If there were a competition for dogs finding dead animals and bringing them up to the porch, my dog would win. Release the hound and a half-eaten raccoon will be found and enthusiastically delivered within 6 minutes (or the road kill is free).
Transporting an 18-lb., frozen, raccoon carcass with a plastic snow shovel is no easy task. Last winter, I had the opportunity to experience this wonder firsthand. Approximately 6-7 minutes after letting my golden retriever free to stretch his legs and attend to business, I opened the door to a big, furry horror. This was not the kind of business I had intended him to complete. My eyes immediately focused on the teeth and grotesque whiskers of a dead beast. I looked at my dog, and he smiled. While living, the raccoon probably weighed 22 lbs., but it had lost its middle since its expiration date. Now, it was only head, shoulders, knees, toes and ringed tail.
The dog gleefully wagged his tail and three curious farm cats circled. I knew I couldn’t just leave the dead thing there, two feet from the front door—what a distasteful welcome mat! The half-eaten corpse certainly did not align with my Anne of Green Gables aesthetic. So, I pushed the door open, took one hesitant step out and then abruptly jumped back in–I needed to give myself a pep talk. After repeating “you can do this” to myself about ten times, I crept out onto the porch and resolved to keep my eyes up. I thought it would all be fine if I just didn’t look down. Like a Looney Tunes character who had been flung into a lion cage, I skirted around the edge of the porch staying as far away from the dead body as possible. After passing the crime scene, I accelerated from a careful walk to a get-me-the-hell-away-from-here jog, venturing into the night to find the Suncast steel core shovel my boyfriend gave me last Christmas. (He gifted me that along with a cheaply made garbage can and an endless list of fitness models I could friend on Facebook. It didn’t work out.)
Luckily, in the old hog shed turned upcycled chicken coop, there was just enough moonlight for me to spot the shovel glimmer. As I grabbed the handle, the shovel scraped the cement floor and a chorus of odd, guttural displeased clucks creaked out from the darkness. Chickens don’t like it when their dreams are interrupted. The low-toned clucker moans made the dark shed very spooky. Then, of course, I started imagining a masked Michael Myers type stepping out from behind a wall, so I didn’t waste any time dragging that shovel out of there.
Shovel in hand, I awkwardly charged back across the snow-covered yard, my semi-determined gait repeatedly thrown off balance whenever my foot broke through the hard-crusted snow. Approaching the house and bemoaning my choice to put on sneakers instead of boots, I breathed heavily and noticed a white spindle had been dislodged from the porch railing. Allowing my misery to distract me from the unpleasant task at hand, I performed my best grumpy old man impersonation, cursing and grumbling about wet socks and sloppy carpentry as I climbed the porch steps, but then I looked down—because I had to.
Due to the below-zero temps, the raccoon was frozen solid and resembled a kind of varmint dumbbell of matted fur and frozen blood, bone, guts, and tissue (remember, he lost his middle). I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of frozen air, coughed, and then focused my determination on ridding the porch of the atrocity. Looking down again, I carefully positioned the shovel and tried to slide it under the coon cadaver. I soon realized that a dumbbell form isn’t easily scooped. The ergonomic digger was not doing the trick, but I guess it wasn’t really designed for dead varmint removal. Unwilling to admit defeat, I pressed onward. Pushing and wiggling the shovel under the heavy body, I gagged and vacillated between courage and terror, repeating inner dialogues like Toughen up! You live on a farm–you should be able to handle this! and It’s not going to come alive. IT HAS NO ABDOMEN! Apparently, for some reason, I think all dead animals have a kind of Pet Cemetery power and can spontaneously reanimate. In that moment, I felt more pre-teen girl than tough farm woman.
Fighting back raccoon-resurrection images, I continued to hone my shovel dexterity when I noticed that my 6-yr-old son was standing in the doorway watching the deed with his eyebrows raised. His blond hair and bulky, red, fleece robe backlit by cozy kitchen light were uncanny contrasts to the carrion nightmare on the dim porch. I kept trying to scoot the coon dumbbell onto the shovel and it kept slip sliding away. The cats continued to circle and mew, reminding me of the movie Sleepwalkers, a ‘90s horror flick that ends with (spoiler alert) an army of cats defeating a couple of supernatural beasts. Why couldn’t my cats provide a little assistance? Perhaps they could pounce on the dead coon and make it burst into flames (that’s what the movie cats did). I could easily sweep a pile of ashes away. But no, these cats sauntered around with their tails high and only provided an eerie mewing soundtrack to my gawky dead body removal. I tried to refocus, but when I pushed the shovel, one of the raccoon’s little baby-like hands waved at me, and I gagged—again.
