Photo by Photograph Marty Graham
A dog like Biggie — is the perfect companion. They don’t distract you, they just hang out.
The first time I saw Biggie, she was sitting next to the Border Patrol Yukon parked at the K rail at the east end of Spooner’s Mesa looking down into Smuggler’s Gulch and south into Mexico. A man’s hand hung out the window, and she was cautiously eating food that fell from it.
She looked at me and sized me up while she finished the food from those fingers. Then she barked at me. She looked to be about 40 pounds, long and lean with a bigger dog’s bark.
The border patrol agent in the truck jumped out, startled. This agent was an ultra-athlete and looked it. Standing still, he looked like he belonged in a caped superhero outfit, flying chin out in a stiff wind. He was tough, loud, quick, and a natural leader.
“I barbecued some chicken for her this morning,” he said.
Biggie, meanwhile, was making sure she wasn’t caught between us. Her eyes gleamed with smarts and she kept her lean black and white body stretched long so she could spring away.
Her eyes stayed on my hands as I pulled out my peanut butter snacks.
“Is she from here or over there?” I asked, pointing over the fence. The agent shrugged.
“Sit,” I said.
Biggie turned her head away and then looked at the treat in my hand. She trotted 30 feet further away from potential abduction.
And then she executed a perfect ‘sit’ and fixed me with a hard stink-eye.
The agent laughed, and I threw her the snack. She examined it first, then ate it while she kept an eye on us. And she moved closer and sat again.
The Biggie buffet at the K rail, freshly stocked with food and water.
That was in 2014. My first pictures of her start then, 11 months before I took her and her pups off the mesa — and as a result broke many hearts, including my own.
I am a reporter. It makes you an outsider. I hike in the Tijuana River Valley to just be me, to walk around in a fascinating place where, like everywhere else, I don’t belong.
Before Biggie, I used to go up Spooner’s Mesa — roughly halfway between the ocean and the San Ysidro border crossing — two or three times a month. The hike starts with a difficult climb, rising 400 feet in four tenths of a mile. After I met her, I started heading up there more often, and more often than not straight to that spot to look for Biggie.
When she was there, Biggie barked two big barks, then grinned at me and did that perfect sit.
In the nest, with the Army surplus blanket she apparently purchased and dragged in, since no one had disturbed the nest. The pups are about a week and a half.
She wouldn’t come near unless I sat on the ground, so I did, and slowly coaxed her toward me. After the first month of tossing her treats, the tossing distance shortened to ten feet. Then it became seven, and then four feet, until she eased in and took the treat off my knee.
Soon, she would stand next to me, her back legs stretched to spring away, her tail wrapped under her body and her eyes on my hands. She had started sniffing the ground where I sat once I got up.
One day, I reached up and scratched her neck. She stayed stiff for a few seconds and then relaxed a little and let me scratch for a long minute. I surprised her by wiping the gunk out of the corners of her eyes and she jumped back away from me, blinking, and laid down next to the Yukon.
As the mama hormones wore off, she became wild again. The pups at 9 weeks.
For nearly a year, the patrol agents fed her so well that she didn’t have to hunt or scavenge. When she wasn’t at her usual spot, I’d ask the agent of the day about her. If he didn’t know me, he’d say he didn’t know anything about any dog. I’d show my bag of treats and tell him I walked up that big hill to see Biggie. Some assured me the dog was not going hungry.
Working the line is a lonely job and you have to stay alert.
A dog like Biggie — or the little white terrier I knew at the lookout on East Smugglers, until an agent took her home — is the perfect companion. They don’t distract you, they just hang out. No quarrels, no incessant chatter. Just a pal who likes the truck’s shade and looks out for you.
Agents who start their careers at remote stations say the first time they head out alone to remote posts, someone loads them up with a big bag of dog food and says, “You’ll understand when you get there.” The strays and feral dogs know those white trucks and Jeeps with the green stripe. They stay in the vehicles’ shade, eat well, keep agents company, and bark warnings when something happens nearby — long before the agent can hear it.
Some agents showed me food they brought for the stray dogs — cans of dog food and bags of treats. A few times, I arrived as Biggie polished off a Styrofoam tray of tacos or a burger while the agent sitting in the Yukon did the same.
