Bird: Remembering a true Lowcounty dog

  • Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I said farewell to my soul mate this week. Bird Dog, my black Lab, was 14 (that is 98 in dog years) and it was time to say goodbye. I’ve wept many tears and the emptiness of not having Bird by my side is difficult. But oh, we had a great run together.

In Bird’s full life he chased rabbits across the mountains of West Virginia, strolled the squares of Savannah, romped across the battlefields of Gettysburg and over the dunes of the beaches right here at home. He instantly made friends wherever we went and I can safely say that everybody loved Bird. As one friend wrote from Gettysburg, “don’t let anybody tell you ever that he was ‘just a dog.’ Bird was exceptional.”

Indeed he was. He might have been a wee bit smarter than some dogs and, as you can see from the picture, Bird was very much a ham. He loved donning clothes and smiling for the camera. More than anything, Bird was the quintessential product of his breed - happy, loyal and so remarkably well behaved that he even attended church with me (we called him the Episco-pooch.) He performed his own doggy ministry of greeting early service parishioners on Sundays with a smile and wagging tail.

Bird may have lived in other places for most of his life but he was very much a Lowcountry dog. He had beautiful manners. He loved the outdoors. He preferred wet to dry. And he would do anything doggily possible to make people (and even other dogs) feel comfortable and at home.

Thus Bird really wasn’t so much unique as yet another example of the good dogs we grow down here in the Lowcountry. Like the humans who raised them, by and large our dogs are polite and radiate a happy, positive outlook. They’re our boon companions.

Dogs show up almost immediately in early Carolina records. In 1672, an indentured servant named Philip Orrill was brought before the Grand Council because he had irritated the woman who held his bond. He not only refused to observe her “lawful commands,” he threatened to overturn the boat in which she was riding. Those were serious charges. His main infraction, what really got him in trouble, was that he had fed the dogs. Found guilty of “giving the provisions allowed him and his fellow Serv’ts to the Doggs,” Orrill was tied to the “usual tree” and given 21 lashes on his naked back.

I say good for Philip Orrill. He appears to have been a bit of a bad dog himself but he made sure the dogs had dinner. Bird would have liked that man.

Early on, dogs became important as watch dogs, not so much for their bite but for their bark. In 1725 an act was passed requiring that all scoutmen, those hardy souls who kept watch on the then-remote lands and uninhabited barrier islands, have a dog “to go constantly along with them in their scouting.” Given a dog’s keen hearing, even the most silent and soft-moccasined Indian creeping up would be detected as the dog barked an alarm.

The Indians, themselves, had dogs. When explorer John Lawson traveled through the southern region in 1700, he wrote, “for domestic pets the Indians, in common with virtually every other race, kept dogs.”

Sullivan’s Island has a history replete with dogs. In the early 1800s entire families moved to the island for the summer.

They brought servants, food, chickens, cows and the occasional upright piano. They also brought their dogs.

“How happy were they all,” wrote Caroline Howard Gilman about the island in the 1820s. “Generous boys and gentle girls in innocent joy resorted there, gathered rough shells, and threw them in the dark waters; greeting their conscious dog as he came dripping, with some prize, from the surge.”

In July 1848, one island dog became a true hero. Charleston merchant Jacob Schirmer wrote about it in his diary, noting, “Today on Sullivan’s Island several young Ladies, amongst them was 2 daughters of Mr. Harleston & one of Dr. Ravenel, were bathing when all 3 were seen to Sink, and a Dog of Mr. Moffatt plunged in and brought the two first named out, apparently lifeless, but Miss Ravenel was drowned and her body never found. It was some time before they succeeded in restoring Life to the other two.”

On August 8, 1898, on the third weekend that the brand new resort called “Isle of Palms” was open, the News & Courier ran this report: “Thousands flock to the seashore: On the first trip out to the Isle of Palms yesterday the Commodore Perry carried fairly good crowds… and at 3 o’clock every seat on the steamer was occupied. Hundreds of ladies were on board and many of them had children and babies, and some had cats and others, dogs. It was a general family day in the sands and none of the children or the pets were to be left at home… the bathing house was swamped and the nice blue suits kept in stock by the company were handed out as fast as the clerk could count.

With the suits once on the bathers ran for the surf and plunged in.”

Presumably with the dog not far behind.

I’ll miss my boy, my wonderful Bird Dog. He never saved me from Indians or from drowning in the surf but he certainly loved bounding into the waves and was every inch a hero in my eyes.

Bird was my bubba, my one-and-only. My own true love. I promised him I’d never leave him; never let him down. Thanks to the wonderfully tender professional care given by Dr. David Steele and his staff at Advanced Animal Care in Mount Pleasant, I kept that promise to the end. Bird eased into dog heaven softly and painlessly, with love all around him.

In the little book of humor I wrote about cats and dogs called “The Best Things to Eat Are Free,” I wrote: “Old pets never die, they get recycled into kittens and puppies.”

I’ll get another dog at some point. As Bird was slipping away I asked him to send me a good dog, one that he knew would be right for me. He will. And the love will go on.

Requiescat in pace, Bird Dog. You were the best.

(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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