September 13, 2023 710 PM
TERLINGUA RANCH — For Shay Miller, the morning of June 18 started out just like any other. She woke up to let her two dogs, Dixie and Peter, out to go to the bathroom. Dixie — a striking border collie mix — came back almost immediately, as if to warn Miller that something was wrong.
She stepped outside to investigate and heard what sounded like a bunch of animals fighting over something. “At that point, I didn’t know if it was dogs or coyotes,” she said.
What she does know is that Peter — a white miniature schnauzer — never came home. She put a post up on Facebook with his picture and her phone number and then set out to cruise the neighborhood looking for him.
Peter’s whereabouts didn’t remain a mystery for long. A neighbor found him nearly a mile from the house, inches from death.
Miller took him to the vet immediately, where he was pumped full of medication to keep him from slipping away. He suffered 30 puncture wounds and a buildup of debris in his eyes from being dragged through the desert.
Nobody thought he would make it, but Peter hung on for a few weeks. Caring for him became a full-time job — Miller fed him by hand and bathed him frequently to keep his wounds clean. He wouldn’t tolerate wearing a cone, but maxi pads seemed to do the trick.
Despite his injuries, Peter seemed to enjoy all of the attention that came along with his miraculous survival — as well as some extra perks, including getting to snack on human food and sleep in the bed.
But one morning Miller woke up and Peter wasn’t next to her. All morning, he kept acting strangely, moving restlessly between rooms. She lifted up his lip: white gums, a sign of shock.
He finally succumbed to his injuries on his way back to the vet. Miller thinks it was love that kept him alive long enough for a proper goodbye. “It was like he held on to be with me,” she said.
Peter was a living example of Miller’s personal creed — to be a supportive presence in difficult circumstances, in sickness and in hard times. The little white dog belonged to a friend who had to abruptly move away to seek psychiatric treatment; he was known to be a troublemaker but latched onto her and thrived in her care.
Peter had only lived with her for a few months when he disappeared. That fact filled her with shame. “It was like he would have been better staying with [his owner],” she said.
Miller lives in the North Corazones area of Terlingua Ranch, where the sounds of snarling coyotes, wailing burros and angry rattlesnakes are as much a part of the landscape as the mountains that frame the sky.
Living way out on the ranch has taught Miller to be a realist. She has a tattoo on the inside of her arm: NOTHING IS PERMANENT.
That’s especially true in the desert, where everything breathing carries out tough — and typically short — lives. It’s perhaps even truer of Terlingua dogs, who live fast and free without leashes, and oftentimes without fences or masters.
Though wild animals typically keep to themselves, smaller dogs like Peter have to look out for snakes, coyotes, javelinas and birds of prey.
But Miller didn’t think a wild animal killed her dog. She figured a savvy hunter would have finished the job rather than leaving food on the table.
Her friend Kerri Scarbrough agreed. Scarbrough works for a short-term rental owned by Terlingua’s now-retired vet, affectionately known as “Doc Sam.”
Having worked for Doc Sam for years, Scarbrough has seen her fair share of dogs in conflict with other dogs — and their canid relatives. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff, and I’ve heard a lot of crazy stuff,” she said.
The day Peter was attacked, Scarbrough swore she saw a pack of about 12 dogs running across the road, one of them carrying something in its mouth. She thought it was a rabbit at first, but the animal’s injuries made it difficult to tell for sure.
Once she found out that Peter was missing, she was certain he was the animal the dogs were dragging — and he was found not too far from where she saw them in the road. “We put two and two together,” she said.
The situation was heartbreaking for everyone involved. “Peter being the way he was — he probably walked right up to [the dogs], like ‘Hey guys, what’s going on!’” said Scarbrough. “He was just such a little character.”
Over the past year, tensions have reached a boiling point around a pack of a dozen or more dogs in the North Corazones that have repeatedly demonstrated aggressive behavior towards humans and other animals.
Numerous locals say that they, or people they know, have had scary encounters with the dogs. The issue has repeatedly erupted on social media to the point that frequent posters have pleaded with other users to stop talking about it.