Eventually, I learned that there are a handful of agents who come to work early so they can feed the dogs and cats on their own time. They keep mental lists of the strays in the seven miles between the ocean and the official border crossing. There are also agents who try to catch the strays and take them to shelters — if they don’t just take them home.
“These guys are feeding this poor dog garbage,” one of those agents told me one day while I gave Biggie treats that he approved of. “She needs a better diet.”
We dislike each other, this agent and I. He yells at me regularly, and I scold him right back. He has been working the line for almost 20 years, going back to when a handful of agents dealt with stampedes of thousands. The newer agents respect him deeply and say that he taught them things that saved their lives.
“What she needs is a home,” I say.
“Well, take her, nobody’s stopping you,” he says. “Lots of agents have taken home border dogs. They usually make good pets.”
“Why don’t you take her home? You’re feeding her and you obviously care about her,” I push.
He looks away, then glares at me.
“My wife says I can’t bring any more home,” he finally says. “We already have five.”
Stray dogs show up here in this thin strip of wild land regularly; no one knows why. South of the fence, the Benito Juarez highway separates the U.S. from the urban landscape of Tijuana. North is the river valley, a crazy mix of scratch farmers and horse boarding places in the flood plain, with subdivisions of houses marking the place where the land rises high enough not to flood regularly.
Every dog that turns ups is a mystery you explore as you get to know the dog. Biggie, for example, knows commands, and she knows them in English. She is a fearless chaser of vehicles and is very careful to avoid being caught.
By March, I am walking up that damned hill twice a week, carrying extra water and treats. She has plenty of food from the agents with whom she spends her days. I bring a brush and she leans against me or lays down at my feet.
On this very warm March day, when I get up to get back to hiking, she runs alongside, barking. I instantly know she wants to show me something. She herds me to a spot at an intersection of dirt roads overlooking the south end of Goat Canyon and the beginning of Tijuana.
There sits a wire trap big enough for a dog her size or larger. In the middle of it, a big bowl of savory wet food that I can almost smell.
My heart drops and I feel sick. Biggie seems delighted. She runs around the trap and tries to herd me closer. I realize she wants me to get the food out for her, but I can picture myself caught in the trap with the bowl of food, waiting for someone to get me out.
“Can’t do it, Biggie,” I say.
So she runs barking around the trap a few more times and then runs away, head high as if she’s laughing at this clumsy trap.
I worry about the trap and I spread the word: if she gets captured, get word to me and I will go get her. And I start to think seriously about taking Biggie home.
Once I spread the word I will claim Biggie, patrol agents start telling me about border dogs.
Dozens of agents have taken dogs home as their own. Few volunteer the information, but other agents tell me. Someone tells me to ask the big tough agent with the honey-colored eyes about his ‘fat sausage’ chihuahua, and I do. That’s my precious angel, he says, and shows me pictures on his phone: his motorcycle, his girl, and a fat little dog. Another shows his three-year-old daughter in pigtails and bows with her arms wrapped around a dog wearing a matching bow.
There are a handful of agents who are known for catching the strays and getting them to the veterinary emergency room or to rescue groups.
A tech at my vet’s office tells me one day how she got her dog: she was working at night in the Mission Valley vet emergency room and a Border Patrol agent came in with his jacket bundled in his arms. He put the jacket down on the counter and she found he had five tiny pups, maybe three weeks old. He’d found them on the border and was detailed to the pet ER. She nurtured them until they were old enough and found them homes. She kept one who lived for 16 years.
I tell this story to an assistant chief and he nods.
“Now you know our secret. Border dogs are our kryptonite,” he says.
One day I find Biggie hanging out with one of the PAs, who is leaning against the open truck door, feeding Biggie from a pouch.
The agent gives me a listen-here look.
“You see how close she is? I could drop a rope over her so easily,” the agent says. “Just like this. Not me, someone who wanted to take her could catch her so easily.”
It seems like that could go awfully wrong, I say.
“They fight a little,” she says. “But not as much as you’d think.”
“So why don’t you do that?” I ask.
“My boyfriend says we have enough dogs,” she says. “But someone who wanted to could get her. You could just slip it right around her neck. I bet she wouldn’t fight.”
