Badger: World’s Best Dog

One time I heard someone say that g-o-d was d-o-g spelled backward.

He was strong and silent. I loved him so. Maybe he wasn’t as tall as I would have liked, but he was fit and well-built. He had a big heart on his back and a much greater one inside of his body.

Mom. You gave Badger a Payday and he threw up. You let him eat gummy worms.

I thought I rescued a Jack Russell Terrier from a kill shelter as a pet for my daughter.

Mom. You fed Badger scrambled eggs and McDonalds hamburgers.

Badger rescued me.

Badger was his shelter name. He had many nicknames, including “pony” because he looked like a pinto pony when he ran, and “onie” (short for “pony”) and “stank” (I regret that one).

Badger was smarter than most people.

I hadn’t had a dog since I was in high school, so I was little-prepared for the challenge of raising any rescue dog, much less a high-energy, whipsmart Jack Russell Terrier.

Badger had already bombed in his first rescue house. An older lady who lived in a mobile home returned him saying he’d torn up everything in her place in only a couple of days. All the animal rescue lady wanted to know was “Do you have a big yard?”

Sure! We were living in this big house on San Pablo. Just me and Meredith.

“He may hide for several days once you bring him home,” she said. “He may take a while to warm up to you. Don’t be alarmed if he acts standoffish.”

As she spoke, Badger was reclining on the back seat of my car.

Meredith and I picked out his dishes, his first food, some treats, and several dog toys.

When we got home, Badger took a three-minute tour of the house sniffing each room while I put out his food and water. I opened the toys and put them in the back yard.

He ran outside, trotting around with his pony-like gait, grabbed every toy, played with it for a minute or two, then came back in, gobbled half his bowl of food and gulped his cool water. Then he leapt nimbly onto the onto the couch, put the pillows the way he liked, and closed his eyes.

I guess we passed muster.

The rescue lady said that Badger had been dumped in the animal shelter because he’d grown too tall to be a desirable Jack Russell. The breeder had docked his tail. He had been aggressive, so they neutered him. He was on his last day at the kill shelter when the rescue team picked him up.

Badger went through every single negative behavior of a rescue dog, one right after the other.

He hadn’t shown aggression toward little kids the way I’d been warned until a very small girl about 7 years old joined Meredith’s neighborhood friend group. Badger spotted this kid playing in our front yard and shot out of the front door, barking loudly and terrifying her.

Can’t be around children under age 5.

He took to barking and jumping on anyone who came in our house.

He started peeing in the house when we were gone.

One day before I went to school, I tied him to a 100-pound dog stake (Badger weighed 20 pounds) in our back yard. When I got home a few hours later, our neighbor Matt brought a shame-eyed Badger over along with the dirt-covered stake and broken collar.

He pulled up the stake and jumped the fence with it trailing behind him, nearly strangling himself before his collar broke.

One afternoon I was sitting on the sofa grading. Badger was at my feet. I could see the kitchen from this vantage point.

A small dark shape zipped across the kitchen floor, disappearing under the dishwasher.

Aw man. In the house? Really?

Badger jumped up, twice as fast as the scuttling shape. His head dipped and shook back and forth once. Bam! Bam!

He trotted calmly back from the kitchen and laid the still-warm rat at my feet.

Badger and I had a lot of silent conversations during which much was communicated and nothing said.

Every time we’d conquer one problem behavior, another would crop up. One Saturday, Meredith was playing with her friends in the front yard when a man pedaled by on a red beach cruiser. As he rode across the street, Badger spotted him and shot across the street at top speed.

I watched in horror as my dog harried this man like a hound with a fox, circling the bike and barking. The bike wobbled this way and that.

Losing control, the man toppled into our neighbor’s ivy bed just as I caught up and grabbed Badger’s collar.

“I’m so sorry!” I said. “I don’t know what — “

“It’s fine,” said a grumpy voice. The guy turned and —

It was Meredith’s vice principal.

We were already in hot water at that school because Mike and I had gotten divorced, I wore “racy” clothes, and Mike occasionally dropped her off on his Harley.

