Op-Ed: It was just a lovely morning walk with the dog — until the attack
I’ve always liked my morning walks with Milo. White and shaggy, relentlessly friendly, he was rescued from a dumpster at a few days old and has been a grateful, tail-wagging member of our family for seven years. A mix of poodle, Labrador and some other breed that makes him stumpy, he’s the perfect shin-high companion to a middle-aged man out for a stroll.
And in the past half-year, that ritual’s gone from pleasant to vital. Given the wreckage of world events, the blazing of fires real and societal, the simple act of walking outside feels like a reassertion of human freedom. In a time of such sickness and struggle, those head-clearing breaths of fresh air (even through masks) have become a precious gift.
But one morning in late February, before it became so crucial, I learned how fragile even a morning stroll can be. Milo and I were a couple blocks from home when we walked around the corner and saw pit bulls we’d encountered before. Usually, we saw them behind glass as we passed by their house, roaring and pounding their paws on a shuddering bay window. We’d seen them out in the neighborhood, too, occasionally, but always from afar and held fast by their burly male owner as they snarled and lunged. This time, however, their leashes were in the hands of his petite wife. For about two seconds.
Then they jerked free to sprint, bellowing madly, straight at us.
Instinctively I scooped up Milo. But in the next instant we were sprawled on the sidewalk, the dogs having leapt and barreled me over. I was face-down, still clutching Milo despite my bloodied elbows. From across the street I heard the sobbing wail of the pit bulls’ owner. It must have been upsetting for her, it flashed across my mind, to see her pets upend a neighbor. But then I realized she was screaming not in regret but in terror. The pit bulls’ mission was not to knock me over. They’d come to kill my dog and were determined to do so.
This became clear when one of them smashed into us sideways, teeth gnashing, and sank his fangs deep into Milo’s neck. In horror I punched the massive, rock-hard jaw — to zero effect. Then the second dog jolted into us from the other side, clamping onto Milo’s lower half, cinching the leg by its top joist and shaking his head in a frenzy to tear it off.
Thus began what the few witnesses who came out of their houses to yell and call 911 would later describe as a 15-minute battle. But for me, inside that bloody battle, it could have been two minutes or an hour. The blood came mainly from Milo, staining his pale fur crimson, and from my hands, ripped by the dogs during the few times I managed to pry Milo’s head or haunch free of a jaw. Soon I was writhing in a slick of gore, punching at one attached dog and elbowing the other, shouting at them and anyone who could help; but no one could. At that hour of the morning my would-be cavalry consisted of two terrified homeowners in yoga pants and a woman who’d just arrived to clean a house a block away.
I felt myself losing the fight. Milo was being torn apart like a stuffed animal, and eventually he went limp and silent in my arms. The owner’s sobs from across the street grew calmer: the funereal mourning of something awful, but done. Out of desperation, and exhaustion, I mounted one last spasm of defense. I punched and elbowed with all I had, yanked harder, and was able to tug loose Milo’s drenched body and rise with him to limp a couple steps into the middle of the street. And in the split-second before I was taken down again, I had a thought. This whole time the dogs hadn’t bitten me voluntarily. They were after Milo, not his owner. So I dropped to the ground with him beneath my stomach, my arms bracketing his body to wall him off.
The dogs growled and foamed an inch on either side of me. One butted my face with his own hard face, but they didn’t bite. They pawed at my midsection, padded angrily around us. And eventually our observers were able to drag them away.
And we made it, Milo and I. Incredibly, he was still breathing; so my wife — alerted by our neighbors — rushed us to the animal emergency room and the human emergency room in turn. Over the next few days he would get dozens of stitches and fluid drains and treatments; I was treated with antibiotics and hand bandages; and we ended up home and alive, tighter friends than ever.
The pit bulls are alive too. Their owners seem like decent people who adopted those disturbed animals when they were abandoned puppies. Now they walk them only in the early morning and late at night, and individually, keeping them out of pack attack mode and away from other neighborhood pets. I’ve been told I’m a wimp and an idiot for not demanding the dogs be euthanized. I guess I’d had my fill of deadly aggression. The world will always have dogs capable of viciousness. What’s important is that their owners are aware of the hazards to the safety of others. That goes for the rest of us too.
That’s the challenge of living, as we do now, amid once-unthinkable threats and damage. In the half-year since that morning, we’ve all learned that life can turn on a dime, turn on you, or even turn off. There is no fairness to any of the barbaric events of 2020. But they have given us the sacred opportunity to look out for our loved ones — and to help them, and ourselves, be stronger than we ever knew we could.
Now I treasure my dog walks in a new way: with a wary knowledge of danger, a tinge of darkness in the sunshine. That, I think, is how we all walk through life now. The world, for better and worse, is full of surprises. And as we rise to meet them, there is more fight in us than we know.
Nicholas Weinstock is the author of three books and runs the movie and television company Red Hour Films together with his producing partner Ben Stiller.
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