Biggie is oblivious to the sinister conversation. She is looking at this agent with her true love expression, a look I thought was reserved for me.
I am startled by how jealous I feel, even thought this is an agent I genuinely like.
Have you ever done that? I ask.
She tells me about a mom and pup that turned up at the other end of the mesa, dogs I’d seen a while back. She’d snared the pup first, with mom watching, she said. When she grabbed mom, the dog bit into her, hard.
Instead of ropes and traps, Biggie gets caught by her own body. She goes into heat and a big brown dog shows up and hangs around for a few days.
By September, she is still long and slender, but with a huge belly hanging low. The patrol agents are worried, and there’s talk of calling animal control.
I don’t realize it, but I am angry that she’s still there. One day, I scold a smart young man about it, an agent who knows a lot about dogs. Why the hell hasn’t somebody taken her home?
“Marty, you’re the only one who can touch her,” he says. “There are a couple of agents who’ve claimed her, but they can’t catch her. One even offered $100 to anyone who can. You’re the only one who can touch her.” He shares advice from his girlfriend, a veterinary tech, about how to get rid of fleas before someone takes her home. I decide that when I get back from a family trip, I will bring her home so she can have her pups indoors.
We will sort the rest out later, I decide. I have talked about Biggie to my vet, my friends, to many people.
My friend Corey has rescued many dogs. “Dog rescues don’t always go well,” she warns me as I show her a new set of Biggie pictures. Corey explains that Biggie has a lot of space, a lot of friends who feed her plenty of food. She may not like life with a small yard and a woman who thinks she should walk on a leash. She may bite. She may hunt smaller animals. She may be infested with parasites and horrifying diseases.
But Corey knows what it is to have a dog in your heart, however unlikely and difficult the dog may be. She encourages me in a practical and grounded way. She will loan me the crate and slip leash I will need, and she offers to keep my elderly dog during a two-week quarantine to protect my dog from any disease Biggie might be carrying.
I fly off to Denver determined to snatch Biggie when I return.
The day I get back, it rains all day. Campo wash floods across the road and cuts off access to Spooner’s Mesa.
On a Wednesday, the water recedes, and I drive to the border with the crate and a slip leash. As I drive down the road, a Border Patrol Jeep races up behind me and lights me up. I pull over, thinking this must be a new guy.
It is not. It is one of my favorite agents, a young, quick-witted guy with a light-the-room grin. He asks, “Have you seen the dog? Nobody’s seen her for days.”
I hurry up the hill, calling and searching for Biggie. I run into a supervisor who says he saw her briefly on Monday at the regular spot. Her nipples were leaking — a sign dogs are about to go into labor. No one has seen her since.
I search until the sun sets and go home with my feet blistered and the crate empty.
On Thursday, I can’t walk it. I worry even more, sure that Biggie went into labor alone in Tuesday’s downpour somewhere on the mesa. After a miserable day, I drive down to the border and straight for the border fence, scaring up one of the ATV team regulars.
He recognizes my car and his first question is, “Have you seen the dog?”
“I came to ask you that,” I say. We both stare up to the top of Spooner’s where she ought to be.
He shakes his head. “We’ve been looking for her.” If the patrol agents can’t find her, there’s no way I will. They are skilled, persistent trackers and they know every inch of the mesa.
“We’ll keep looking for her,” he says. “Go home and come back when it’s light.”
On Saturday, I walk across the top of Spooner’s, calling for Biggie again. She has not chased a single Border Patrol truck in five days. I cross through the wash just before the mesa’s east end, calling for her, and walk up to the K-rail where I usually find her. I look back and see Biggie limping so slowly up the slope behind me. She looks weak and confused, and has to stop to rest on this short, mild hill.
I open both cans of food I brought for her. She inhales them. I feed her the whole bag of meaty treats and my own snack of peanut butter and crackers. She drinks all the water I have and leans against me for a minute.
Her teats are between half full and full. She is disoriented, shaking and panting continuously. She is stiff-legged and clumsy.
