By PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic, Hamilton, MT
Don Burgess loves a good outdoor adventure story. The former hunting editor of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine never imagined one of his best would happen right in his backyard. It’s been about a week and a half now since Burgess was awakened from a deep sleep at about 5 a.m. to the sound of an obvious struggle right outside his bedroom.
Burgess lives about 100 feet from One Horse Creek, just about one mile west of the only stoplight in Florence. “It was a pretty loud vocalization just outside the house,” he remembered. “It was a real alarming kind of sound. It was like someone was hollering with a gag in their mouth. I thought, ‘Gee, that dog is in trouble.’ ” He jumped out of bed and reached for his flashlight, but ended up grabbing a canister of pepper spray instead. “Ordinarily, I would have grabbed my pistol, but there wasn’t time,” Burgess said. “I ran downstairs in my skivvies and put on a pair of flip-flops and ran outside.”
He was met with a strange silence. “The noise had been going pretty strong all this time, but by the time I got out the door, it had gone quiet,” he said. He shone his flashlight around. One of his dogs was there sniffing the ground next to the back step, but he couldn’t see the other, a heavily muscled boxer that weighs about 65 pounds.
He walked over to the creek and shone his light there. “I didn’t see or hear anything,” he said. So he turned upstream and walked along a little trail that went back toward the creek. “I was starting to feel like it was too late,” he said. “I didn’t hear any sound any more. It seemed like such a bad deal. I mean, we both love our dog.” And then he heard something just across the creek.
It sounded like something was attempting to growl with its mouth full. In his flashlight’s beam, he spotted something on the other side of the creek. “It was a little spooky,” Burgess said. “It gave me a bearing where the dog was and so I waded across the creek.” He lost a flip-flop along the way. When he lifted his flashlight again, he spotted them five feet away up against the base of a big cottonwood tree.
“They were real close,” he said. “Way closer than I thought they would be. This thing was facing me with its head down and apparently holding my dog in its mouth. Nothing was moving. I popped the pepper spray.”
Immediately, the light-colored wolf let go of the dog and stood sideways to Burgess. “Here I was with this light looking through an orange cloud at this scene unfolding before me,” he said. “It was like a flash photo of this wolf with its head leaning forward and its tail standing straight out. “I had this little snapshot of him and then he was gone,” Burgess said.
Burgess was sure that his dog was going to be shredded to pieces. “I’ll be darn if it didn’t crawl out of the brush and slink back across the creek without even stopping to say hi to me,” he said. “It waded back across the creek and back to the house.” It was met by Burgess’ wife, standing there on the deck with a rifle in her hands. “The only thing she could find to grab was a pellet gun,” he said. “The dog was so traumatized that all it could do was quiver. It went under the kitchen table and stayed for a long time.”
The dog’s only injuries were two puncture wounds. One was on top of its muzzle and the other underneath one of its eyes. Later in the week, Burgess asked a state wolf biologist about the difference between the bite on the canine teeth of a coyote and a wolf. He was told a coyote’s teeth might span up to an inch and a half. A wolf’s would measure more than 2 inches wide. “I measured the span at 2 1/4 inches,” he said. “That sealed the deal for me that it was a wolf.“
His boxer is 65 pounds of muscle. “He’s a buff boxer. He looks like he’s half pit bull,” Burgess said. “He definitely more than met his match that night. Psychologically, it’s taken him several days to get over it. He still goes out on the deck and sniffs and looks around. He’s not very sure of himself any more.”
To this day, Burgess can’t be sure what it was that wolf wanted with his dog. “I still puzzled over what that wolf was trying to do,” he said. “My dog may have attacked it and it was just defending itself. It might just have been thinking how it was going to let this thing in its mouth go. “I’m still shaking my head about it all,” Burgess said. “It all happened so fast.
All of it probably happened in a span of two or three minutes.“ It will definitely be one of those stories told and retold. “It’s a good one to tell for a long time to come,” he said. “I can tell people to top that when they say they have a good wolf story to tell.” Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.