Scarbrough believes they should have been removed from the area long ago. “They are very ferocious, vicious dogs,” she said. “I worry it’s going to take a person getting hurt before they do something.”
Miller and Scarbrough have had their own run-ins with the unruly pack — being chased on ATVs and trapped in their trucks by barking, clawing dogs. It got so bad that Miller started carrying a gun for the first time in her life.
The exact number of problem canines fluctuates depending on who you talk to. Neighbors have complained of seeing anywhere from three to 20 dogs packed up together on their game cams and in person.
The North Corazones dog pack belongs to Rique Rivera and his wife, Ashley Cromarty, who live with their son about a mile away as the crow flies from where Peter disappeared. They say that the majority of sightings have been of three of their dogs — notorious escape artists — from a litter of 12, as well as three new arrivals, all of which they’re looking to rehome.
Life has not been kind to the couple over the past few years. In order to support their family and scratch out a living in the desert, they’ve worked long hours at service jobs, waiting tables and pouring beers.
In the spring of 2021, a romantic night between a neighbor’s dog and theirs resulted in 12 puppies. They tried rehoming the dogs but were heartbroken and discouraged after the first one adopted out was hit by a car.
In September of that year, the family was in a life-threatening rollover accident on the highway between Alpine and Terlingua. The three were rushed to the hospital, where they underwent surgery and returned home to try to heal from their physical and mental wounds.
Life is difficult anywhere in West Texas without a vehicle, but it’s especially hard deep in the heart of Terlingua Ranch, 16 miles from the nearest highway and 30 from the post office. Practically overnight, the family found themselves trapped, living at their workplace with 12 puppies and no car.
Two years later, Rivera is still looking to find fosters and adopters for the puppies, who have grown into gangly two-year-old mutts. “The dog situation was never meant to be a situation,” he said. “We’ve been looking for homes, and we haven’t found them.”
He’s been continually frustrated by posts on social media and signs by the side of the road advertising free puppies — and seeing friends and neighbors take those dogs home instead of one of his dogs, widely known to be in desperate need of adoption.
Rivera considers himself an animal lover. Concerned by how difficult it was for locals to get veterinary care, he led an effort to recruit a vet to come settle in the area from out of state. (That effort has been delayed after the potential vet — who was in the process of updating her license — fell ill with cancer.)
He said that three of the 12 dogs were particularly prone to escaping the pen. A few yards from the busted up Jeep in their yard — wreckage from the family’s near-fatal crash — he built an enclosure for the dogs, which stands 8-feet tall in places.
The pen was built in a way you might describe as “Terlingua style.” It was resourcefully constructed from different pieces of siding and scrap metal — leftovers cobbled together from various projects over the years. Through trial and error, Rivera believes it’s impenetrable by even the most Houdini-esque dogs.
Cromarty was worried about what might happen to their pack, who — despite the accusations from neighbors — she cares for very much. She and her husband say they walk the dogs for exercise and that they seem to love their lives on the ranch.
In Texas, it is legal to shoot and kill a domestic dog threatening a human or livestock. Without any witnesses, the definition of “threatening” can be interpreted loosely. Cromarty said that strangers had been cruising up and down the road on ATVs trying to lure their dogs out of the pen.
Things got so bad that she felt like her family was in danger. Friends said they’d seen people up in the hills watching the house, potential snipers with night vision goggles and rifles. Practically every night she heard guns going off in the distance. “All this was going on while my dogs stayed confined in their fenced yard,” she said.
Rivera claimed he has witnesses who were present on the morning of the day Peter disappeared who can testify all of the dogs were accounted for. (Those alleged witnesses could not be reached for comment).
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said that — as unfortunate as the situation is — no one has definitive proof that Rivera’s dogs killed Peter. Miller didn’t actually see him carried off, and Scarbrough couldn’t tell with 100% certainty that the bloodied animal she saw was Peter.
