the day. Percy, totally confused, followed us to the front door. When it opened, he was out like a flash.
The squirrels out front never knew what hit them. They were industrious, but definitely much dumber than the backyard band. These squirrels eked out an honest living by collecting acorns that dropped from the big oak. They had never raided the bird feeder and never participated in the morning routine. They had also never seen Percy all fired up. To them, he was the gentle slob who spent his day lying on the front stoop licking tennis balls—about as threatening as a stone.
Their first reaction was to freeze, which gave Percy a tremendous advantage. When they finally figured out that this charging mass of teeth and golden fur was after them, they broke for the oak. All of them made it, except for one. This little fellow decided to hightail it down the driveway.
Percy never looked more noble than when he pranced back to the house proudly displaying his prize. He had done his job.
He was totally confused when Ruth whacked him on the side of the head. It was the first and only time that Ruth ever struck Percy. "Percy, you bad dog!" she yelled. "Drop that squirrel!" The poor little thing desperately tried to crawl to the big oak, but its hind legs refused to work. Its spine had been snapped.
"I'd better get my gun and put it out of its misery," I said. Tillie came downstairs just as I was loading up. "Going hunting?" she inquired brightly.
Apparently the sight of me, dressed in a suit, loading my shotgun, did not seem strange to Tillie. She was from New Jersey and must have figured that this was what all Virginia gentlemen did each day before they went off to work. What could I say? I didn't have time to explain, plus Tillie wouldn't be able to hear me anyway. "Yes," I said, and ran back out.
I dispatched the squirrel and buried him deep in the woods where I was sure Percy wouldn't find him. Ruth was still lecturing Percy when I came back to the kitchen.
Tillie had settled down with a cup of tea. "Get anything?" she asked cheerily.
"One squirrel," I replied, holding up a finger.
"Good," said Tillie, sipping her tea.
I'm positive Tillie went to her grave thinking that I routinely shot a squirrel before going to the office. She told Ruth that Art, Ruth's grandfather, used to shoot squirrels that robbed their feeder, too. "That was in the old days, before New Jersey got all built-up," she noted.
Ruth is putting pressure on me to get another dog. I'm resisting. Then again, I see a new generation of fat, lazy squirrels freeloading from my latest squirrel-proof feeder. They don't budge when I tap on the sliding glass door. Maybe it's time to reestablish the balance of nature.
David Morine's book "Good Dirt: Confessions of a Conservationist" will be out in November.