Ankle biter is a common modern colloquial Australian term for child, usually quite young (say, under seven years old). You might hear at the pub on a Saturday afternoon: "Nah, thanks mate, gotta get home to the missus. The ankle biters'll be drivin' her nuts."

She never wanted that damned dog.

My friend Susan had always had big dogs. She lives with her elderly mother and any number of female foreign exchange students and as such, preferred a big dog to act as a watchdog.

Her last big dog, named Sam, was a pit bull and despite the media's hysteria about these dogs, Sam was a sweetie. He loved kids, especially my goddaughter, and would romp with her endlessly when she was a toddler.

However, he was a trained watchdog, and the one time he needed to defend his territory it cost him his life. A gentleman entered the house, uninvited, to stump for his son's run for the local city council. Sam bit the man. It made the newspaper. Sam was put to sleep.

The incident, the media attention, and the fact that the candidate, shortly after winning a seat on the council, was busted for swapping price tags at a local store, all combined to send Susan into a pretty deep depression.

Her sister and mother thought to remedy the situation by buying Susan another dog. Susan was amenable to the idea, but was adamant that the dog be another watchdog, and not some "Goddamned ankle-biting Chihuahua or worse."

Susan didn't like small dogs. Was convinced that they served no meaningful purpose. That all they did was yap and bite your ankles playfully, and didn't protect you, in fact, you had to protect them. This sort of dog was not what Susan had in mind...

So imagine her chagrin and anger when Zima (named because she was truly "zomething different", and oh, how different she was) bounded into her life. A small, but by no means tiny, dog, she was a mutt...but a beautiful one. Blond, with big liquid brown eyes with so much intelligence in them ... the type of dog that people just have to pet or comment upon when seeing it walked down the street. She had soft, luxuriant fur that shone in the sunlight. She had a wonderful personality, understood what you wanted of her, whether it be to sit, or get in the back seat of the car, or to quiet down; you only had to tell Zima once, and she obeyed.

Susan hated her on first sight.

The anger with which she received this replacement for her beloved Sam surprised us all. None of us realized how deeply Sam's loss had hurt her. None of us realized how much she really didn't want another dog to replace him.

None of that mattered to Zima, though, and we left the two of them to develop a relationship ... and hoping and praying that we had done the right thing and wouldn't have to take Zima back to the dog pound. Because everyone but Susan loved that dog on first sight. She made you love her.

Gradually, Susan realized that there were a lot of things you could do with a small dog that you couldn't do with a large one. Zima was easier to take to the beach for one thing. She could go on daily bike rides with Susan. Or accompany her on long trips. Reluctantly, Susan admitted that Zima made a good companion, but would never equal any of Susan's prior watchdogs and their place in Susan's heart.

As I've already mentioned, Zima's a smart dog, probably the smartest animal I've ever encountered. I think she knew that Susan was her friend in only the most grudging of fashions, and that her role as Zima's master just an obligation at best. She also knew that Susan hated ankle biters ... why else were Susan's ankles the only ankles she ever would take a playful nip at?

Three years into this strange human-canine relationship, Susan found out just how much Zima loved her.

Susan had dropped Zima off at the beauty parlor for Zima's monthly bath and trim and perfume. This was a ritual that Zima positively adored because she became simply irresistible when all gussied up, even to Susan.

However, something happened that day, something that frightened Zima so much she ran away from the beauty parlor, dashed across a busy Santa Barbara street and disappeared into the city.

Of course, Susan was frantic as were we all. As the hours turned into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into a month, the hope Susan held of finding Zima slowly ... died. It was terrible to watch, because not only did Susan have to deal with the loss of yet another pet, she had to cope with the fact that this loss of a pet, somewhat unwanted by Susan, really mattered to her. She had to admit she did, after all, care about Zima. And now it was too late to express that to that charming, intelligent, beautiful bundle of soft fur. Nearly all of us had privately admitted to ourselves that Zima was most likely dead. But Susan ... Susan was the last to give up hope. She kept an ad in the paper, and every evening nailed "lost dog" posters everywhere she could. Even Susan, though, started to lose faith after a month had gone by with not one single report or phone call ... Zima seemed to have simply vanished into thin air.

Then, late one night nearly six weeks after Zima's disappearance Zima was spotted at Susan's friend Maggie's house. Maggie has a rather large piece of property, though, and so we set up a sort of command post to scout out all the gullies and thickets and whatnot trying to find Zima, day and night. We all marveled that Zima had somehow found Maggie's house ... fifteen miles away from the place she'd last been seen, nearly all of the terrain dangerous to a small dog. The best we were able to figure was that Zima somehow found the railroad tracks that run parallel to Highway 101 through Santa Barbara ... and just, somehow, followed her nose, or her instincts, to find a place where she knew Susan would look for her.

Yet beyond that initial sighting, no more was seen of Zima for three days. Susan had taken to sleeping in her van at Maggie's house, leaving the big door open all night in case Zima recognized the vehicle. But still, no sign of her.

In tears, Susan finally resorted to prayer, praying to God and the spirit of her long-dead father, telling them that she no longer had the strength to continue the search, that that night's watch would be her last. Tearfully, she prayed all night long, falling asleep with the words "Please, God, please, Father, let her be safe, or in heaven" on her lips.

Several hours later, she awoke with a start ... the van had just shaken like something or someone had entered the vehicle. Susan turned around and...

...there was Zima, perched in her favorite spot in the back seat, almost as if nothing had happened. She was almost unrecognizable, so dirty, bedraggled and thin that she was. But it was her. She wasn't hurt, just dirty and hungry and scared. She had found her way back to Susan ... all on her own. Somehow, she had survived. Somehow, she had lived.

Susan transformed herself after Zima's return, displaying open affection for her for the first time. Zima, after an inital bout of xenophobia, returned to her former self. The two of them are inseparable ... as it seems they were fated to be. After Zima returned, Susan never again said she hated ankle-biters. She never again expressed a longing for pets long-gone. The two of them have grown into a happy middle age together.

And Zima still bites Susan's ankles. Only hers.

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