Killer Instinct

          A spring breeze drifted through the open window and into the kitchen where I stood at the counter slicing cucumbers and listening to Bruce Springsteen hammer out “Wrecking Ball.” I heard the familiar scratch-scratch against metal, the rattle of the screen door sliding open, and then the familiar clickity-click of toenails on tile. I looked up. Wyatt, our West Highland terrier, stood in the doorway, pink tongue dangling from the side of his grinning mouth. A small red splotch shaped like an exclamation point was lodged in the white hair between his pointy ears. I laid aside my knife and leaned down for a closer look, taking his fuzzy chin in my hand—blood!  I held my breath and parted the hair on his head to locate the source of the bleeding and discovered a pimple-sized bump on his scalp. I straightened up and sighed.
          The chickens next door had declared war.

          We live in the city. I don’t understand the current urban craze for backyard chickens. I grew up on a farm, so I know about chickens. Sure, they seem pretty benign. They don’t make demands and they don’t make much noise. They don’t bark! bleat! bah! or use the F-word. Their coops do stink, however, if you don’t keep the poop cleaned out. Roosters are another matter.
          I get the I-want-to-know-where-my-food-comes-from movement. We live in a world where chemicals and dyes are added to food, hormones are added to livestock feed, and fruits and vegetables are sprayed with insecticides and fertilizers. It’s like our food sources have become our enemies. But here’s the thing about chickens that most city folks don’t realize—chickens create a food chain. Chickens eat grain, grain attracts rats, and rats attract snakes. There is no way this is healthier than buying a dozen organic or cage-free eggs from the local grocer. And before you know it, this pestilent ecosystem has taken over the neighborhood. I know this from personal experience. Wyatt has presented me with gifts of dead rats and snakes since the arrival of two chickens next door.  
          Under the circumstances, I suppose I should be glad that Wyatt is a West Highland terrier, commonly known as a Westie. If you know anything about terriers, especially Westies, you know they are little warriors, bred long ago in the Scottish Highlands to drag vermin from holes and then dispose of the culprits with a few vicious shakes of their heads. Wyatt is a true example of his breed, as exemplified by the aforementioned gifts. Since chickens attract vermin, the ones next door were, at the very least, a nuisance. Wyatt’s instincts told him to remedy the situation.  
          The mere presence of the chickens drove Wyatt to the brink of madness. He raced back and forth along the fence barking maniacally, stopping occasionally to gnaw a chunk out of the fence. The chickens pecked and clucked and laid their daily eggs, oblivious to Wyatt’s Cujo-like antics. Their curiosity was finally piqued though, or maybe they just got bored with their cooped-up existence. One of them took to standing next to the fence, still as a Buddha, staring through the slats while my frenzied white dog snarled within an inch of its beady, unblinking eyes.
          My husband Michael and I tried to figure out what to do about Wyatt’s fanatical behavior, a trait we had been unaware of until then. One thing was for sure: we didn’t want the daily commotion to get us on the bad side of our neighbors—the ones who didn’t have chickens. And unless we wanted a visit from Animal Control, we needed to keep the barking to a minimum.
          “He’ll get used to them,” said Michael, ever the optimist.
          “Fat chance,” I said. “Maybe I should talk to the vet about Prozac. Janice gives it to her cats.”
          “That’s because cats are crazy. I’m not drugging my dog just because he does what dogs do.”
          “So what do you think we should do?”
          “Nothing. He’ll get used to them. Eventually he’ll lose interest and he’ll calm down.”
          I wasn’t so sure, but I had nothing else to offer.
          Wyatt did calm down, but he didn’t lose interest. His new tactical maneuver was to march along the fence like a one-dog border patrol, occasionally stopping to poke his nose through the fence and snarl. Even so, we were lulled into a sense of optimism that the situation was improving.
          Then I found that little splatter of blood on Wyatt’s head. It was apparent that the rules of engagement had changed—the chickens had taken the offensive. Their uncharacteristic brazenness only served to further incite Wyatt’s killer instinct, inspiring him to develop his own new strategy. His MO went from frontal assault to lying-in-wait. He stopped patrolling, and instead, took up a post next to the fence where he hunkered down and spied on the activities of his adversaries. This was a harmless enough exercise, so we stopped worrying about a visit from Animal Control. The days passed, and as Wyatt settled down, we grew hopeful that peace was on the horizon.  