One day I got Meredith some fried chicken and she was allowed to eat it in her upstairs bedroom.

Badger liked to sit in the bay window halfway up our stairs overlooking our front door and the front yard. I had put a seat cushion in it, and Meredith had put out a sign to deter him from sitting on it that read:

No Bager No

The written warning didn’t have too much effect because just as Meredith started eating the fried chicken, Badger was in his window spot and suddenly ran downstairs, barking at the door like someone was there.

Meredith ran downstairs to answer, thinking her friends had come over.

She opened the door looking right and left — but no one was there.

When she went back to her room, the chicken was gone.

A few days later I was preparing to enjoy a delicious “special burrito” from El Burrito. Badger started barking at the front door. I left my plate on the coffee table. When I got back from answering the door only to find no one there, the burrito looked normal enough.

I picked it up and it was strangely lightweight — almost like —

Badger had sucked out all the filling without disturbing the tortilla.

No Bager No!

We started hiking together. We did the Pacific Crest Trail. We did Bertha Peak. We did the Devil’s Chair. Badger came with us to Mammoth. He drank out of the Hot Creek.

He was so adventurous.

I started going on writing retreats to Ojai when Meredith was with her dad. I took Badger to Lake Casitas. He spotted these weird white birds (Chinese geese) on the shoreline and chased after them. They flapped their wings, took brief flight, and landed a few yards out in the water. Badger kept going. As soon as the water got deep, he just kept running which became swimming. I finally had to jump in after him. Now they say no one is allowed to even touch the water in that nearly-dry lake.

Times change.

I didn’t know much about the Ventura County backcountry (or the Santa Monica Mountains) before we moved to Woodland Hills, but Badger and I got to know them well.

On a cool, misty spring day we visited the Middle Lion Canyon campground and set out on the Lion Canyon trail in the Los Padres National Forest. The previous fall we had been to the same location when I realized … it was deer hunting season. That was when we saw the bear claw marks 9 feet up on the trees.

This trail runs along the Sespe River. About five miles out, I got the strangest feeling. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I stopped and looked to my right across the river bed. Lines of aspens waved in the light breeze and mist.

I suddenly understood (and I seriously hadn’t before) why they called it “Lion Canyon.”

A mountain lion ambled along the other side of the stream, no more than 50 yards away. She looked coolly across the rocky streambed at me. The hackles on Badger’s neck stood up.

“No boy,” I said, kneeling close. “She’ll kill you.”

Yeah she could have killed me too, but instead, she went on her way.

Oh Badger. He ran away countless times. When we moved to Woodland Hills, Alan wanted to take his kids to the zoo. He didn’t want Badger in the house alone so I left him outside on the huge upstairs deck in his crate.

There was no way to know when he busted out but when we returned, Badger was gone.

Devastated, I drove endlessly up and down the byzantine winding streets in our neighborhood calling for him. Then it started to rain.

I lay on the couch in the living room — wasn’t exactly sure why — but at 3:00 a.m. I heard a scratch at the front door. I leapt up and threw the door wide open.

This time there was someone there.

Badger jumped into my arms. He was soaking wet and his legs, belly and chest were muddy and oily like he was a truck driving offroad in the rain.

Oftentimes he’d wake me to go outside in the middle of the night. He had a typical patrol route along the little alley-like street where we lived. He’d investigate the thick hillside covered with ivy, the tall pines, the plantings around our circular driveway.

One night we went out and I felt a strange feeling, very much like the pre-lion thrill of warning. It was a full moon and a shadow darkened the drive. I looked up just in time to see an enormous owl swooping overhead on its way to the tall pines. His wingspan made him seem larger than Badger. And he was absolutely silent.

Another night, I was surprised to see the hugest coyote I’d ever seen ambling down the drive. Still groggy, I couldn’t stop Badger. He rushed the coyote, twice his size or more, and began barking and harrying just the way he had with Meredith’s vice principal.

“Badger!” I cried. “He’ll kill you!”

The coyote just looked disdainfully ahead and continued ambling on his way. Badger finally answered my call. The last I saw of the coyote, his expression seemed to say, “Dumb Jack Russell …”

On the trail if there was any type of scat, especially coyote or lion, Badger would be sure to roll in it.