As soon as she’s sure there is no more food, she runs back toward the wash and disappears into the brush. I call my veterinarian friend and describe Biggie’s condition. “Nature will drain the mom’s body to keep the pups alive,” she tells me. “There’s a dangerous calcium deficiency that doesn’t usually show up until the pups are older. But those are the symptoms. If that’s what it is, Biggie can have a seizure, become paralyzed, and die within an hour, she says. In the office, a vet would inject her with calcium and she’d recover quickly. But outside, with pups hidden somewhere — pups who will die of hypothermia if they’re alone for 10 minutes — her situation is very tricky and dangerous.
“You shouldn’t move the pups if you don’t absolutely have to,” she says. “If you handle them, their mom might abandon them or try to move them, and either way, it will be fatal to the pups. You must leave them in place, and she must stay with them for at least two weeks. You must not disturb the nest. Meanwhile, feed her cans of puppy food and a stiff shot of bone meal with each can. Assuming she hasn’t already died.”
It’s early enough to round up supplies and return before nightfall. I stay past dark, serving calcium laced food. I can come back Sunday, but not every day after that.
A patrol agent friend gets me the number for a watch commander he trusts, and I call. I tell him I need help getting the food and bone meal into Biggie. And I try to tell him why it’s so important to me, what a great dog Biggie is.
“Ms. Graham,” he interrupts. “I have a dog. You can skip this part. I get it. I’ll put my elite mobile team on it.”
So I haul in cases of canned puppy food with taped on sauce cups of bone meal, and gallons of water, and the agents take on the emergency feeding. Simple instructions. If she shows up, feed her.
Biggie’s all-she-can-eat buffet is set up within hours at the K-rail, far enough from the wash that it won’t draw predators to the nest. Some patrol agents leave notes with date and time and amount of food. More just feed her. I calculate from the empties in the trash bag that Biggie is getting four cans a day and at least one shot of bone meal with each can. I also find full and empty cans of food the agents brought for her.
By Wednesday, she looks much, much better. Her gait is normal and she isn’t confused. She is back to her speedy, sassy self.
Her trips out of the nest are brief. Each trip I take to the feeding station, I prepare myself not to see her. I know she has to stay with her pups as much as possible. Besides, the steep Spooner’s is wearing me out. I’m sick of inhaling the ubiquitous gnats, and the panoramic view has lost its charm.
Some days, I park at the bottom, to talk myself into that walk.
Sitting there one afternoon, I look to the K-rail 400 feet up and see the far away silhouette of an agent who looks like he is flying chin forward into a stiff wind while spooning dog food out of a can. I know Biggie is there by her friend.
At that moment, I realize how smart Biggie is. She’s found the right people and gotten into our hearts. A lot of hearts. Even when they knew she was their kryptonite.
That Biggie feels her nest is secure is vital to the pups' survival. The days tick by, a week, ten days, two weeks. We are hoping for four, but three is the minimum. Sometimes she leads me toward the nest but then stops short, and I honor her boundary. I am pretty sure where the nest is, but I tell no one, and I feel smug about my restraint. So it comes as a shock when one of the agents pulls alongside and tells me how cute the pups are. I manage not to yell at him, instead asking when he saw them. Oh, he says, a couple of agents have pictures.
“They’re supposed to stay out of there!” I snap. He winces and says they probably stumbled onto the nest during a pursuit. “They certainly wouldn’t touch anything.” And he rushes away, saying he has to respond to a call.
The next time I see an agent, I casually mention how great the puppy pictures are. Yeah, he says, the pup with white paws is really cute. He tells me about a third set of pictures.
When he leaves, I stomp with indignation. Am I the only person in the river valley who has not seen the pups? And then the comedy of my assumptions hits me. I laugh at the thought that I could keep a location secret from professional trackers, and that I could keep people who really care about Biggie away from her.
So I finally look for the nest. Biggie seems highly amused by my thrashing around in the wash and does not help me find it. So I go find the PA at the K-rail and she guides me into the crack in the ground where Biggie has sheltered her pups. The ground around it is covered with Vibram footprints from Border Patrol boots.
Biggie sits with us as we peer in at the tiny dogs whose ears are still rolled up. Their eyes are barely open and they look like little fat seals. Biggie seems pleased and proud.
