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Killer Dogs Are Rare Breed in Entertainment

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer

Writers were arriving last week for the Ojai Playwrights Conference, but the real drama was taking place under their noses.

Its scope was Shakespearean, a sweeping story of loyalty, love, murder, intrigue, a fall from grace, a fatal flaw.

But stories about dogs that kill sheep will never be big box-office hits, except perhaps in wool-growing, mutton-producing regions such as Patagonia and New Zealand.

The rest of us wouldn’t appreciate such stories.

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We like our dogs smart, cute and obedient. We wish our teenagers could be more like them: sensible beings untouched by vexing hormones, creatures who manage to groom themselves without taking up precious bathroom time.

The dog stories we so eagerly digested as children never featured dogs that were mean or vicious, except insofar as they had been whacked around by vicious counterfeiters who had holed up in a cave as they plotted to paper the town with bogus bills. Even these unfortunate curs were minor characters, included in the plot only to showcase the courage of Ol’ Yeller or the happy pluck of little Benji.

Lassie never killed anything. I dimly remember that one time at the bottom of a deep well, she grasped a bank robber’s ankle in her mouth. (There were a lot more bank robbers in those days, and they and all the counterfeiters and confidence men seemed to hole up in the hundreds of mine shafts, wells, missile silos and abandoned tunnels dotting the farm that was home to Timmy and his family.)

However, Lassie--being a TV dog--never did chomp down on the bank robber’s ankle. In her entire career of beautiful leaps onto the haunches of corrupt men, she never once drew blood. In fact, from all appearances, she never ate meat and probably turned up her nose at dairy as well, despite once taking a lick of Timmy’s ice cream cone as the sheriff hauled yet another bank robber from the barn.

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Lassie had plenty of things to do that were more fun than wolfing down a hamburger, no less pouncing on a lamb. She could play fetch with Timmy, for instance, or--using her unerring instinct for impending calamity--alert a downstream town to a dam about to burst.

Around the same time Lassie was maintaining order in rural America, a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin proved weekly that he was not only brave, but patriotic as well. Whenever Old Glory was hoisted over the U.S. cavalry fort to which he somehow had been assigned, he would sit up, raise a paw, say a silent prayer to the memory of General Custer, and bark his head off.

Rinty might not have been as smart as Lassie, but he was smarter than the enlisted men in his unit on the Western frontier.

While the slack-jawed soldiers were marching pointlessly around the fort, Rinty was trapping the land speculators from the railroad company who were dumping poison down the widow’s well. While the boys were slumped around the barracks playing poker, Rinty was forging treaties between the local Indians and the U.S. government.

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But did he kill? Never.

Other canines of the footlights have been little sophisticates. In the old “Thin Man” movies, Asta would chortle at William Powell’s bons mots and lap up spilled martinis. The current reigning dog is Eddie, who can steal scenes from Dr. Frasier Crane with a deep sigh. And, of course, there is the Taco Bell Chihuahua which is not only a marvelous comedian but bilingual to boot.

Do they kill? Hardly.

So when we hear of a couple of dogs--beautiful dogs, at that--mutilating four penned sheep that were part of a 4-H project, it is little wonder we are taken aback. Hardly a week goes by in Ventura County without one human killing another, but savagery seems so undoglike.

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The prime suspects in the Ojai sheep deaths are in custody. They are a Siberian husky and a husky mix--Bear and Cheyenne, by name. They had been abused and abandoned when they were picked up by their current owner.

Huskies are incurable wanderers. They get in trouble from time to time for attacking comparatively defenseless animals, such as sheep and goats. They are also pets that are loving, lovely and fun.

But roaming around and leaping on livestock are activities they can resist about as well as Lassie can refrain from cornering counterfeiters.

Should dogs be put to death for following the primal instincts that are as much a part of them as friendliness and fleas? Hardly.

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But should dogs that have killed be allowed in places where they might be tempted by a neighbor’s goat or 4-H lambs bleating in a pen? Not at all.

The Internet is alive with rescue groups for Huskies and every other breed of dog.

If the Ojai Two are indeed the guilty ones, then there are surely well-meaning people who can find a home for them on a farm somewhere--a farm without helpless animals, a farm with a nice family and lots of old wells and missile silos.

There must be such a place.

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