Echoing Cromarty’s fears, Dodson said he had encountered way more accounts of people shooting dogs on Terlingua Ranch than he had of dogs attacking people. “You have a right to defend yourself, your property, your animals and your livestock,” he explained.
With no real evidence that River and Cromarty’s dogs were the culprits, Peter’s death can’t officially be cited as a strike against the pack’s reputation. “It’s just like in a criminal case — you have to prove things,” Dodson said. “It could have been a javelina or a coyote. It wasn’t necessarily these dogs.”
But Peter’s death wasn’t the BCSO’s first rodeo with the North Corazones dogs. In October 2022, an anonymous caller sent a Brewster County Sheriff’s Office deputy to Rivera’s residence after they witnessed the dogs roaming loose.
Rivera was livid, insisting that all the dogs were accounted for and that whoever called law enforcement should have confronted him directly. “Our son [was] getting a ride home with his friends, and hadn’t returned yet,” Rivera posted on Facebook. “Can you imagine what you did to my wife’s PTSD seeing the deputy coming up our road?”
Jeffrey McGinty owns property next door to the Riveras. He bought the lot around the same time they did and put up an AirBnB: a futuristic dome designed for optimum views of the stars and sunsets.
When the AirBNB was built, it was a relaxing place with scenic views. That changed in late 2022, when a trailer was moved to the property and issues with the dogs next door started cropping up.
Lots on Terlingua Ranch tend to be long and skinny, and the dog pen was built just a few yards from the dome, both structures just a stone’s throw from the road. According to McGinty, the pen hasn’t been reinforced enough to permanently keep the dogs from harassing his guests.
On March 13, McGinty wrote to the BCSO after a guest claimed he had been bitten by one of the dogs. The photo the guest sent to McGinty shows a shallow puncture wound to the shin, just under a tattoo — the Chinese character for “brother.”
McGinty — like many of his neighbors — was reluctant to call law enforcement. “I know that resources are scarce in Brewster County, so I did not want to do this,” he wrote to the BCSO. “The owners have forced our hand for legal reasons.”
Deputy Brandon Green wrote back right away. “They have been notified that any further incidents will result in the Sheriff’s Office declaring them dangerous dogs,” he said. “I will submit a report with a case number to document your complaint.”
The trouble continued. In April, a guest pulling up to unpack for the night says she was surrounded by nine of the dogs. A trembling cell phone video taken as she ran back to her car shows the dogs growling and snapping in her direction — and was accompanied by photos of long scratches in her car’s doors and trunk.
The guest left immediately and drove all the way to Alpine to book a hotel. She considered herself — and her own dogs — very fortunate to escape. “Luckily we were in the car when those dogs approached or my dogs probably would’ve been dead or seriously injured,” she wrote in her request for a refund.
A week later, another guest reported a close call. She said she was cooking dinner outside when 15 dogs escaped the pen and rushed toward the dome. A man — presumably Rivera — had difficulty getting them back in their enclosure.
She escaped just in time, hiding in her truck for just over 20 minutes while the man tried to contain them. “A few were very vicious, jumping and scratching at the truck,” she wrote. “Honestly, it was a very scary situation. We left bright and early Saturday morning and did not come back.”
In the wake of Peter’s death, Deputy Green put out an open call for sworn statements. Despite the community outcry, BCSO Sheriff Ronny Dodson said that the department had only received one.
The statement came from Linda Avitt, an avid astrophotographer who bought land about a mile from Rivera so she could come out from her home in Austin and take pictures of the stars. She wrote that she had seen the dog pack on her property five times, growing bolder with each encounter.
Avitt wrote that she had never seen loose dogs on the ranch before March of this year, when she came into contact with the pack for the first time. In what she considered the scariest incident, she was walking her dog — a little rat terrier around Peter’s size — when a handful of Rivera’s dogs came out of the brush and charged them both.
She was able to scoop up her dog in time, but the incident still left her rattled. “They didn’t attack, but I was terrified,” she wrote. “Let me add that I regularly see coyotes around my property, but I have never been afraid of being attacked by them.”
