I’ve avoided writing this, because I have tried hard to forget it. It’s a memory and a vision I can’t seem to get out of my mind. It appears in unexpected moments and I see it every time I close my eyes. An alligator attacked my dog. My hope in sharing this story is to think of it as just that, a story. Not a nightmare that I have to relive over and over again.
That morning, I woke up with the urge to get outside, explore, and be one with nature. I decided to take my dog, Nala, through Shingle Creek; a trail she knows so well, she walks ahead, leading the way, but stopping every so often to turn around, and make sure you’re still following her. The first time I walked it with her, I thought she was going the wrong way. She stopped in her tracks, watched me walk in another direction, suddenly appeared behind me when I realized she was right, and scampered off the way she was originally heading, as if we were playing a fun game, that she had just won.
I’m ashamed to admit I felt multiple little nudges that day that seemed to lead up to the horrible incident. It started when I told my sister, Erin, to wait until we got to a certain point to let Nala off the leash. Because years ago, I saw an alligator hiding between the grass and the swampy water. At first, I thought it was a sewage pipe. Nala didn’t understand why we had to suddenly turn around, but she listened and I was grateful for it. Needless to say, I’m always on edge when I walk through this trail.
I know this, but I tell myself alligators aren’t always back there. I tell myself I’m being paranoid. Nothing will happen to my dog. I don’t want to be the overbearing type, living in fear, when I want to be living in abundance. I love my dog and I just want her to be happy and exist as she is meant to, wild and free; just for a short while.
However, the nudges continue as I think of my past nightmares of Nala being attacked. I remember the horrific story in the news of a dog dying in front of their owner, and others like it. I think about past conversations I’ve had with friends who live out of state, mind-blown to hear not only of alligators existence, but the fact that I have seen them in my neighborhood. The phrase, “I would fuck an alligator up if it ever attacked my dog,” echoes in my mind, as I once heard someone say. I wasn’t sure what I would do, but I was about to find out.
The last time I went through this trail, the path had weakened, as water had flooded parts that were once paved. Now, bridges were sunk within the water, and large patches of grass were up to our knees. Irritated, I thought I might reach out to our community to express its desperate need for upkeep. With each body of water that appeared, the conditions worsened.
The first pond got our shoes and socks soaked. As soon as I thought I was going to feel comfortable, the second pond had a floating bridge, impossible to stand on, forcing us to jog through water up to our knees, at a rapid pace. Tiny fish swam away from me as I realized I wasn’t exactly walking through a puddle. These trenches were created by endless days of Florida rain. The third pond was larger, but had parts that we strategically took advantage of, as they appeared less deep than other areas.
Briefly, I allow Nala to sit in the water, for no more than a minute. Nala is an Alaskan Shepherd/Norwegian Elkhound mix. She is essentially a sled dog, wearing a fur coat, living in Florida. The water helps cool her off. Being outside in the wilderness, running through dirty water is a part of her breed. She is a blonde wolf. She’s my Nymeria. So, while I experience fear and disgust, I look to my beautiful dog, appearing the happiest she has been in a while, and it makes all my discomfort worth it. Besides, my darting eyes have never failed me. We’ve done this trail countless times.
By the third pond, my sister and I also realize there is no point in turning around as we would have to go through the first two again. When the fourth pond appears, it is now the size of a Florida pool. Not very big, but big enough, and there is no way the two of us are going through it. As we survey our options and debate going behind the woods on an open field of dead grass, along on a fence near the highway, a heightened awareness of mine kicks in.
What happens next happened so quickly and in slow motion at the same time.
I stand at the edge of the pond, and stare at Nala. Carefully, I watch her, feeling a mix of joy and fear, as she sits in the shallow, dirty water, with her tongue sticking out, staring back at me. Suddenly, I hear the water thrash and see a full-size alligator emerge. I shout Nala’s name with a voice that’s not mine. I see Nala begin to sprint up a hill to the side of the pond that I didn’t even see existed. The alligator’s jaws open and I hear Nala yelp like I’ve never heard her before. My blonde wolf sounds like a puppy. That one whimper drops my heart into my stomach but makes my legs sprint after what I know is my wounded animal.
I think my sister shouted; I’m almost sure she did, but I can’t remember when or what she sounded like. I know she ran with me, but I can’t remember if she was next to me the entire time or not. I think she yelled after I did, and was running slightly behind me on my right side. The reason I’m unsure is because my eyes are staring straight ahead, watching dirty water fling off my domestic wolf, and the first thing I think is, she has all four legs. She’s running at lightning speed. She’s running. She got away. She’s alive.
