After you’ve been hunted by a pack of wild dogs, you’re never look at the world in quite the same way. I had this experience during the late 1980s. The pack consisted of a half-dozen feral dogs; I was saved from the attack — not by any tactic of my own, but from the pack’s own misconception.
After the incident, I researched feral dogs and was astounded at the billions of dollars lost every year in America due to their livestock predation. At the time, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that dogs were hunting me. During those years, I managed a number of programs for a local utility that took me into every economically depressed neighborhood in and around the city of Pittsburgh. This was after the crash of the American steel industry. Suburban areas and even city neighborhoods had in some cases almost been abandoned. Towns with populations of 20,000 had been reduced to 2,000.
When I was in those towns, I always asked people about their greatest challenges. When I first started asking I expected answers like “no medical services,” “lack of public transportation,” “hunger,” “gangs,” “robberies.” But time after time, the first answer people gave me was how afraid they were of dog attacks. I have to think that a similar situation exists today in Detroit, where an estimated 50,000 dogs, abandoned by their owners, roam the city.
During the 1980s, dogs were abandoned throughout western Pennsylvania by owners who could no longer afford them or people who had lost everything and were fleeing the area by the tens of thousands. They were going south to Atlanta, or west to Texas or California. In that era, those were the states where possible jobs and hope existed for a disenfranchised workforce. I have to assume the dogs I encountered that day once belonged in the homes of some of those people. By the time I confronted them, they only belonged to themselves and the forest.
I was hiking alone through a steep, wooded, stream valley, east of Pittsburgh. I was familiar with the valley from my childhood and after many years, wanted to revisit it. I was kneeling to drink from a small stream when I felt a tickling along the nape of my neck. I glanced up quickly and met the eyes of a dog pack. There were six of them; they all seemed to be German shepherds or a German shepherd mix. They were on the opposite side of the tiny stream. That side was relatively flat for about ten feet, but then sloped upwards. They were about fifty feet up the slope and were all silently crawling together directly towards me. Their eyes were fixed on me, almost hypnotically.
When our eyes met, they all stopped crawling at once. We stared at each other in complete silence. I was in a partial clearing, with only a few saplings. The few trees there were too thin for me to scramble up. I knew I couldn’t get to the clearing’s edge where there were climbable trees. I reached slowly to my hip, where I was carrying a large knife. The sheath had a metallic snap and when I clicked it open, all the dog’s ears shot up together in unison at the sound.
Later, when I reconstructed the event, I guessed that these dogs knew humans well enough to equate that metallic sound with the concept of a “gun” and the danger a gun represented. Once again the pack moved in perfect unison, all of them still crawling but creeping sideways across the slope and away from me. Their eyes never left me until they reached a thick line of undergrowth. Then they all rose as one and together bolted into the bushes. It was almost like someone had choreographed them. I stood and very slowly walked to the opposite end of the clearing to where the forest had more mature trees and offered a vertical escape if the pack continued to stalk me. I kept near the trees until I had retreated from of the entire area.
Their uniformity and synchronous behavior never left me. It was chilling. They moved like one organism. I was more astounded at that, than their intelligence when they connected the sound of metal to a gun, and my reaching hand motion, which they also may have understood as a threat. Years later when I began to write The Church of Wolves, this incident became one of several major guides in describing pack behavior and movement. It also connected to my experience of a mob mind. I questioned if I had gotten a glimpse of why our ancestors feared wolves so much. Seeing six, separate, creatures fused into one movement of deadly intent was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. It’s an experience that made me feel like I was on the border of the supernatural. I can only guess how wolf packs would have made ancient humans react. Those humans were our ancestors; they were our families… how much of them and their experiences still sleep and pull within our minds? How many legends grew from such encounters? How many truths did they know that we have forgotten? I believe some of their distant echoes made it directly into The Church of Wolves.