On days like this, I hate my job. A truck transporting cattle to slaughter overturned on US 10 west of Walhalla. I’ll forever be haunted by images of crushed bodies, the smell of fresh blood, and the moans and bellowing of survivors. Several cows died on impact. Most had to be relieved of their pain with a gunshot to the head. At least one lucky cow escaped—two drivers reported seeing a cow trotting across the field into a nearby clump of trees. I was amazed anything had survived the tragedy, let alone be unhurt enough to run.
The dairy farmer who owned the cows sent someone by the name of Bill to catch the animal, but all he did was complain as the temperatures approached 90 degrees and the humidity made it feel like we were hiking through an Amazon jungle instead of the Manistee National Forest, not that I’ve ever been in an Amazon jungle. Sweat trickled down my face, and my cotton blouse stuck to my back as I trudged through the backcountry of Mason County. Flies buzzed marathon sprints around my face. I tried my best to knock them off course by waving my hands, but never once made contact.
“Call the farm when you find her. I’m outa here,” Bill said.
“Alison, I don’t get paid enough for this.”
“You expect me to keep looking?” Since I work at the county animal shelter, everyone seems to think an escaped cow falls under my jurisdiction. Why would anyone work at an animal shelter if they didn’t hope to instill positive change? In the big picture, I hope I’m doing that, but day-to-day, it’s tough.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“Maybe you can come back when it’s cooler.”
“Depends on what the boss says,” he said. The owner of the cow expected the county to catch the wayward animal, but I had insisted they at least help, although Bill wasn’t much help. Besides giving up, he insisted the cow wouldn’t have gone far from the crash site and was adamant we look only within a half-mile radius of the overturned truck. We didn’t find a thing. Not dried blood, fresh tracks, chomped grass or cow dung.
I watched Bill settle into his air-conditioned pickup and drive away. Waving good-bye, I had a gut feeling he wouldn’t be back. After a short break that included an apple and a granola bar, I hiked down to the Pere Marquette River. The cow must need a drink, and it was the closest source of water. My reasoning was right. I spotted a cow pie at the water’s edge, and it looked fresh: soft and smelly. From the river, her trail led up a slight bank and disappeared under low-hanging branches. Flies kept buzzing my face. My arms swung in constant motion swatting and brushing them from my hair. Trailing the cow was a better workout than a session at the local gym. When she finally left the stream, she headed into a meadow. I was able to follow the tracks for a while, but as the grass thickened I lost them. A tracker I was not!
Scanning the field, I got lucky. The black and white cow was standing in the shade of an oak tree. Not making any sudden movements, I slowly headed in her direction and approached from her backside. I was surprised to see that her tail was short, about a third of the length of a normal cow’s tail. The stub swished occasionally, trying to knock bugs off her back. When I was about ten feet away, she turned her head and stared at me with big brown eyes. I could read the number on the yellow tag stapled to her ear—38.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said in a soothing voice. She didn’t appear scared. I had a length of yellow nylon rope and hoped to get it around her neck. When I could almost reach out and touch her hip, she started walking away. Not a fast walk, just fast enough to keep out of reach.
“Come on, honey. Make my life easy, okay? Just let me slip this rope around your neck.” She continued to walk, and I picked up my pace. I lunged, tossing the rope at her head. It missed and slid to the ground as she took off at a trot. I grabbed the rope, recoiling it in my hand as I started a slow jog. She started to run. I couldn’t keep up. I really needed to get in better shape.
I figured I had spooked her enough for one day. She had water and grass and most likely wouldn’t venture far. I’d return with grain in the morning and try to lure her close enough to lasso her. When I made the decision to call it a day, I realized I didn’t know which direction was the shortest route back to my car, but I knew one thing: I didn’t want to walk back the way I had come. There had to be a shorter way.
I prided myself on my sense of direction and headed east. My goal was to find a road and hitch a ride to my car. As lost as I may have been, I knew four roads boxed me in. The only problem was that the box was a few miles wide, and I wasn’t familiar with the terrain.
After hiking for about a half hour, I came across a two-track road. “Yahoo,” I said out loud. It had to lead somewhere, plus it made walking much easier.
After ten more minutes of walking, I spotted a chain-link fence ahead of me. There were no trespassing signs every 25 feet on the fencing and a large sign on a gate that read trespassers will be prosecuted. In the distance I could see a brown pole barn and what looked like doghouses, about a dozen of them. How odd, out here in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see anyone or any vehicles. My personal and professional curiosity was piqued. I checked the gate, and while it was locked, the chain holding it closed wasn’t wrapped tightly. Skinny me could squeeze through. I continued toward the pole barn with all my senses on high alert.
