Meet this little dog with a striking obsession
By Carolyn Starks
CHICAGO - Just what made that little old terrier think she could lug an 8-pound ball around a bowling alley? Anyone knows a dog can't bowl.
Well, maybe not, but one night three years ago Zoe sank her canines into the holes of a pink bowling ball at King-Pin Lanes and took off at an awkward trot. Making a U-turn in the locker room, she dropped the ball by the bar, where baffled regulars put down their drinks.
Grown doggone tired of all those rolling balls egging her on, Zoe apparently wanted to play fetch.
"I was shocked," said Jeff Nielsen, who owns the 7-year-old Jack Russell terrier and the Fox River Grove bowling alley at 418 Lincoln Ave. "Her back feet could barely stay on the ground."
The brown and white dog with the bandit face has become a local celebrity with her antics. She doesn't bowl - maybe she hasn't quite figured it out - but she has her own cherry red ball that patrons roll to her as if it were a rubber toy.
Nielsen, 39, a former engineer and account executive, bought the puppy when she was 6 weeks old. The two were virtually inseparable, even more so after Nielsen quit his job in 2002 and bought the bowling alley. He shares the upstairs apartment with the dog.
As a pup, she quickly demonstrated a talent for opening zippers, which explains her name and could have been a tip-off of things to come. Nielsen wanted a name that started with Z.
Once Zoe became a regular at the lanes, she showed an obsession with bowling balls. And never mind that at 19 pounds, she was toting balls easily more than half her weight.
Nielsen finally gave her one of her own to carry around, then another and another. She wore out the finger holes with her dedicated clawing and chewing.
Her fourth ball is already showing wear and tear. So are Zoe's teeth, which are ground down from all that ball-carrying.
Originally bred to hunt foxes in 19th century England, Jack Russell terriers need a mission.
"They're dogs that absolutely have to have a career, and they will just make one based on what their environment is, and that's obviously what that dog has done," said Terri Batzer, administrative director of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America.
With the possible exception of the dog's mascot celebrity, not much has changed at King-Pin Lanes since it opened in 1925.
The place is a "Cheers" version of a bowling alley with a folksy bar and a set of regulars who have come to love the dog.
The eight hardwood lanes were built in 1955, and Nielsen said the automatic pinsetters were among the first in the country. Scores from decades ago adorn the walls. Bowlers keep track of their spares and strikes with paper and pencil.
"She's the star," said an admiring Pamela Lee, who sat at the bar on a recent weekend with Zoe perched on her lap. "I'm allergic to her and I still hold her."
If that isn't love, consider Luke Barnett. Summoned from a cozy spot at the bar, he dutifully led Zoe outside in subzero cold for a potty break.
"We all take care of her," Barnett said, grabbing the leash from a hook next to the front door.
When he wasn't busy tending bar, Nielsen played his unusual game of fetch with Zoe. He tossed the ball and she bolted after it, growling and snarling. Easily picking it up, she hauled it ten feet then dropped it with a thud on the carpet.
Zoe has been known to chase after balls, grab towels and hop on laps of the unsuspecting. She also likes to hang out in the bar.
When league play is under way and the bowling turns serious, the dog's interference isn't always welcome. If she chases a ball down a lane at the wrong time, she pays a price: banishment to the upstairs apartment.
On a recent Saturday evening, things were on a friendly roll. Zoe was being naughty but no one seemed to mind.
"HEY!" bowler David Pascoe called out as she charged halfway down the lane after his ball.
Zoe stopped in her tracks.
"Get back here!" Pascoe warned.
The dog turned around and trotted back. Tail wagging. Head high.
The joke is that she should wear a pair of soft-soled bowling shoes like everyone else.
What's not a joke: She once scratched a $150 ball a bowler left beside his bag while he went to the bathroom.
"It took her seconds to scratch the heck out of it," Nielsen said. "He wasn't mad. I told him I'd replace it."
Nielsen said Zoe's tricks are amazing considering a car almost killed her when she was 8 months old. She had broken bones - a shattered pelvis and knee. The vet told him his dog might never run properly again. But he didn't say anything about chasing bowling balls and jaws of steel.
"They were telling me I might not have a normal dog on my hands," Nielsen said, laughing. "Instead, I have Superdog."