Words and Zoe Photos By Ken Billett
A woman, bundled up for the frigid November morning, rounded a cement pathway, heading in our direction. Seated on over-sized bench-like steps outside the FedEx Event Center, I gently tug the leash.
“Be good,” I said. A short pant was the only acknowledgment I received.
As she passes us, the bundled woman slows. “Pretty girl,” she said with a puff of breath. “Looks like a sweetie.” She walked on, leaving Zoe and me to gaze out over Hyde Lake.
Little does she know.
Zoe groaned—a low, guttural moan that’s not quite a whine—which basically means, “I’m bored, and I want to go home.” So much for my bright idea of changing the scenery for our morning walk.
Apparently not everyone is enamored with Shelby Farms Park.
Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee
Zoe’s been part of our family for almost three years. She’s a rescue dog who came to us when she was four-years-old. Originally from Cody, Wyoming, Zoe traded cowboys on horses, wide-open spaces, and spectacular mountain vistas for Elvis impersonators, Poplar Avenue traffic congestion, and sunsets on the Mississippi River. About the only thing Cody and Memphis have in common are grizzly bears. Ours, of course, are typically found on or around a basketball court.
Her adjustment to Memphis and to a new family wasn’t easy at first. Those wide-open spaces were replaced with suburban sidewalks, rumbling FedEx trucks, noisy neighborhood dogs. And squirrels, lots of squirrels. Zoe had to adapt to asphalt streets and walking on a leash. She also had to learn to eat on a schedule—a firm schedule.
And we had to adapt to her. We’re a dog family and have been fortunate to have had two wonderful dogs that were both with us for a long time. Our first dog, Bailey, a golden retriever and the heroine of that surreal experience on May 17, 1994 (May Seventeenth), was a sweet, gentle dog who lived 15 years.
Nixie, our first border collie, was absolutely wonderful and beloved by our entire family. Talented, smart, and loving, she came to us—during a dark period—through a local rescue group when she was around six-months-old, becoming a kind of therapy dog. Even at eleven, Nix left us too soon.
Zoe had some big paws to fill.
A Force of Nature
Zoe, to put it mildly, is a force of nature. Where Nixie was agility, grace, and intuition, and sweet Bailey was loping and laid back, Zoe is none of those things. She charges headfirst into any situation—an Amazon delivery or the next-door neighbor stopping by, that squirrel on the fence, a ball that ends up in the bushes—and there is no subtlety, no hesitancy before moving, and no boundaries.
In Zoe’s canine brain, everything and everyone are fair game. Definitely a force of nature.
We soon learned Zoe’s old life was much different from her new one. She had to be taught (or re-taught) how to fetch a ball. We’re not sure if she even played fetch while growing up in Wyoming, and, at times, she didn’t appear very coordinated.
Odd for a border collie.
Zoe’s talents, we soon learned, were more rural than suburban. Our backyard chipmunks found out the hard way that a new sheriff was in town. While Nixie was athletic and agile, Zoe, the force of nature, was relentless. Chipmunks were no longer safe anywhere in the yard. Not under the firewood rack, behind the hydrangea bushes, or inside downspout extensions. No more safe havens. Not even their burrows were completely safe. Escape to a nearby hole? That huge black-and-white beast would dig away the first several layers of dirt, shoving her snout down even deeper.
The squirrels and the crows stayed on high alert knowing that, at any moment, Zoe might explode, like a rocket, from the backdoor and reclaim the backyard as her own.
Zoe earned the nickname “farm dog” not only for her mousing abilities but also for her tendency to roll-in or eat just about anything. Unfortunately, that tendency landed her at the vet with a serious gastro infection. Afterwards, we watched her carefully when she tore around the backyard, and, eventually, she learned—sort of—not to put everything in her mouth.
The “farm dog” adapted and so did we.
Not for the Faint of Heart
My own bias aside, border collies are beautiful and intelligent dogs. They’re working dogs with extreme focus and energy, and it’s that combination which can make them a challenge as a family pet. Herding instincts and neuroses about, well, just about everything, make owning—and caring for—a border collie not for the faint of heart.
Border collies are also lovable, loyal, and extremely people-oriented. They respond well to social cues and may actually want to help out in a tough situation. Border collies were bred to problem-solve and will eagerly take on any challenge given.
They require lots of patience and lots of love.
Zoe is no exception.
Vicki calls Zoe “our mess,” while I sometimes use other choice descriptors when Zoe emphatically barks at yet another delivery truck rumbling by our home. As I work on this piece, she’s lying near my feet—a little worn out after playing fetch for the tenth time this morning. It’s only 9:25. She’s now seven and, other than a little stiffness every once and awhile, shows no signs of slowing down.
Playing “ball,” as we call it, has become her favorite, and she’s pretty good. When I hold a rubber ball in my hand, I get Zoe’s huge eyes and that stare—the notorious border collie stare. The ball flies through the air, hits the ground once, and then Zoe deftly snags it in her mouth, turning quickly to bring it back to me.
Our weekday mornings are spent like this—a little writing, a little “ball,” a conference call, more “ball,” catch-up on emails, even more “ball.” You get the idea.
We love our Zoe, and she loves us. She’s family—our furry child. We’ve adapted to her and she’s adapted to us—and to living in Memphis.
As much as we’ve changed and Zoe’s changed, she’s still a “farm dog” at heart. At the crack of dawn each day, Zoe softly whines or groans, which means, “Time to get up! I’ve got sheep to herd.”
Or, rubber balls to fetch.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.