The Legend of Mitzi & the Copperhead

Ca. 1936.

This is a story about a Boston Terrier named Mitzi. Actually, it had been intended that her name be “Misty” due to her grey brindle hair coat. (She did, of course have the requisite white markings of the breed: muzzle; blaze between the eyes and over the top of the head; collar; chest; and forelegs.) But back to her name. When Mitzi came into the home, the youngest member of the family, who, although she considered herself quite grown up at age three, could not quite master the manipulation of the tongue to call the dog anything but “Mitzi”. The family, in order to avoid having either a frustrated child because of the constant pronunciation corrections, or a dog with a severe identity crisis not knowing which name was hers, decided to give in. That’s how a little 15-pound Boston Bull ended up with the improbable name of “Mitzi”.

Strangely though, as you will see, it turned out that the rather gutsy and feisty-sounding name of Mitzi was more appropriate than the more genteel “Misty” for the heroine of this little tale.

Mitzi lived part of the year (summers and weekends) in a most wonderful location for children and pets, called Lake Purdys, in the Town of Somers, in the county of Westchester, in the State of New York. In the 1930’s, which is the time frame of this story, Lake Purdys was sparsely populated. There were few year-round residents, and not too many weekenders either, come to think of it.

But there were woods galore to explore, full of flora and fauna, and rutted and dusty dirt roads perfect for wandering from home at the top of the hill, down to the Lake or the Spruces’ little general store (The precursor to today’s 711’s) for two pennies worth of candy.

Occasionally there would be an encounter on the road with a Copperhead – spread out, flattened and very dead. Copperheads, you see, react to a threat by becoming completely immobile. This inborn instinct toward self-preservation serves them very well in the woods with leaves and ground cover or pressed up against the side of a tree trunk. But caught in the middle of the road when the perceived threat is an automobile, this method of survival is decidedly not a wise move. The snakes in the area far outnumbered the automobiles, fortunately for the snakes – and for those who wandered on foot down the roads.

This might be a good time to explain a little about Copperheads.

Copperheads have a sort of “live and let live” attitude (except of course for their main food sources of frogs, small rodents and the like.) A Copperhead, when confronted, would rather leave than do battle. Make no mistake – a Copperhead is a venomous creature and will strike if provoked or challenged – it would just rather not. As venom go’s a Copperhead’s is not as lethal as some. Although a bite can cause a nasty infection, and sometimes serious illness, it is seldom ever fatal to humans. The bite of a Copperhead is however, almost always fatal to small animals.

The other thing about Copperheads. The woods around Lake Purdys were full of them. There were oodles of Copperheads in Lake Purdys.

Mitzi was not unlike the Copperheads in that she was not inclined to be a fighter (despite the pugnacious reputation of bull dogs). She would, every once in a while when in a capricious mood, amuse herself by chasing the chickens to see them scatter flapping and clucking. And then of course there was that unfortunate run-in with the skunk. But that was not an act of aggression – merely a mother’s instinct to protect her offspring.

Mitzi’s litter of pups had included (as most litters seem to) a “runt”, who was kept and named Skippy. In addition to being quite small, Skippy, unlike his mother, was black and white, and looked exactly like those iron doorstops one sees (a little the worse for wear) in today’s “antique shoppes”.

One summer day one of the family called the others to the screen door – and of course Mitzi tagged along – probably hoping for a break in an otherwise uneventful afternoon. They all watched through the screen, nervously, as little Skippy made the acquaintance of a baby skunk, perhaps half his size. Skippy and the skunk romped and frolicked like a couple of puppies. There was much amused and hushed speculation among the screen door spectators that perhaps the skunk was too young to be able to spray – or just maybe because they were both black and white, each thought he had found a brother.

All of a sudden, charging from out of the woods, came a full-grown skunk intent on protecting her young. Mitzi took off like a flash through the screen door with the same purpose in mind. The outcome of course, was inevitable.

But other than that one incident, Mitzi was a pretty laid-back kind of a dog.

