Down but not out

10 Jul Down but not out

It’s never going to be all good news living in the wilderness – and this is one of those weeks we would rather forget.

Last Monday, just after we had wrapped up a great spring season with some close-up and personal viewing of wild bears, I was heading out with my daughter, who is visiting from Europe, for a few days camping in the Rockies.

Just as were readying to leave, one of our neighbours drove fast into our front yard on an unimportant mission. She either didn’t notice or didn’t react when our three dogs bounded out to greet the car – as is their wont.

She drove straight over Katya, our six month old German Shepherd, with both front and back wheels, before coming to a halt. I was watching the whole thing through the window and my heart almost stopped beating.

When I got to her, Katya was still alive but it was clear she was in a bad way. She couldn’t move, saliva was dribbling from her mouth, and though conscious, her breathing was fast and shallow.

I began to check her over, using first aid skills designed for humans, but quickly realised that her major injuries were internal and I would be able to do little for her.

So I carefully picked her up, laid her in the front of the truck and raced to Nelson which has the nearest decent vet. Emma, my daughter, did her best to keep Katya alert and conscious. An hour into the two-hour drive, I first allowed myself to think she might still be alive when we arrived.

I love all our dogs, but there is something special about Katya. Ever since we got her this spring I have spent extra time with her, teaching her the fundamentals – sit, stay and down – but also taking her on long walks in the bush.

She has proved a remarkably confident and capable dog, quiet and watchful in the backcountry but also adventurous and resilient. I couldn’t bear the thought of her life being cut so short.

Once we reached mobile phone reception I called Kristin, who was already in town. She booked Katya in for an emergency appointment at the doggie hospital. The next few hours was a whir of vet rooms, consent forms, concerned faces, blood tests and doggie sedatives.

The x-rays showed that Katya’s pelvis was broken in multiple places. Her bladder wasn’t functioning properly and might be ruptured, and there was possible damage to her sciatic nerve. That meant that even if she survived she might not walk again.

The next day we headed to Kelowna – a five hour drive to the west – to the nearest orthopaedic animal surgeon who would agree to operate on her as soon as we could get her there.

For the next two nights Kristin and I lay on the floor next to Katya by turns as she whimpered her way through the small hours. Not usually a needy animal, she seemed to require the physical contact of our touch to reassure her that would somehow pull through.

We have, for a year or two now, been bracing ourselves for bad news about one of our older dogs.

Kristin is an avid animal lover and we both know that Masha and Karu, now in their 12th year, who have been with us as long as we have been at the ranch, are getting on in doggie years.

Karu, who still loves to chase a ball, is mostly deaf, and Masha is more than a little wobbly on her back legs. Her once shiny coat is a little lacklustre and she sometimes lets go nasty old-dog farts.

But we hadn’t thought of Katya, a tough and brave young dog, in terms of her mortality. With her velvet black nose, intelligent eyes and play-hard-and-fast style she had always seemed the very embodiment of life at its most rumbunctious.

After days on the road, we are now finally back at the ranch. Katya has a screw in each side of her pelvis, and puce bruising from her hips to her tail.

She cannot stand and for her to pee she needs to be supported by two people and given a lot of time, encouragement and some manual pressure.

The surgeon warned us that if she is to have a good chance of recovery she must be kept in a crate continuously for at least two months. Any sharp movement could dislodge the screws and the area he was forced to operate in was so small there will be no second chance.

In a valley where dogs outnumber people and many of them share the same proletarian lineage, their lives are often cheap and many die young.

With vet bills for the last few days at $8,000 and rising, some are looking at us in shock and even horror when we mention what we are spending to try and keep Katya alive and mobile.

But how, in the days of gold credit cards and deferred payments, do you look into the eyes of a young dog – an animal that relies on your entirely for food, drink, warmth and protection – and say: Sorry, you are just not worth the expense?

Masha and Karu, of course, do not seem to share our concern. Dogs to the core, they sniff Katya and the medical smell she exudes with suspicion and want nothing to do with her.

Masha seems pleased, if anything, that the boisterous puppy that used to nip her ankles and steal her bones, has got her comeuppance. Or perhaps she merely accepts what has happened in the unsurprised way that dogs seem to accept all major developments in their lives.

My apologies for writing this less than heart-warming missive. Life in the bush is often full of joy and adventure, but it can’t always be that way.

With a lot of care and a deal of luck Katya could yet make a decent recovery and already she is showing some signs that, even if her pelvis has been crushed, her spirit has not.

For our guests coming this summer we promise not to allow the accident to cloud your holiday.

The sun is shining, the high country is snow-patched and beautiful as ever, the river is flowing fast and blue, and we made our first white-water rafting trip of the year along its length today.

With time this week will fade into memory along with many of the other intense ups-and-downs that living in the wild entails.

And, even shaved from the waist back and with a red bottom and sad, inert legs, Katya is still a pretty cute dog. We promise we will do our very best by her. And, of course, we will keep you updated.