Man Who Lost His Leg Saving Dog Not Sorry
Late in the afternoon of Sunday, June 10, Cole McFarland Jr. went walking. He took with him two dogs--Noble, his 3-year-old golden retriever, and Starbell, Noble’s “girlfriend.” The path they chose borders the train tracks in Carlsbad, a coastal city 30 miles north of San Diego.
To anyone living nearby, the path is an old friend. During daylight hours children ride bicycles, lovers walk arm in arm and dogs scamper about freely, silhouetted by the sunlight dancing off the ocean.
Starbell headed into a clearing. Noble, taking his “evening constitutional,” climbed onto the tracks. McFarland, only a few feet away, heard a sudden roar, felt the ground shake and looked up at a terrified Noble. Thundering into view was an Amtrak passenger train, roaring along at 90 miles an hour, southbound from Los Angeles.
“ Vindar ,” he screamed. It is a Sanskrit command, meaning “Come into my presence.” Normally, Noble reacts instantaneously but this time he didn’t move. Without hesitating, McFarland leaped--six, maybe seven feet. He grabbed Noble by the chest, flinging him backward, to the east.
From that point on, everything, he said, seemed to happen in slow motion.
“There was that instant of realization when I thought, ‘I’ve saved him; isn’t this great!’ While the train seems to be moving slowly, in ever-increasing increments. And it’s happening, of course, lickety-split. The instant I realized I’d saved him--bam!--the train hits me broadside.
“My entire torso had cleared, but it hit my leg, knocking me to the side. The train’s roaring by, and I’m on the ground, trying hard to shake off the blow. I realize I’m hit--I don’t want to lose consciousness. Noble’s licking my face. I look at the ground and my left leg is severed below the knee, just dangling by a thread. (The leg was amputated several hours later.) But Noble’s licking me, taking care of me, being my friend.” In the eight months since, McFarland, 35, has gotten letters from all over the world--from Belgium and Australia, Italy and Norway. He has been publicized by two major wire services and the Star, a supermarket tabloid. All the letters are the same. We would do it too , they say. We love our animals just as much .
Others, who have talked to McFarland, are more skeptical. Why? they ask. Why such a risk--especially for a dog? These, McFarland answers with a promise. He would do it again, he says. Without hesitation.
“I have absolutely no regret, absolutely no anger,” he said, sitting on a park bench not far from the tracks. He and Noble often come here, and to the site itself, several miles north, “to meditate.”
“I had the opportunity,” he said, “to save the life of a friend. To do otherwise--to have let him be crushed and to save myself--would have been a horrible blight on my spirit. I could not live with myself, to sacrifice him so I could live.”
For McFarland, a tall, thin man with a gaunt angular face and thick wavy hair, “spirit” is a major concept. He becomes intense when the subject is animals, reincarnation or the inhumanity of humans.
“My love for animals is something I’ve always had,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “I feel more at home with a pack of dogs than a party of people. I find in animals something very pristine, perfect, unspoiled, something ancient and very familiar. They seem to be completely at home with themselves and in place in the universe.
‘Fish Out of Water’
“I find a tendency in man--mankind--to be slightly estranged from himself, something like a fish out of water. Still looking to find who he is. Animals have gotten over that. They know who they are.”
McFarland has a good idea who he is. He’s comfortable as a Good Samaritan, though it must have seemed at times like having a death wish. During his second year in law school, a career he abandoned, he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. Momentarily distracted, he lost control of the wheel. The car struck an on-ramp, hurling McFarland through the windshield and hurting the hitchhiker even worse. The hitchhiker sued and won.
The incident marked a turning point. Disenchanted with life, disillusioned with a Yuppie future, McFarland quit law school and plotted a new course involving animals. For three years now he’s been the ringmaster of Noble Endeavors, a dog training and therapy clinic helping canines feel better about themselves. (And their owners, who he says cause most of the problems anyway.)
The latest incident--marked again by Good Samaritanism--has brought another turning point, one McFarland sees as a test.
“A valuable opportunity,” he called it, “arranged by providence. Kind of like, ‘Here we go, pal. Are you true to your philosophy or not?’ ”
Margie McFarland, Cole’s mother, is aware of his yen for animals and an equal zest for risk taking. She has lived through several of her son’s brushes with death--another car wreck, involving a cliff-hanging spill; hiking accidents; and two near-drownings while body surfing. When Cole McFarland says with a shrug and a wry smile, “Death is an old friend,” it doesn’t mean his mother will think it’s funny.
“Maybe I’m the one who found it hard,” she said of the train crash. “It was a sudden, shocking episode. . . . We’ve always been such a close family.”
They’re the only family each other has. Cole McFarland is an only child. His architect father died several years ago.
“When looking at it,” Margie McFarland said, referring to the train crash, “Cole really felt he didn’t have a choice. Here was this animal, who’s a human being (sic), paralyzed with fear. What else could he do? I understand that thoroughly.
“When the paramedics from Tri-City Hospital (in nearby Oceanside) telephoned to tell me, I said, ‘How’s Noble?’ I knew Cole would be totally devastated if he hadn’t saved the dog. I’m sitting here right now looking at this beautiful creature, who’s staring at me through big brown eyes. He’s no different (from a human) except that he doesn’t speak.”