And – Mitzi was well aware of snakes. She had seen the cautious way the family approached the woodpile, hitting with a rake or shovel before gathering wood for the stove; she knew not to leave the house in the morning until one of the family had banged the screen door many times to scatter the snakes warming themselves on the expanded concrete entrance step where the sun first hit each day; she had gone berry-picking with the children and watched them stomp the ground and make loud noises before entering the berry patch; she had even seen one or another of the men knock a snake from a tree limb near the house and have to kill it, for fear it would have dropped on one of the children (Did I neglect to ,mention that Copperheads are excellent climbers? Well, they are.); and once, she had even seen a snake shot. But that’s another story, for another time. Mitzi knew, perhaps instinctively, or perhaps from observing the humans in her family, to stand perfectly still when confronted with one of those quietly slithering creatures and allow it to go away.

It could have been said, with absolute certainty, that Mitzi was snake-wise. That’s why the event which is recounted here was so surprising. Mitzi allowed herself to receive a near-fatal attack by a Copperhead.

One summer evening, along about dusk, there was an unusual commotion in the hen house. (Most of the families in the area kept chickens in those depression days – for both eggs and meat.) The woman of the house, Jenny, started out to investigate, but before she arrived at the chicken coop she was met by a whimpering and very strange-looking Mitzi, who proceeded to collapse at her owner’s feet. The two puncture marks between her eyes told the story. Jenny called to her husband, Charlie, to fetch the car. Mitzi’s head was swelling by the minute as she was taken to the Veterinarian. In those long-ago days, Doctors, of all kinds, usually saw patients (human or otherwise) on the first floor of a house and had living quarters above. In that way they were always available when needed. (The old-fashioned version of the walk-in-clinic and emergency room, rolled into one.)

The Vet held out little hope to the family. A dog as small as Mitzi, and the proximity to the brain, did not auger well for survival.

For the next week or so the townsfolk stopped by Jenny’s house to get updates and tom commiserate. Mitzi’s unfortunate encounter was a much-discussed event in Lake Purdys. For one thing, Jenny and Charlie were well-known and well-liked. And then, of course, there was seldom any “real” news in town. Those were the days before TV, there was no radio reception, and the news in a day-old paper was pretty glum in the 1930’s. And, not to be overlooked, the neighbors also had pets and farm animals of various kinds, and so had more than a passing interest in the outcome of Mitzi’s misadventure.

Finally Mitzi recovered sufficiently to be declared fit to return home. The Vet assured Jenny and Charlie that Mitzi’s survival had been nothing short of miraculous, and a testament to her grit and courage.

Upon arrival at home, Jenny and Charlie were surprised that instead of the expected dash for the house, Mitzi ran in the opposite direction. Then she stopped, returned to Jenny, turned and ran again. She repeated this several times until finally she jumped up, took the hem of her owner’s skirt in her mouth and tugged. Charlie said “Jenny, she means for you to go with her”. And so Jenny did – followed by her husband.

Mitzi ran straight to the chicken coop and waited for her owners to catch up. When they did, she led them around to the side of the whitewashed building. There, spread out and decaying. Were the remains of a very dead four-foot long Copperhead.

Mitzi modestly accepted the family’s “Good Girl” accolades with her stubby tail and rear-end wagging. She was obviously pleased that her family knew she had successfully defended the henhouse and its occupants against the intruder. Only after a sufficient amount of petting and scratching behind the ears did she decide to go into the house and accept a treat.

The news of Mitzi’s dangerous encounter and subsequent miraculous recovery spread far and wide (well, at least as far and wide as through the immediate small group of residents in Lake Purdys), and she basked in the spotlight of her 15 minutes of fame with some degree of grace and humility.

Mitzi lived to a ripe old age watching her family grow up and grow old. And, happily for all concerned, never again was it necessary for her to confront a dangerous foe in their defense.

And so ends the Legend of Mitzi and the Copperhead.

Jeannie Peck
©2012
Southbury, CT

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