A town divided over a stray husky

Should he stay or should he go? His supporters are citing historical precedent.

National Geographic/ Anne Fraboni

When Colleen Belanger, who runs the local animal shelter in her backyard near Colbalt, Ont., returned home one stormy night in early June, she decided to check on the dog she’d taken in earlier that day. But when she got to the makeshift kennel, she found an empty cage with a Frisbee-sized hole where the metal bars had been pried apart. “All I could see was his little hairs on the bars,” she recalls, amazed that the dog she calls “Shadow” had ripped through the metal and escaped.

She should not have been surprised. For four years this particular white husky has been sleeping in abandoned houses and eating dog food left outside for him by locals, and eluding the area bylaw officer’s attempts to catch him. He broke free from Belanger’s, in fact, just six hours after being shot with a tranquilizer dart. He’s rumoured to have first wandered into town when a local man who raises sled dogs abandoned his team, and he’s divided the community of 1,229 people—while some call for his capture, others think he should be allowed to roam free, and are now citing historical precedent.

The dog’s status has even become a political issue in Cobalt. About a month before the escape, town councillor Sue Nielsen presented her colleagues with a petition signed by more than 200 people. The petitioners wanted the town to scrap plans to hire a local bear trapper to capture the dog. It’s been wandering among the former mining town’s rusty headframes for four years without hurting anyone, they say. “[The other councillors] basically just laughed at me,” says Nielsen.

But a few days after the dog’s escape, his defenders returned to town council with a new argument. David Brydges, a poet who was born and raised in Cobalt (he’s also Nielsen’s brother), presented evidence of a precedent for free-roaming dogs. “Cobalt the bulldog,” used to sleep on the sidewalk outside the Cobalt Stock Exchange and would even travel by train to Toronto and back during the last century’s silver boom, Brydges told the crowd. He cited The Dog That Owned A District, a story that Cobalt Mining Museum curator Anne Fraboni has been sending home with tourists for years. It’s unclear where the story was originally printed, but Fraboni doesn’t doubt its authenticity. She says that Cobalt parents have been passing down the story of the travelling bulldog to their children for decades.

Fraboni helped draft and distribute the petition to save the dog—who she calls “White”—because she can’t bear the thought of seeing him locked up. Even the man who shot the tranquilizer dart wants him to be free. Larry Reeves had only ever used his tranquilizer gun on black bears before the Town of Cobalt recruited him for the job. Reeves agreed to catch the dog so he could cut off a tight collar that looked like it was causing the dog pain. But now that it’s off, he isn’t sure whether he’d be willing to shoot the dog again. “He’s got the life every guy wants,” says Reeves. “He’s got lots of girlfriends.”

But too many girlfriends is just one of the complaints the town’s mayor, André Belanger, hears from constituents. He says a local bylaw that requires stray animals be returned to their owners or captured and given to a shelter has been on the books since before he was elected, and he must respect the rules. Jude Monaco, a teacher at the local elementary school, approached the mayor and council last year to voice her concerns. “My neighbour says the dog peed on my raspberry bushes,” says Monaco. She’s also found “deposits” on her lawn. “He’s really doing a lot of damage.”
And yet, the stray has managed to charm even Monaco. “I don’t eat much meat, but I left tofu wieners out for him one day,” she says. “I watched him sniff them and then just move on.” Monaco says she still supports the idea of the dog being captured—as long as it goes to a safe home.

A safe home is beside the point, say supporters. “This dog has a free-spiritedness that people here really identify with,” Nielsen explains. They’re not asking for a repeal of the bylaw, says Brydges, but feel this particular dog should be allowed to live out his remaining days however he sees fit. “There needs to be a place,” says Brydges, “for eccentric exceptions in our society.”