Epic tale of survival: Family’s beloved pet and her pups survive bush ordeal

FOR a kelpie, the Harmer family’s pet female, Spot, is pretty relaxed. Not for her, the eye dog’s menacing crouch and laser gaze, capable of turning a defiant ram to a lamb in an instant.

Spot – named, with typical country irony, for her uniformly dark, rust-red coat – is draped over a blanket in the dining room of Jason and Charlotte Harmer’s home on their Meringur North wheat farm.

Her eyes are closed, and she looks about as rigid as one of those poached-egg watches in a Salvador Dali still-life painting.

Five plump chocolate-hued puppies, eyes barely open in their second week of life, nurse from her ample teats.

She flicks an eye open to check out the city visitors, then closes it again.

Spot’s inner dingo has resumed its slumber. Given her relaxed temperament, and easy familiarity with strangers, it may not be roused again.

But it was roused two weeks ago, when Spot somehow became separated from her family during a routine trip in the family ute, to collect wood near the Murray River on Kulnine Station, west of Lake Cullulleraine.

The Hamer family have no idea when or how she became lost, and that was the problem.

They had stopped briefly to show the kids a roo with joey at foot, then drove off again.

Some time later, Charlotte glanced backwards and, to her alarm, couldn’t see Spot.

Normally she would have been looking over the side of the ute, ears pinned back and tongue flapping in the slipstream.

They stopped, and confirmed that Spot was no longer aboard.

They went back and searched, half a dozen times, along the route they had just traversed – the road that forms a T-junction with the Meringur North Road near Ned’s Corner Station, and runs all the way along the river to Merbein.

In the end, they had to give up. Sometime in the next week, Spot gave birth to her sixth or seventh litter of pups somewhere in the low saltbush-bluebush heathland near Ned’s Corner Station, about 20km from the creature comforts of the family home.

She wasn’t lost – the inbuilt compass with which all farm dogs are endowed would have guided her unerringly home within a day or so.

But in the last week of her pregnancy, she was heavy with her puppies, and the stress of separation may have caused her to give birth prematurely.

About half the pups didn’t make it – Charlotte Harmer says Spot normally has nine or 10 pups, including a couple of ‘‘blues’’.

But five pups was more than enough to anchor her to the spot, so she dug a shallow bowl-shaped hole beneath a small bluebush about 100 metres off the road, secreted her pups in it, and summoned her inner dingo.

That was on Sunday, May 20.

Jason, Charlotte and their three children – Zannah 6, and Milla 5, and Clay, 4 – were shattered.

Spot was a family member before any of the children were born.

They called all their neighbours, including Peter Barnes, head ranger on Ned’s Corner Station, and asked them to keep a lookout for Spot if they were travelling along the river road to town.

For more than a week, all the neighbours travelled to town that way, eschewing the sealed comfort of the Sturt Highway through Lake Cullulleraine.

The members of a Koorie working party putting up fences on Ned’s Corner Station kept watch as well, but there was no sign of the dog.

Last week, with heavy hearts, the Harmers booked a room in Casterton, intending to drive down for this weekend’s Casterton Kelpie Muster, and buy another dog.

Then, last Sunday, Peter Barnes called them from Ned’s Corner.

Two weeks after Spot went missing, one of his workers had spotted Spot on the roadside, and took her back to the station.

Charlotte fired up the trail bike – Spot keeps an ear cocked for the sound of the motor firing up, and within seconds, leaps up to her customary riding position up front.

Charlotte now faced a dilemma – she had Spot back, but her pups were still out there, somewhere.

The dog was overjoyed to see her, and too distracted to seek out her pups when they went back to where she had been found.

She had blood on her paws when the worker found her, but not from injury.

She had been hunting – rabbits, most likely. Her old hunting instincts had served her well – she was slimmer, but in prime condition after giving birth.

The Harmers had looked every­where during those two weeks, traversing the river road back and forth around 70 times.

At Ned’s Corner, Charlotte Harmer now had to make an agonising decision to leave the pups alone overnight, and take Spot home, hoping that the pressure of a full load milk would compel her to seek out her pups.

She stopped by the roadside a number of times, but Spot showed no interest.

She rode down towards a place where a creek looped out from the river close to the road, reasoning that Spot might have stayed close to water to keep hydrated – feeding pups is thirsty work.

No result. She now headed back towards Keera Station. “I stopped at the road’s furthest point from the river, in the middle of nowhere, and let her down. Suddenly her ears pricked up, and then I thought I heard the pups crying,” she said.

Spot headed for a small, stunted bluebush around 100 metres off the road. Charlotte ran after her, and discovered five pups in a shallow depression beneath the bush.

She bundled them into a backpack, and with Spot on the front, headed for home.

The children were overjoyed. Spot and her pups were honoured with a warm spot in the dining room – no dusty hole in the ground this time.

The Harmers usually give Spot’s pups away when they’re about 12 weeks old. They’re less than two weeks old, but in about 10 weeks, there’ll be five pups available, with a remarkable survival story.

This article appeared in Saturday's Sunraysia Daily 09/6/2012.

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