For the love of a dog

I had a call with a good friend and promised to send him some pics of my dogs on the island. Looking through the pics, the journey to befriend Bonzo is worthy of a published story.

I arrived on Ilha de São Miguel, Açores on 1 May 2023. The two dogs, Bonzo the big red and Trixie the small Yorkie cross, along with three stray cats I named Oscar, Chloe and Ally – together the “pack of 5” – were at the old disused building about 800m up the road from where I live then already, but my first picture of them is on 8 June. The dogs apparently belonged to the man renting the house across the road from mine, which was intact when I visited in March, but lost its roof to a fire by the time I moved here in May. The man looked after the disused building or something and so apparently they were familiar with the building? But I think what really happened was when the fire happened they ran away in fear and this building was far enough away and provided shelter. Someone was occasionally feeding them, and I saw Bonzo with a rabbit so, somehow, they managed.

I fell in love with Bonzo at first sight, but he was wild as the stormy sea. He would take off as soon as I approached, and until December I could not approach him, although, in good time he would come to me if I didn’t look directly at him and relaxed my posture. Trixie, on the other hand, was friendly straight away. Her friendliness seems to be her defence mechanism, she would approach and go belly up to everyone she meets. So Trixie was my gateway dog; I would be nice to her but really to get closer to Bonzo. Interestingly enough it was harder to convince her to come to my house than it was to convince Bonzo, but more on that later.

I was missing my dogs back in South Africa, and these dogs were something to take my mind off them. So I started leaving food for the dogs and the cats as soon as I could, and stopped by there, either en route to a walk further out, or to do some Portuguese lessons, especially later when they were more used to my presence.

8 June 2023: waiting for me on my afternoon walk

14 June. Trixie is so photogenic, even ungroomed here. This is the best pic I have of her. That little personality just shines through. Oscar chilling beside her.
17 June. This was a typical setup. After feeding them I would hang around, and they would arrange themselves based on their comfort level. Trixie closest, Bonzo furthest away.
8 July. The pack of 5 start following me when I explore other areas. This day was really hot and the cattle next door were bellowing, and when I refilled the water bucket for the pack of 5, the cattle also really wanted some, so I took a chance and refilled the cattle water buckets too. The cats took great interest in this.

15 July, fooling around

By July the pack of 5 would be comfortable enough to fool around, play and goof off after their meal. I would sit and do my language lessons, and they would play. I snapped a few shots of Trixie and Bonzo, but this one is the best.

Two more foolin’ pics below.

24 August. Bonzo could not use his left back leg at all, and I could not get to him to help at all. The stress! I called the vet, but they did not have people who could come catch him, I would have to bring him in myself, and there was no way he would let me do that. I watched him for a week trying to figure out how serious the injury was, was it a strain or a break? How did this happen? A while after this, I saw how it happened. He jumps from the porch of the building onto the grass bales to go steal the cats’ food, and sometimes, he slips. My sympathy for him dropped a notch, but I was also heartened that he felt good enough to try his antics again (and he still jumps over and through things even-though he absolutely has no need to). He did have a bump on his leg for along while after that, and he seemed to limp as much as a nervous tic than a real injury, but he seems to have healed completely from about December.

20 September: Trixie needs a bath!

By September, my new neighbour from a few houses up, Claudia, moved in and started sterilising the cats in our street. She sterilised 9 cats, there’s Rosa and two males left who needs the snip, by my count. Part of that 9 was the three cats in my pack of 5. I helped catching them, and part of that was taking Trixie out of the equation because she would just steal the food used as bait. She also stank, so while she was confined to my home I gave her a bath and a very rudimentary trim. She was not too happy but tolerated it, but once outside to dry off was very clear that a soft bed in a warm home was nothing compared to being with Bonzo. She wanted to go back, so shortly after the bath and after the cats were captured I walked with her back up to Bonzo.

OMG the last week of September!

Chloe saying this is all very nice, but shortly after going, cheers! chatcha laters!

So when I said that Claudia sterilised the cats of my pack of 5 that was only 2/3 correct. Because at that point, Ally was heavily pregnant. We agreed that I would catch her, so she can have her babies in a safe place in my back room, where we could socialise the kittens to prepare them for adoption, before sterilising and releasing her. A few days after I washed Trixie, 24 September, I bribed Ally with sardines, and caught her in a cat carrier. Unfortunately halfway down back to my place she broke out. I had some sardines left so I thought I would try to alleviate some trauma in preparation for catching her again. I can’t remember if I caught her straight away, or only got Chloe, but I did manage to get her again and put her in my back room. I also caught Chloe who was unexpectedly ready to be caught again (and have more sardines!) despite just having been sterilised and traumatised, so I put her in the back room with Ally to keep her company. Chloe was much friendlier, but escaped soon after, freedom being too precious to her. Chloe is still friendly, and sometimes meows at me from afar before romping across a field for a snack. She’s loving the sterilised, worm-free, life at liberty. Anyway, back to Ally. And more surprisingly, Bonzo.

With the drama of catching, losing, and catching Ally again, I guess Bonzo was either curious to follow me home or concerned about Ally being abducted. Either way, while we were all in a spaz trying to get Ally home, Bonzo was following me down the road. This was a huge surprise, giving that he wasn’t even letting me really touch him?! I tried to coax him to follow me, but he was very nervous, and I had to make sure that Ally was taken care of, so my priorities were elsewhere. Claudia kept me updated, and he eventually went back up to his building, and I focused on Ally. I remember showing up to home with Ally in the carrier and Graham, my partner, being a bit confused about what is happening, and me saying that the heavily pregnant feral cat hissing in the carrier not being even half of it, with a stray dog in tow, and his eyes growing so wide, hahaha.

