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Off Beat: Tribune’s sacred cow was my best friend

Dan Thrift
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Nici in Hope Valley with her favorite possession, a disc.
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We noticed him right off. It was early April and he was the only other camper at Highland Lakes. After ambling around the lake, the man had something he wanted to tell us. “That’s one mighty athletic dog you got there,” he said.

I got into the office on a Sunday morning in January 1994. Checked the fax machine to see if anything interesting had happened. Indeed it had. The previous day someone had broken into the El Dorado County Animal Shelter. When the crew came to work, they found the building wide open. All the outside doors were open, not just unlocked, but open. All the dog cages were empty.

I made a few calls and agreed to meet a worker there. Arriving at the shelter I found most of the pens full. I was expecting an open-door, empty-kennel image. It turned out the dogs had been “rescued” by an owner of a dog that was being held there. I took a picture for the newspaper of one of the returned dogs and was headed out the door when she caught my eye.

A Holstein cow wrapped around a dog’s body – moo. Mostly white with big black blotches on her butt, torso and up the back of her neck and across her head, finishing with a brown on one side, white on the other muzzle. About 35 pounds at the time, she almost came up to my knees. In her prime she maintained a mighty muscular 50 pounds of mutt.

I had been thinking about getting a dog for awhile, but was waiting for the right one. I would know it when it happened. I thought about it overnight and went back the next day. No one at the shelter knew much about her. She was about a year old, happy and looked like a cow. The one thing they did know was that she was the only dog who didn’t run away when the cages were left open. It was January and it was cold. I took her home.

While she had some issues when she was young, she matured into a good-natured, obsessive-compulsive, anything-retrieving companion.

The man sauntered back around the lake after making his “mighty athletic dog” comment.

I had been playing with Nici on a huge ice floe that led from a crevasse down to the edge of the lake. My friend Jeff DeLong and I were at the water’s edge throwing a stick up onto a 10 foot-high berm. Nici would grab it, slide back down like an otter and leave it at our feet. Next throw into the lake, then back up onto the snow. Meanwhile we watched as the guy walked around the lake, made his comment, turned around and walked off. It stuck: Nici, she’s one mighty athletic dog.

Nici’s picture has appeared in the Tribune many times over the years, from a pet safety story at holiday time to a “dogs run wild in Meyers” article. DeLong keeps a running tab on her appearances. Today is the 12th.

The last couple of years were rough on her. After I bought a place in Gardnerville, she spent a lot of time there alone. Coming home after work I would give her the usual “moo” greeting, and she would whine back and run outside, where I would find her with a disc in her mouth, ready to go.

A couple of months ago she had two tennis ball-sized growths and her spleen removed. The tumors were malignant. There wasn’t any other evidence, but with something as insidious as cancer, you just don’t know. She died on Dec. 16.

There are many “I’ve got the best dog in the world” stories out there and Nic-a-dog-wa, one of her nicknames, was one of them.

One story involved a former roommate’s Labrador. It may have been in retaliation against Nici’s well-known flatulence – she also earned the moniker “Sphincty dogenstien” – but his dog was just as obsessive about retrieving as Nici. We lived in a house in Meyers that was built into the side of a hill with a garage below the house. A large deck overlooked the garage roof and was a favorite hangout for the dogs in winter. I had tossed a large stick down to the cul-de-sac and they went after it. Nici got to it first and came back up to the garage. The Lab followed her onto the roof and grabbed the stick. A tug-of-war ensued, with Nici pulling and the Lab allowing her to inch her way to the front of the garage roof. Halfway down the stairs, I yell at both of them to stop, but before I get to the bottom Nici went over the edge. I was expecting the worst from an 18-foot fall onto ice- covered cement; instead I found her on all fours with the stick still in her mouth. I did a quick exam and she was fine. I still to this day believe the Lab purposely directed her to the edge.

Tug-of-wars were another obsession with Nici. A friend of mine’s dog, another who has appeared in the Tribune, often fought as they established their dominance and would spend so much time pulling against each other they would end up covered in each other’s slobber.

Nici touched many people who work or worked at the paper, and hopefully a few readers with her modeling for pet safety stories. Many times I would see co-workers peeking into the back of my truck to see if she was there, hoping for Nici love. While she won’t be seen here anymore, she did become the epitome of the Tahoe cow/dog. Moo.

– Dan Thrift is a photographer at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Offbeat is a feature written by Tribune staff.


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