The next time I looked up at the door, I saw my sweet little boy precariously holding two coffee creamer containers and a carton of milk. While I desperately attempted to load the coonbell onto the snow shovel, he juggled the items and yelled “I need help getting the chocolate milk!” Immediately, rapid-fire, anxiety-fueled thoughts zipped: He can’t have chocolate milk–it’s after eight o’clock (the coon wobbled); Oh God, what if he drops all that–then I’ll have to mop up puddles of Fat-Free Hazelnut and Almond Breeze after I move this stupid coon” (the back end of the raccoon dangled over the shovel edge; its ribcage caught—I repositioned my grip); We have to make 8:30 lights out time; I’m sure there’ll be an epic asking-for-a-snack-after-brushed-teeth battle, and we have to read that library book about the magic tree…” At this point, I lost all coonbell-balancing concentration. The dog whined, and I yelled “You’re SO naughty! I’ve had it with you!” He put his head down and flashed his best pouty eyes. My little boy stared with wide saucer-like eyes. The creamers shook. And that’s when the furry, frozen-gut-exposed critter completely slid off the shovel, taking a whiskered nose dive and thudding end-over-end down the cement steps, finally balancing against my Christmas-garland-wrapped stair rail and corrupting a clip-on poinsettia flower. I shuddered, stepped down, and kicked the masked bandit onto the sidewalk. I no longer feared the gutless beast; I was actually angry at the dead thing.
Even though my adrenaline level had spiked, I decided that I wasn’t going to maneuver the body anymore. It was past 8:00 pm on a Midwestern winter night, and the designated dead animal pile, aka the dog’s “collection,” was all the way across the farm. So I turned away and added “coonbell removal” to my morning list, somewhere between making a Wow Butter sandwich for my son’s school lunch and drying my hair. I balanced the shovel against the railing, sneered at the smiling hound once more and went in to get the boy his chocolate milk. After witnessing this episode, he deserved it.
My dog is a small-animal serial killer. Well, I don’t think he’s really driven by bloodlust and, to be fair, he’s seldom committed actual murder. He just loves to retrieve things—dead things. Maybe he’s better described as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein because he does seem to prefer collecting the deceased and their miscellaneous parts. To date, I’ve removed a calf leg, multiple mice, a deer leg, a deer head, a deer torso (one section every morning in 3-day succession), a dead cat (no, not a family cat–an outsider, a drifter), chickens, turkeys, other assorted birds, and various undetermined critter parts. Hunting and calving seasons exponentially increase the possibilities for extraordinary dropped-at-the-door gifts. He has killed fowl. But, in his defense, he was bred to be a “bird dog.” I don’t know, maybe he’s a canine Ed Gein. The day I open the door and see him sporting a turkey-skin mask and feather hat, I’ll have to consider drastic reprogramming options. I have tried some behavioral modification, but I haven’t been able to get the morbid collecting obsession out of his system. I wish he would go back to the days of innocence, when he would only bring me pairs of the neighbors’ shoes, welcome mats (the appropriate kind), or bags of bread to the porch. But no, he grew up to be a retriever of death, and I’m forced to be his “cleaner” and question my level of sophistication and my place in life on long winter evenings such as the one previously mentioned.
Interestingly, even after the coonbell struggle, I’ve developed a strange sort of anticipation for what I might open the door to next. Is it possible that I’m actually excited to see what vile gift will be delivered? Do I like to wonder what gore will be the next to contrast my heather-grey floorboards? Has country solitude conjured a perverted desire for this retriever-delivered nuance? Anne of Green Gables would be appalled at how I entertain all the ways my white-spindled space could become the setting for a Rob Zombie Wind in the Willows adaptation.
I’m certainly not saying I “enjoy” it, and I shudder thinking about any animal meeting its end, but perhaps what I might value is the way the disgust punctures any chance at perfection—being forced to interact with the death mess violently interrupts my simple-life-on-the-farm fantasy. All the little bodies reveal that the idealistic vision of a quaint, peaceful, wholesome farm life is a mirage; they reiterate nature’s chaos because they are unpleasant, visceral—real. And that realness makes the little kid, mud handprints all over the white railing more than okay. The dog’s gifts remind me that there will always be crooked spindles, layers of dust, wind-chipped paint, cricket-infested laundry rooms, dead kitties, blight, drought, floods, blizzards, and loneliness. I don’t have to work so hard for the dream because the dream is actually this—blood, guts, mud and all. Perfectly precise landscaping, chicken tending, garden planting, and child-rearing does not guarantee a gut-free front porch. The dog’s treasures make me think this, and I breathe. Yes, that must be why I managed a partial smile mid-gag when I discovered a colorful inside-out rat burger on the third step yesterday. (I’ll blame that one on the cats.)
AJ received her Master’s degree in literature from the University of South Dakota in 2012, and since that time she has taught a variety of English courses at the university level. Her blog entitled Countrypolitan, highlights unique and humorous anecdotes about life, parenting, and living a rural lifestyle in the modern world. She lives on a farm with her son and golden retriever—together they experience many wonderful follies—every_darn_day.