I had heard rumors of dog fighting in the county but never had proof. Pit bulls, the breed most commonly used for fighting, were seldom brought into the shelter, and when one did come in, there were no scars or other evidence of fighting. Earlier in the year, I had attended a workshop on animal cruelty, and one of the sessions focused on the so-called sport.
They were doghouses—crude, homemade doghouses. The three-sided wooden boxes provided only a fraction of protection from the sun and rain. The stench of dog waste hung heavy in the summer heat. There were twelve shelters. Six of them housed dogs, each animal attached with a ten-foot length of chain. Heavy chains were wrapped around the dogs’ necks several times—the weight, I recalled learning, built neck and upper body strength. The circle of ground around each dog, indicating the reach of his tether, was bare dirt littered with piles of dog feces. I expected the dogs to bark as I approached, but they didn’t. Four hid in their boxes. One stood with a wide stance, holding its ground and showing no fear. Another growled, a deep warning rumble that convinced me not to go any closer. They were good-sized dogs. Pit bulls. They fit the description of fighting dogs—lean, muscular and scarred. Plus their ears and tails were missing. Cropped, no doubt. In a fight, ears and tails were an easy target, so it’s best to get rid of them beforehand. Ears and tails also signaled a dog’s mood; without them, body language wasn’t easily detected.
Steering clear of the chained dogs, I made my way to the pole barn in search of more evidence, perhaps a fighting ring, equipment or paperwork identifying who was involved.
The structure didn’t have windows, which protected the interior from prying eyes, but the top of each wall had a row of translucent plastic panels to allow natural lighting.
There were two doors—front and back. The back door was closest to the chained dogs. I tried the front door, and it was unlocked. Either the owners thought the secluded location and fence provided enough security, or they planned on returning soon.
I slipped inside and gave my eyes a couple of minutes to adjust to the dim light. Sure enough, in the middle of the floor was a blood-splattered, plywood-enclosed fighting area. Folding chairs were in disarray around the place as were a few small tables. There were weight scales, washtubs and buckets—dogs were washed before each fight to ensure nothing had been rubbed on their coats that would sicken the other dog if ingested.
At the far end of the room was a door to another part of the building. I slowly opened it and spotted the door leading to the dogs outside. The room looked like a gym with various pieces of equipment. The only thing I recognized was a treadmill that I knew was used to build endurance. Chicken wire stretched the length of the tread on both sides to keep the dog from hopping off. A cabinet held syringes, vials of drugs, chains and a stack of dog-fighting magazines.
While gazing around at all of this evidence, I heard the sound of an engine. I froze. Car doors opened and closed. I heard voices and the sound of the pole barn’s front door opening. Do I have time to get out the back door? Will there be someone out by the dogs? I had yet to investigate the loft and sprinted to the narrow staircase leading to the upper area. The upstairs was used for storage and had an office. I squatted behind a file cabinet and tried to calm my nerves with deep breathing. From the sound of the voices, I thought there were at least two men. I strained my ears but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Someone came into the gym room. A few moments later I heard someone else bring in a dog. I heard what I guessed to be the treadmill starting and then a dog whining.
“Shut up,” a man growled. Then I heard a slap and the dog was quiet. A door opened and closed, and I wondered if both men had left the room. I could hear the jingle of a leash and the grinding of the treadmill and assumed the dog was getting its workout. I didn’t detect any sounds from the men. The quiet calmed me enough to notice my surroundings. It looked like the loft was built only over a portion of the building. A window looked over the lower main room. I stood up, tiptoed to it and looked over. I didn’t see anyone. There was a small crack between one of the translucent panels and the siding, so I could see out the front side of the barn. Two men were talking by a dark-blue cargo van. One was white with dark brown hair, slender and young looking. The other man was dark-skinned and wore a baseball cap.
The van was situated so the building blocked the view of the gate I had squeezed through. I quickly climbed down the stairs. The dog turned its head and stared at me, not missing a step in its workout. I slipped outside and ran as quietly as I could to the gate where I had come in and wiggled back through the opening.
“Hey you!” I heard someone yell.
I ran. A vehicle started up and, by the sound of it, was heading in my direction. I veered off the road and ran into the woods. I continued to run, dodging low-hanging branches, jumping downed trees and ignoring the thorny bushes that tore at my clothes and skin. I ran until I could run no more. Stopping, I crashed to the ground and listened. All I heard were my gasps for air.