Volume 14, Issue 12 ~ March 23 - March 29, 2006


The story behind the story of how Sinbad the chihuahua escaped the talons of death

by Valerie Lester

A headline grabs your attention, and the account that follows can be compelling. But the most fascinating part of the story often lies buried beneath the surface of the news. Take, for example, the headline that appeared in the Annapolis Capital on February 3, 2006: “Tiny Dog Survives Attack by Hawk.”

The headline was accompanied by a photograph of Sinbad, a tiny Chihuahua, in the arms of the brother of the young girl who thwarted the attack. The article gave a brief description of how Brittany Woodall fought off the hawk, then went on to mention that this kind of attack was not uncommon.

Brittany, a beautiful, athletic 15-year-old, is my next-door neighbor. I knew there was much more to the story than dog survives hawk.

The Wrong Dog

Brittany had always wanted a dog, but her parents insisted that she wait until she was responsible enough to take care of one. On Christmas Eve 2001, when she was 11, her father telephoned to ask if we would house a puppy overnight so that he could surprise Brittany with it on Christmas morning.

Later that day, he appeared with a little ball of Pomeranian fluff. John Woodall had always loved the breed; he owned a Pomeranian when he was in his 20s, but it disappeared one day after a visit from the cable guy. At first, Brittany was delighted with her father’s choice. But it soon became apparent that there was something about this puppy’s personality that grated on the family.

“She was a princess,” says Brittany, who wanted a sportier animal, more of a guy. To make matters worse, the Pomeranian shed long hair all over the Woodalls’ tidy home. They sadly agreed that another owner would appreciate her more. They checked with the SPCA and learned that there was a long list of people wanting Pomeranians.

“We heard that she went to an older couple without children,” Brittany says. “They are crazy about her.”

Even so, losing her dog left a hole in Brittany’s heart at a time when she was already suffering from depression. As the months went by, she sank deeper and deeper into despair until she was so low that she began cutting her arms. Her family sought treatment for her and moved her to a different school, but Brittany continued her downward spiral. Finally, she had to be hospitalized.

Unknown to her, help of an unexpected kind was at hand. Sinbad was born the day before her hospitalization.

The Second Time Around

John Woodall, a policeman, had read that pets can help adolescents with depression, and he was determined to try to help Brittany with another dog.

“One day, he was patrolling his area in Crofton, and he saw a woman out walking her Chihuahua. He was fascinated by it, and asked her where she got it,” Brittany says. The woman told him about a local breeder who had five puppies. Woodall went for a look and fell for the runt of the litter, an affectionate, miniscule black and white creature among four tan siblings.

“My dad took me to see the puppies,” said Brittany of the family’s second try. “There were two I liked, but one didn’t pay any attention to me. The other, Sinbad, immediately started licking the cuts on my arms when I picked him up. Before we left the house, I had chosen him, and my dad was really happy. The two things put together — Sinbad’s birth at the time I was hospitalized and his kindness when he licked my arms — made me realize he was extra-special.”

The family gave the puppy his name, says Brittany, “because we live in Annapolis, the sailing capital of the world. So he’s Sinbad the sailor, and he enjoys himself a lot when we take him out in our boat.”

Sinbad turned out to be the perfect dog for the Woodalls. He may be tiny — he weighs less than four pounds — but he is all dog: courageous, fiercely loyal, affectionate and full of personality. What’s more, he was easily house-trained and sheds very little of his very short hair. Best of all, from Brittany’s point of view, he is sympathetic and comforting.

Would she recommend a Chihuahua as a pet to help another depressed adolescent?

“No,” she says firmly, “because of the hawk attack. He’s vulnerable because he’s so small. We could have lost him to the bird, and I wouldn’t like that to happen to someone else. But any larger, friendly dog would do.”

Brittany’s brother Alex was envious of her having a dog. “I used to rub it in his face,” says Brittany, recalling the power endowed in an older sister. “But now, I let him have the dog when he wants it. Sometimes Sinbad sleeps on my bed; sometimes he sleeps on Alex’s.”

Out of the Talons of Death

On the morning of the hawk attack, Brittany was up early to help her mother, Aracelly, prepare breakfast. When Aracelly left the kitchen to get ready for her morning run, she called to Brittany over her shoulder, “Let Sinbad out. He needs to go.”

Brittany opened the front door and ushered him out, but because it was cold and she was still in her nightclothes, she stayed inside, watching him from behind the storm door.

Outside, something else was watching. The attack happened fast, Brittany recalls:

“All of a sudden this huge thing swooped down and tried to pick him up in its talons. It had him for a moment, but dropped him, and Sinbad started rolling over and over and yelping, and the hawk caught him again, and I flung open the door, screaming Sinbad! and flapped my arms to make the hawk go away, but it wouldn’t let go. So I grabbed Sinbad’s rear end and tried to pull him away, but I fell back because the hawk was so strong. I knew it was hurting Sinbad. It was like a tug of war.

“I fell in the mud, and the hawk started off with Sinbad. But I got to my knees and grabbed him again and started swinging him from side to side. That’s why the hawk let go of him, I think.”

Brittany had screamed so loudly that she woke her father and attracted her mother’s attention. “My dad came out, running downstairs, putting on his clothes. And my mom rushed out just as I got Sinbad free and she took him from my hands and ran inside.”

The little dog was crying pitifully. The hawk had caught the skin beside his eye and punctured an artery, which squirted blood. A nearby vet was able to attend to him immediately. The eye itself was undamaged, and Sinbad did not need stitches, so the vet merely staunched the wound and treated him against infection.

Once the rescued dog came home, Brittany says, “Sinbad lay around that whole day. We held him all the time because he did not want to be alone. When my dad took him outside, he clung to his leg.

“You could still see the hawk waiting in a tall tree beside the house.”

Dr. Dog

Perhaps it is not entirely due to Sinbad’s arrival at the Woodall’s house, but Brittany’s life has certainly turned around. No longer a deeply troubled adolescent, she is now a vibrant young woman, determined to help others who suffer the way she did.

“I would like to be a psychologist,” she says. “I have so much to share, and I could be of help to a lot of girls going through what I did. I could give them really good advice. From middle school until ninth grade, I learned so much — stuff that most people don’t learn until their high school years.”

Brittany has already absorbed many of the skills of a good psychologist from Sinbad: the ability to listen, to sympathize and to offer a comforting presence.

There’s more to many a headline than meets the eye.

Valerie Lester is the author of two books, Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Her last feature for Bay Weekly was The Stuff that Mids Are Made Of: Lady Macbeth Flies off into Her Future on January 26 (Vol xiv. No. 4). She reflects from Annapolis Roads.

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