So Badger knew what he was doing when he’d escape. And — he knew his way home.

After Anthony died and Alan returned home from the hospital, I left Badger at the house in Woodland Hills because I couldn’t afford to board him much longer.

I was lying in bed in my lousy apartment in Redlands staring at the dingy popcorn ceiling when my cell phone rang.

“She came,” Alan said breathlessly. “Everything’s ruined. Badger’s gone.”

This was about midnight.

I drove 90 miles to Woodland Hills. When I walked into the kitchen from the garage, my feet immediately crunched glass. Someone (Alan’s ex) had trashed the kitchen. Every hanging pot was on the floor. I saw huge divots in the wall. The glass was from my kitchen pictures. I went out the front door where we had seen the owl and the coyote and called for Badger. Nothing.

Alan said that his ex had shown up screaming at him and rampaged through the house, throwing things. Mr. Moron, he said, never came inside, but instead stood at the front door yelling instructions.

He said when they showed up, Badger had run upstairs barking, then he heard him yelp loudly, and nothing else.

“He killed him,” I said. I drove down to the Van Nuys Sheriff’s station.

It was one of those moments where you think, “I could just go over to their shit apartment and kill him with a knife and cut off her hands” or “Maybe the Sheriffs will help. They know you and your dog. They know what happened with Lali.”

I went down and it turned out that Alan had called the cops during the attack.

“What will you do to him if he killed my dog?” I asked. One of the cops explained to me that Alan’s ex was the one who’d be charged since she had actually entered the house.

“That guy’s a creep,” one of the officers said. “He knows what’s what — he thinks he couldn’t be charged if he stood outside. It’s like Manson.”

They put out one of their bulletins. I drove home, showered, and went to work the next day. I was nearly dead from lack of sleep and part of me just wanted to lie down and die. My baby was dead, the law was telling me I couldn’t even speak to my daughter, and 95% of me thought Mr. Moron had killed my best friend Badger.

I asked if I could leave work early to go to the animal shelter and put out flyers for Badger. Receiving permission, I drove from downtown to Woodland Hills. Once I got in the house in the daytime, I saw the damage from the night before was even worse than I’d thought. I went around the corner from the kitchen to the living room and saw something unspeakable.

My hammer lay on the floor. On my grandmother’s dining table lay sheets of newsprint and what remained of Anthony’s Christmas houses. Completely shattered. Just shards of pottery and broken colored glass.

Alan’s ex had taken my own hammer and smashed the few things I had that were a memory of my baby who had died three weeks before.

I sat cross-legged on the floor in that huge living room and wept. Next to Lali dying, it was the worst moment of my life.

So then my cell phone rang.

“Hello, I’m calling about Badger Cass-eeel,” said a polite woman’s voice.

She lived by the golf course, she had rescued Jack Russells herself, and she had Badger.

I want to tell you that — and I understand there are a lot of people who don’t believe in God — that He is real. At least that’s how I call Him. Maybe Her. We don’t know. But just as there was unspeakable evil at play in this situation, so too, was there good.

I went over there and got Badger and wept like a baby in her living room. I didn’t burden her with too much of the horrible story. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

One of the reasons I stayed alive after that was so I could buy our house in Redlands with Cathy and bring Badger home.

He ran away there, too.

Badger loved to run down to the Sankey.

He busted out the back of the house one day and jumped the fence. Getting home and seeing the screen flapping in Cath’s room, I got in my Landrover (aka “The Banana Car” — it was a repo) and drove slowly by the Sankey. Along the stream were fields of tall, dry, uncut grass.

I had the window rolled halfway down and I called for him.

Something told me he was near.

A pair of rabbit-like ears rose from the waving grass.

“Onie!” I called.

He bounded through the grass and jumped into his seat. We drove home in the soft, fading light.

He was dirty and covered in weeds and burrs. That was my best friend. That was Badger.

I thought I was rescuing him but it was Badger who saved me.

Mom. You gave him a Payday and he threw it up.

I know Bal. I know. He loved me anyway.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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