And I realize the pups we weren’t going to touch are lying on a blanket that covers the floor of the hole she carved.
“There’s a blanket in there,” I say.
The PA hesitates a second. “I gotta get back to the truck,” she says, and goes.
“You’re a resourceful dog, Biggie,” I say. “Getting yourself an Army surplus blanket like that. Dragging it up that big hill and getting it under the pups folded up and neat like that.”
And she crawls into the tiny hole with her tiny pups, the two survivors of what must have been a much larger litter.
The next time I come up, a few days later in a drizzling rain, I meet Biggie at the K-rail, feed her, and walk with her to the nest. There’s a different, nicer blanket on the floor of the hole. The army blanket is now covering the top of the hole, held in place by rocks.
And the pups are moving around. It’s been 16 days since they were born and the bolder of the two is coming as far out of his safe place as his new legs will let him. There’s a new metal water dish about 50 feet south in the wash, and Biggie leads me past it so she can show me something else she’s very pleased about.
My girl has been hard at work, digging a tunnel as wide as her ribcage and as long as she is with her back paws stretched behind her. She has dug a bulb at the bottom she can turn around in. It’s carved on a sharp downhill angle into soil that crumbles.
She’s getting ready to move the pups. If anything goes wrong, we would never be able to get the pups out without collapsing the tunnel — and it’s too steep for the wobbly little creatures to get out on their own, which was her goal.
She jumps in and out a few times to show me, and I act happy for her. But that vague dread of having to figure out how to abduct her congeals into terrible anxiety. Because I have to snatch them before she moves the pups. By the time I get to my car at the bottom of that hill, I am certain I have to snatch her that night. It is near sunset, and night at the border is the worst time to be on this mission. I have to let the agents know that when the alarms trip, it will be me. But I can’t go so high that it becomes news they must share with the other agencies in the valley.
So I find a group who are taking a break, and I walk into their midst. They are on their phones, helmets off, and lounging on the ATVs like Barcaloungers.
I have to snatch the dogs tonight, I explain, and I try to describe the tunnel. If they could let the team know that tonight, when the sensors trip up on the mesa, it’s probably me, I’d appreciate it. I know they will still come quickly, but maybe we can lower the adrenalin a little.
“You don’t have to come back tonight,” one tells me. “We’ll take care of it. Come tomorrow when it’s light.”
It has to be tonight, I insist. She’s going to move them to the new spot.
The agent asks me where it is, though we both know he can easily follow my tracks from the nest to the new spot. He knows the place I describe.
“We’ll take care of it. I mean it,” he says. “Come back tomorrow.”
When I return the next day, anxious and wound up, I first check that tunnel. It is collapsed, stomped down until it crumbled, leaving loose dirt covered with Vibram prints from several different-sized boots. Then I check the nest and find the pups still there. Finally, I look for Biggie and find her eating at the K-rail. I play with her, pet her, and then drop the rope around her bare neck just the way the agent showed me, and stuff her into the trunk of my car, onto the huge dog bed I put on the floor.
I drive to the nest, scramble down into the crack and gently lift the pups. They were the size of guinea pigs, helpless and soft, and I called them Buster and Willie. Biggie was crying in the trunk until I gave her her pups, setting them gently into her chest. She nudges them with her nose and grows quiet, content to have them.
When I let her out, we are in my garage, and she comes into my kitchen, which opens on a small yard where she spends the next six weeks teaching her pups to be dogs.
As I write this, Willie snores on the floor near my feet. He is four now, twice his mother’s size, with a wiry brindle coat nothing like her sleek black and white. He is exhausted from playing with his brother, who lives with friends nearby. They see each at least once a week and often more.
If he wants to charm me, he runs far and fast, bounces and spins back to me, and executes his mother’s perfect sit.
When I take him to the border — less often than I would like these days — he is treated as a celebrity. He has posed for pictures with a certain superhero type, and many other agents.
The woman Biggie lives with — on a few acres near Santa Maria where the McNab border collies she resembles are treasured working dogs — hasn’t sent a picture for a while. As sad as I remain that she couldn’t stand to live in this small, crowded house in this dense, noisy neighborhood, I know she is happy with her new home, new name and family, and new life.....