He does communicate in a way that maybe extraterrestrials best understand. Cole McFarland says his relationship with Noble, already cosmic by his mother’s description, has deepened even further.
“Amazingly,” he said, “as close as we were before, we’re even closer now. Our relationship has taken on new dimensions. I’m certainly much more devoted to him--I believe he knows what I did for him. But he takes it in stride--’Well, I would have done it for you. We’re still a team, I accept you just as much, love you even more’ kind of thing.”
Margie McFarland is convinced Noble knows exactly what happened and feels bad about it. He had, she said, “a definite reaction. (When Cole was in the hospital) I was in charge. I would take him for walks but he wouldn’t go beyond the boundary of the building. He was very subdued. When Noble sees Cole, he usually leaps, wags his tail, gets happy. But when he finally came home, Noble just sat there. Immobilized.”
The hardest part for McFarland is that his own noble endeavor has made him an amputee. He walks with a cane and has to worry about a plastic leg that fits loosely in a metal socket. He won’t ever be able to run as he did before. And pain is a constant reminder.
One of his worst moments came shortly after the incident. Home from the hospital and tortured by sleeplessness, he got up in the middle of the night, searching for a light and a book. In the dark he tripped over a television cord. The television fell on top of his injured limb, splitting what was left wide open “like a grapefruit.”
“It set me back,” he said, “three months.”
He says he would leap again--he loves Noble that much--and he often puts the best face on an otherwise tragic horror.
“People lose their limbs or lives for reasons that make you just wonder why,” he said. “Some drunk driver. . . . But to do something wonderful for a friend, to reach so many people. . . . “
And: “With the opportunity to do so much good, how can I regret the loss of a leg? I’m amazed by how well I’m able to adjust to it.”
But he hasn’t been able to let bygones be bygones in the case of Amtrak. He’s planning a lawsuit, which he says will show that a proper warning wasn’t sounded and that 90 m.p.h. is too fast a speed for an area “teeming” with residents. He also is angry that Amtrak “doesn’t brake” for animals.
“Where’s the nobility in that?” he snapped. “I know they don’t want to disturb the passengers drinking tea.”
Arthur Lloyd, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the speed of 90 m.p.h. through Carlsbad is set by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Any change must be approved by the federal government. In approaching a grade crossing, a conductor is required, Lloyd said, to post a warning of a series of whistles.
No Grade Crossing
“But,” he said, “in this instance, there wasn’t a grade crossing.”
A person such as McFarland, Lloyd said, is viewed in Amtrak terminology as a “trespasser.”
“It’s no different,” he said, “than if the man had been walking his dog on a farmer’s land in a pasture somewhere. He was on private property, trespassing. He shouldn’t have been walking his dog near the tracks.”
Lloyd is aware that dozens of people walk along Carlsbad’s “tow path”--the path bordering the tracks--every day. They, too, he said, are trespassing.
Lloyd said Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks, had considered putting a fence by them, but such efforts in other locations have proved futile.
“People cut holes in the fence,” he said.
Santa Fe leases the tracks to Amtrak for its Los Angeles-to-San Diego run. Santa Fe also employs the personnel operating the Amtrak train. Even if those people wanted to stop, chances are they couldn’t.
“Nobody wants to hit an animal, a person or an automobile,” Lloyd said. “But if a train is going 60 miles an hour, it takes roughly a mile to stop. A train going 90 miles an hour takes roughly a mile and a half. You can slam a train into emergency and stop a little quicker, but why risk injuring 200 or 300 passengers on a train?”
Lawsuits aside, McFarland has opportunities in front of him. Soon he will move to Oakland to work for a company called Pro-TRAIN. He intends to study its kennel operation, hoping one day to create a kennel of his own for animals that neither pets nor owners will abhor. He’s also been approached by the Ralston-Purina Co. to be a national spokesman for its adopt-a-pet campaign.
“A dog to an elderly person can mean so much,” he said. “It can change the quality of a person’s life and death. I want somehow to do pet-assisted therapy. Animals can do wonders for emotionally disturbed people, for people convalescing with no hope of recovery. It’s almost an untapped field, one psychologists are just beginning to understand.”
McFarland is not a veterinarian--while understanding their efforts, he can’t fathom the idea of cutting into an animal--and has no plans to delve too deeply into the human psyche. (Except as it concerns animals.)
He’s a spiritual man (and an “ethical vegetarian”) but isn’t a devotee of any particular religion. (He describes his own leanings as “eclectic.”) As an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, he studied Eastern religions and comparative philosophies. Many of those teachings stayed with him, as did a book, “Kinship With All Life,” that gave bloom to a love of animals. He leans toward a belief in reincarnation and sees death as a “phase” leading to a higher plain.
“I don’t fear death at all,” he said. “I see death merely as a side of life, as an opportunity to lay aside a vehicle no longer serving the beauty of the spirit.”
At times, however, he is asked a painful, yet obvious question. What if Noble had died? How would he have coped?
“Like anyone would,” he said, “who loses a friend, a child, a mate, a mother. I recognize we’re all expressions of divine qualities. What we find in the ones we love will never die. Noble and I are privileged to share a loving, reciprocal relationship, qualities I will always cherish.
“When the time comes, I hope to feel privileged and not deprived by his graduating . . . to a new dimension of being.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.