26 September: At the end of the rainbow

By September Bonzo would lie down somewhere in the vicinity while I was doing my language lessons. I think I counted progress by how many nose boops I got per day. It started with one, and then some days I would get up to three! Some days you could hear his anguished groans as he wanted to connect more, but felt too anxious. You could almost see the poor dog’s thoughts as he was trading off the risks and desires. On this particular day, the weather and his position aligned for a very cheesy pic.

27 September: Tomé

Tomé, the white dog, deserves his own post. He sort of adopted us, and I’m not sure when he started joining me on walks, but this is one of the first pics of him meeting the pack of 5. I found it interesting how Bonzo would low key always place himself between Tomé and Trixie, to protect her. Bonzo is very good at deescalating conflict. I think him and Tomé love each other very much, but Tomé is not good at communicating well and gets very worked up very quickly.

28 September: Bonzo becomes an uncle

Ally’s kittens were born the evening of 28 September. They were confined to the backroom for two months but I let Ally out for walks because I couldn’t bear her crying for freedom, and after the first fright of her escaping and thinking she abandoned her babies and frantically searching for emergency kitten milk recipes only for her to nonchalantly returning, I decided to trust that she knew what she was doing and being a good mom (I did intervene once when she was busy moving the kittens outside, understandable but not acceptable to me). The kittens are almost three months at the time of writing, and starting to explore outdoors. Bonzo, Tomé and Trixie are respectfully curious. Ally says a fond hello to Bonzo and Trixie whenever she meets them. Tomé is a bit hit or miss, but he’s trying his best.

Ally, one of the pack of 5

9 October: Trixie becomes mine

With Ally in the backroom with newborns, and Bonzo exploring my place, I thought it an appropriate time to make my move with the dogs. The first step was getting Trixie sterilised; I certainly did not want her to get pregnant with a dog four times her size. She was polite, if unhappy, and mostly just froze, the poor thing. But she took her lot like a champion, and didn’t misbehave once. Whenever I let her out on leash to go to the toilet, however, she bee-lined to go back up to Bonzo which broke my heart, but we had to wait it out for her to heal.

12 October: We belong to each other

After her post-op check-up, we celebrated with a walk up to Bonzo. Look at the reunion!

15 October: Port in a storm

Throughout October there were real or imagined sightings of Bonzo at my place, it was fairly clear he would sometimes spend the night. He would stay just out of reach, but he was definitely around. I was starting to touch him, but it was tentative, and only when I let him approach me. One night, however, it was seriously stormy. I think at this point I was walking Trixie up to him daily, but carrying her back home, mainly because I would spot Bonzo at my place during the night so she may as well join the club. I was worried that he didn’t have shelter outside my place, so during the storm, I crawled up to Bonzo, managed to grab a front leg, worked my way up to his chest and eventually carried him inside, at that point both of us soaking wet. But he slept inside. He shot out the door as soon as he could though.

17 October: Walkies? Count me in!

On this day my friend Glorine joined me for a walk. I prepared her that we will just feed some strays on our way. I was not prepared that for some reason both Tomé and Bonzo decided to join us for the whole walk! I could not get my head around this.

18 October, hazarding a sniff

By October I would stay for half an hour or so, enjoying the weather and doing Portuguese lessons. Bonzo would be close and groan in frustration at wanting to come closer but not feeling confident enough. This day he felt confident enough to sit next to me, and even go in for a sniff and I managed o capture it (I have another picture from 27 September where I am smiling on my own – he dodged before I could take the pic)

22 October, chillin’ at my place

Having some beer in the sun outside my house, and all the dogs chilling with me. This was new!

27 October: Snipped, chipped, and more than a bit out of it

Late October I had a rental car so it was a good opportunity to formalise our friendship … by snipping his balls off! He was so drugged up, he looked so stoned, the poor thing. While he was in this daze I put a collar on him, the mere sight of a collar used to absolutely freak him out before. He didn’t want to use his dog bed (donated by Claudia’s friend, thanks!) until this point, but from here on, it’s very much his bed. I get the idea that this was basically his point of no going back.

13 November: Tomé gets the snip too

Tomé is not our dog, but we asked his owners for permission to sterilise him too, hoping it would make him a bit more relaxed (so far so good). While Bonzo hated the cone, and smashed it trying to get out of the house after getting a fright, Tomé just pretended this was the latest fashion and strutted his stuff regardless. There’s a reason we call him the mayor of our street. He’s got game.

18 November: This is our life now

The dogs would just accompany me everywhere, here planting camellias to get a hedge going.

27 November: Happily being indoors

At this point Bonzo would still prefer to be outside, and I’d let him when the weather’s good, but as the rain and cold increases, he’s also happy to sleep inside. Trixie has her own bed, but nothing wrong with the occasional cuddle!

1 December: Bliss and happiness ever after

24 December: Sunning our bellies after a big meal

While I don’t celebrate, I did decide to slow cook a big piece of a cheap cut of meat. We ate it together, all the sinewy bits were cut up and shared, everyone being very polite about it. Of course Bonzo did try his luck with the meat on the table when I left the room, the rascal! He’s sophisticated at scrounging for food, having had to fed for himself, who can blame him.

Oh, and obviously I kept the kittens. Also deserving of a whole post, how different their personalities are!

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