          When tragedy struck I was home alone. Wyatt was in the backyard conducting his usual surveillance. I had just returned from shopping and was in the kitchen putting groceries away when I heard Wyatt nudge the screen door open. After a while, when he didn’t appear, I walked into the living room to see what he was up to. He was sprawled on the floor in front of the open screen door. One side of his face was covered in blood.
          I shrieked. Wyatt sprang to his feet, proof that he wasn’t dead, as I had feared. His pink tongue lolled from his mouth and his carrot-shaped white tail waved back and forth like a flag of surrender, although, to the contrary, he looked quite victorious. It seemed that he had won whatever battle he had engaged in.
          “What have you done?” I asked him. My heart was pounding.
          He continued to wag his tail, his black eyes shining with excitement. My brain cycled through the possible scenarios.
          My first thought was that one of the neighborhood cats had found its way into the back yard and an altercation had ensued. But as I stared at Wyatt and contemplated this, I ruled it out because I had not heard any caterwauling. I also eliminated the possibility of a squirrel because they never left the safety of the top of the fence. I thought of the opossum that Wyatt had chased over the fence a few nights before. But it was daytime, and opossums usually skulk around after dark. And again, I had heard no commotion. A snake? A rat? There was too much blood for either.
          I sighed, picked Wyatt up, carried him to the bathroom and scrubbed his face. Then I summoned my courage and, shaking with anxiety, walked out to the backyard to look for a victim. Wyatt pranced along beside me.
          Our backyard is not large, so searching for a dead body wouldn’t take long. Half of it is taken up by a brick patio and a large planting of ivy and ferns beneath an oak tree. The other half consists of a bed of day lilies and a small grassy area. I stood outside the door and surveyed our tiny piece of outdoor heaven. I didn’t see anything unusual—no pool of blood and no animal carcass. I took a tentative step out into the sunlight for a better look—nothing.
          Perhaps whatever unfortunate creature had wrestled with Wyatt had only been injured and had run away. Since nothing seemed amiss, I grew bolder and took a walk around the yard.  Still I saw no evidence of a fight. Wyatt strolled over to the fence and peered through. He was not agitated or excited. In fact, he seemed quite relaxed. I decided that whatever it was that Wyatt had wounded had long since left the premises. I sighed with relief.
          I had spotted some weeds among the lilies as I conducted my investigation, so I went back to pull them out and found that more weeding was called for. Pulling weeds is therapeutic, and since it was such a beautiful day, and the wind chimes were tinkling in the breeze, I got lost in the sensorial pleasures of outdoor gardening.
          After a while I stood up and stretched, admiring the variegated beauty of the late spring day. My gaze traveled to the patio where the red umbrella cast an ovoid shadow. Something—I couldn’t tell what—was lying on the bricks in the shade, something that had not been there earlier. I took a few cautious steps toward the patio and stopped. Whatever it was looked fluffy, and I wondered if Wyatt had killed a bird, although I hoped not. I felt sick as I edged closer for a better look, hesitating, still not sure what I was looking at. I stopped and stared with incomprehension at the fuzzy lump on the patio. Wyatt trotted over and stared up at me, then wandered back over to the fence, bored with my apparent paralysis. A sudden gust of wind set the chimes to jangling, and a fleeting cloud swallowed the sun. A crow glided down from the rooftop and lit on the fence. It felt like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
          Even when I realized what I was looking at, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Lying on the patio was the head of a chicken, its beak half open and its eyes glazed over. As I stared, trance-like, the truth began to dawn and then, at last, reality permeated my befuddled brain. I looked around for Wyatt. He was stretched out beneath a wicker chair, eyes closed, and his chin resting on his paws. He had done his job—now it was nap time.