Nala waits for us near the fence along the highway. I think my sister and I yelled her name once or twice more, before she believed she was safe enough to stop. She pants, with her tongue sticking out, looking as she has so many times before, but her big brown eyes tell a different story. They’re wider and I know, filled with fear.
“You’re ok,” I whisper to her repeatedly, as I pet her slowly and inspect her for wounds. I don’t see any and say, “God is good,” before I give Nala a kiss and put her back on the leash. Erin is crying now and already calling my parents. My dad doesn’t answer, but I hear my mom shriek, “What!?” immediately in the same panic as Erin, without even knowing what happened. My parents are on their way to pick us up, but I have no idea how long they’ll be.
I know we don’t have much further to go but the three of us now have to walk through dead weeds up to our shins, and after what I’ve just witnessed, I’m not so sure we’re out of danger yet. My sister is still crying as she asks how far we are from the exit. So, I hug her and tell her not far, as we hold hands, walk in a straight vertical line with Nala in between us, and stare at the ground below.
We’re out of the trail in five minutes and I allow myself to feel some relief. We stand in the shade and I watch my Dad’s minivan fly down the parking lot. I wave in a way that I hope he reads as, “We’re ok. It doesn’t seem that bad. Please slow down.” Miraculously, Nala seems happy to ride in the car. I rest my hand on my baby sister’s knee, with my head in my other hand, as she cries the whole way home.
Immediately, we give Nala a bath, using the outdoor hose. This is a form of water she hates, but it’s necessary and she knows it. As I help my father scrub her down I see two gashes. My eyes start to sting with held-back tears and my body goes weak. I’m not good with blood, but my dog needs me, and I’m holding myself responsible. I don’t know how I didn’t see them before when I inspected her at the fence. Perhaps, her thick fur covered them. Perhaps, I didn’t want to see.
Despite her injuries, Nala is her normal self. She is a dog that hates baths, but loves getting dirty outside, and is happy to be home. While my parents ask multiple questions about the incident, which are difficult to answer as I am finally digesting what happened, I sit on a patio recliner next to my sister as she attempts to calm down. My hand is still resting on her knee, and my head, again, is in my other hand. I only look up to stare at Nala in wonderment and gratitude, unable to grasp that she is fine right here, while the what-ifs haunt me, despite my efforts to not let them.
Suddenly, I realize my legs are cut up and bruised, and my clothes are soaking wet. I attempt to shower, before I realize I can no longer stand. With the showerhead streaming over me, I crouch down into the tub, and have a full-blown anxiety attack. I struggle to breathe, gasp for air, and gag as I periodically feel like I might vomit. Sometimes tears come out of my eyes, other times I sob without any tears. My mind fights itself as it tells me not to worry, while the other half repeats haunting things. Eventually, I come to two painful conclusions. I was functioning on shock and life is more fragile than I ever realized.
I’ve replayed this memory countless times and it’s hard to tell if Nala starts to move because I shout at her or because she felt the alligator come near her before it opened its jaws. A part of me believes Nala and I were operating on the same frequency, as we were staring at one another just seconds before. I think we both felt the alligator’s presence at the same time. I wonder how or why my darting eyes didn’t catch it in such shallow water, but those are sneaky, quick, disgusting creatures and I saw it in time to save my dog. Or I could be taking too much credit when in reality, it was just her instinct to flee from danger, and she is big and strong enough to survive such an encounter.
For years, I’ve had numerous nightmares of Nala being attacked by an alligator. The guilt I feel in wondering if they all were some kind of premonition to a situation that could have been avoided, is something I’m still struggling with. Erin says she didn’t see the alligator, or blocked it out, and for that I’m also grateful. It is a vision that haunts my memory, without my permission. I realize this is trauma and my first time experiencing it. My heart goes out to all who have lived it, many with worse scenarios. I am continuing to focus on the fact that we were very lucky. Nala only needs antibiotics for two weeks as a precaution, and wipes and antibacterial spray for the wounds.
At the worst possible time, a smaller alligator is now swimming through the pond in our backyard. Nala hasn’t gone near that water in years, but I am constantly on edge any time we let her outside, as if the alligator will be hiding in the grass somewhere. My visions of the horrific memory have lessened, although it may only be because my present paranoia has increased. There’s nothing to be done about a small, non-threatening alligator in our neighborhood, so I hope in time it will move to somewhere else and my fear will pass. Each day I work to practice gratitude for another day with my dog and give her love.
Hug your loved ones and your furry friends. Nala and my family thank you for your thoughts, prayers, and kind words.