Dodson said that Avitt’s statement — the only one formally cataloged after Peter’s death — wasn’t enough to warrant action against Rivera and his family. “The dog didn’t bite her — it didn’t do anything,” he said. “That’s when we can go after the dog.”
McGinty didn’t understand why only Avitt’s statement was included in BCSO’s cache of complaints about the dogs — especially after the deputy himself had promised that the incident would be filed. “Nobody from the sheriff’s office said anything to me about filing a sworn statement,” he said.
Miller said that a different BCSO deputy flat-out refused to come out to the ranch to investigate and file a report. Like McGinty, she’s not one to call law enforcement on a neighbor — but a few years back had called the sheriff’s office about a different dangerous dog, and they had promptly come to the property to investigate.
She said that the deputy’s overall attitude was dismissive and borderline rude. “It was like I was bothering him,” she said. “He told me there was nothing he could do, that there’s no animal control here. I was like, ‘Well, doesn’t that fall under the responsibility of the sheriff?’”
Sheriff Dodson denied that his deputies had made any effort to suppress complaints about the dogs. He instead explained that what many perceived as a slow response was because there just wasn’t enough evidence. “All the other complaints we’ve gotten [about the North Corazones dogs] are third-party complaints, things that people heard,” he said.
Part of the issue is that homes in the area are so dispersed. Many of the Riveras’ immediate neighbors are AirBnBs, lying vacant during one of Terlingua’s hottest summers on record.
But Miller’s retort to the deputy was correct — for all of Brewster County except within Alpine city limits, animal control is a responsibility of the sheriff’s office.
For the BSCO, which patrols the state’s largest county by size — and 192 miles of the United States-Mexico border — conflicts between dogs aren’t exactly top priority. While Sheriff Dodson has tended to some animal cruelty cases over his years in law enforcement, there just isn’t a lot he or his employees can do in a situation like the one facing Rivera.
Because Terlingua is unincorporated, there are no leash laws or limits on the number of dogs that an individual can have. The state’s major population centers typically limit households to between two and six dogs, depending on statutes in each individual city.
Dodson said he had previously responded to an animal hoarding call in Terlingua, but that there was a relatively high bar for removing animals without a record of violence from an owner purely for psychological reasons.
The National Institutes of Health define animal hoarding as a disorder where the affected person keeps a large number of domestic animals that they can’t adequately care for but maintain that they are the best caretakers the animals could have. Resources available for those suffering from the disorder — like all other mental health conditions — are slim to none in the Big Bend.
Jeanine Bishop, executive director of the Alpine Humane Society, felt sorry for the situation Rivera and his family had found themselves in. She explained that the typically packed animal shelters in Presidio, Marfa and Alpine aren’t open to animals from outside of city limits. “Especially when you’re talking about that many animals, it’s very challenging,” she said.
Simply encouraging Terlingua residents to spay and neuter their animals isn’t enough. In recent years, the Alpine Humane Society has hosted a reduced-cost spay and neuter clinic in Terlingua. They had to cut these workshops due to lack of funding — donations are down 46% this year. “And our costs are up for everything, just like anyone else in this economy,” she said.
As a self-described dog person, Rivera was insistent that the dogs not be sent to a kill shelter or an irresponsible private adopter. “Our dogs deserve a loving home, and it is through the collective effort of this community that we can make a difference,” he wrote on Facebook.
Labor Day weekend, Rivera posted to say that he had found homes for three of the dogs that needed rehoming — but that he couldn’t bring the dogs to their new homes until he fixed the family’s car.
Rivera’s neighbors in the North Corazones found the uncertainty of the situation frustrating, as well as all of the drama and animosity it had caused. “Neighbors should have your back — you shouldn’t be fighting with your neighbors,” Miller said. “It sucks for everybody. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble.”
Despite how uncomfortable she felt getting law enforcement — and dozens of other people — involved in the situation, she knows she can’t back down. “Unfortunately Peter had to lose his life, but hopefully something good comes out of that,” she said. “Maybe it’ll even save a person.”