          I sat at the kitchen table waiting for Michael to come home, sipping a Jack Daniels and coke to calm my nerves. I had given Wyatt’s face another scrubbing after my gruesome discovery. He likes to sleep with us, and I didn’t relish the idea of dead chicken germs contaminating our bedclothes. He was sprawled on the kitchen floor, apparently exhausted from his hard-won battle. At last I heard the garage door go up and the slam of the car door.
          The back door opened, and Michael staggered through the door under the weight of his camera bags and tripod. Wyatt sprang to his feet and ran to greet him.
          “Hey buddy!” Michael slid his equipment to the floor and bent down to scratch Wyatt’s ears. “He’s wet. Did you give him a bath?”
          “Nope, but I did wash the blood off of his head.” I took a sip of my cocktail.
          Michael jerked up straight. “What? Is he hurt?” His eyes went to the liquor bottle on the table.
          “Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. He left you a gift on the patio.”
          “What’s that supposed to mean?”
          I stood up and tossed back the last of my drink. “Come. I’ll show you.”
          I led the way with Wyatt close on our heels. Outside, I pointed. Michael walked over for a closer look. He stared down at the severed head, and then looked back at me, stunned.
          “I don’t believe it.”
          “Believe it. It’s pretty clear your son has committed murder.”
          Michael and I contemplated the victim’s remains. Wyatt gave it a disdainful sniff and trotted over to the fence, returning to the scene of the crime.
          “But how did it happen?” Michael was incredulous.
          “Well, my guess is the chicken stuck its head through the fence and Wyatt wacked her.  Talk about perfect timing.”
          Michael shook his head in disbelief. “What an opportunist.” I was pretty sure I detected admiration in his voice.
          We stood in the late afternoon sunshine, squinting down at the head, trying to wrap our own around the fact that our little darling had committed such a dastardly deed. I felt like a mourner at a graveside service.
          “I feel so guilty,” I said. “What should we do?”
          “I’ll get a plastic bag to tie it up in, and then I’ll throw it in the garbage can. Trash pick-up is tomorrow,” said Michael.
          “No, I don’t mean that. I mean what should we do about telling the neighbors?”
          Michael threw his hands up in exasperation. “What’s to tell? It’s pretty obvious—the chicken is lying in their yard without a head.”
          “But don’t you think we should apologize?”
          “For what?” Michael’s voice went up a notch. “The chicken was trespassing. If anything, they owe us an apology for all the pain and suffering those chickens have caused us.”
          I let it go.
          “Come inside,” I said. “I’ll fix you a drink.”

         The neighbors didn’t mention the incident, but they did make a token gesture towards ensuring the safety of their poultry—they attached some woven wire to their side of the fence.  Undaunted, they got a replacement chicken about a week later.
          Wyatt could still see the chickens, so we took precautionary measures of our own and nailed several pieces of plywood to our side of the fence, giving it a Depression-era shantytown look. The drama is over although some days Wyatt stands with his front paws against the plywood, whimpering in frustration. It’s kind of sad, really.
          I feel bad for the chicken, too, but it isn’t like it wasn’t put on notice. Wyatt was, after all, quite vocal with his threats. Michael said if the neighbors didn’t care enough about the welfare of their chickens to put up a predator-proof fence, then I shouldn’t feel bad that Wyatt did what he was born to do. He had a point. But the next time Wyatt deposits a dead (or, God forbid, live) rat or snake at my back door, I’m sharing it with the neighbors.

Sharyn Ellison wrote her first story at the age of nine on a roll of paper towels which, for good reason, remains unpublished. She has since been published in Hippocampus, Savannah Magazine, and Savannah Morning News. Sharyn lives in Savannah, GA with her husband, Michael, and Wyatt.