When loud shrill screaming filled the air last week, North Fort Myers resident Dennis Kwiatkowski ran outside into his fenced-in backyard with a friend.
It was a Tuesday, and Kwiatkowski had just returned home from work, letting his dogs - BJ, a 62-pound boxer, and Tippy, a 30-pound terrier - out back.
"About five minutes later, we heard this screaming," he said. "I thought it was a woman being murdered, so we ran outside."
SPECIAL TO THE BREEZE
BJ, North Fort Myers resident Dennis Kwiatkowski’s 3-year-old boxer, was killed after being bitten by what turned out to be a 7-foot diamondback rattlesnake. Kwiatkowski originally thought that a water moccasin killed BJ.
BJ, a big dog with a bigger heart, that loved to swim and play, came limping toward Kwiatkowski and his friend, Lenny Leonov. They watched in horror and confusion as the dog that they rescued two years ago collapsed on the floor.
He was foaming at the mouth and his paw was bleeding, Kwiatkowski said.
They rushed the dog to the veterinarian, where it was discovered that BJ had been bitten nine times by a snake. Two hours later, the dog passed away.
"We're just still devastated," Kwiatkowski said Wednesday.
"It's devastating," Leonov said. "It's absolutely devastating."
Leonov explained that they thought it was a water moccasin that had bitten BJ. Kwiatkowski lives adjacent to the old Lochmoor Golf Course which has been closed for years and is now overgrown, and a water hole on the property, which is not being maintained, has become home to local critters.
He said last week they saw a water moccasin and another last month. Last year, a trapper had to be sent out to lure a 6-foot alligator out of the water hole, where it had taken up residence. The alligator was killed once removed.
One week after BJ's death, though, both men were in for a shock.
This past Tuesday, Kwiatkowski's lawn service company approached him, advising him to be careful when working in the backyard because they had just found a dead snake. But not just any snake - a 7-foot-long diamondback rattlesnake.
"He said he's never seen a snake that long," Kwiatkowski said.
"It was dead about a day or two," Leonov added.
Upon inspecting the huge reptile, they located a bite wound to its stomach.
"BJ went up and bit the snake in the middle," Kwiatkowski said.
"I feel like BJ killed the snake to protect us," he added.
"I think the dog protected us to the end," he said. "I think he protected his house and his family."
In an odd turn of events, Tuesday would have been BJ's fourth birthday.
"BJ was a very loving dog," Kwiatkowski said. "He loved everybody, everywhere. He would never be mean to anybody."
Leonov said the loving canine liked to swim in the pool with his toy chicken, and his friends up north were envious that he always got to go swimming.
"It was just a brilliant dog and a terrible loss," he said.
Unfortunately, Leonov and Kwiatkowski are not the only ones who miss BJ. Tippy, the tiny terrier that used to sleep and share meals with the big boxer, has noticed the absence. Tippy has been putting food where BJ's bowl was.
"He just loved that puppy," Kwiatkowski said of BJ.
"There were no winners in this," Leonov added.
Along dealing with the loss of a furry loved one, the two men are concerned about what could have happened if BJ had not been the first to encounter the snake. Kwiatkowski said his nieces and nephews regularly come over to visit.
"That would have been a disaster," he said.
"I could have been bitten. It's horrifying," Kwiatkowski added.
Leonov said the golf course clearly needs to be maintained.
"It's solid weeds, they're so high. Even my neighbor said it's a health hazard," Kwiatkowski said. "I would like it cleaned up."
Officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission could not confirm Wednesday how the snake ranked in size compared to others in the area.
"A 7-foot diamondback is a big one, but it's not unheard of," spokesman Gary Morse said. "Occasionally, dogs do get bit."