I should warn you, I’m not James Herriott. My dog’s story is not of the warm fuzzy genre, but is illustrative of a most pervasive problem….one which too few of you are aware.
It is often said that veterinarians must have an inordinate love for animals, but they also are often called on to deal with the very harshest realities of human and animal relations. If my dog tale lacks the cloying sanguinity of “All Creatures Great and Small,” hopefully it is not totally devoid of optimism.
A year ago in June, on a hot Sunday afternoon as I lounged in torpid repose, Channel 2 News was airing a story about dog carcasses found in the back yard of a Tulsa residence. Two of the dogs were still alive, so I knew I would be involved in the case.
“Maggots was workin’ on three of ’em and the fourth one’s only been dead about two days.” The sheriff’s lieutenant continued in an impassive voice,”it’s been alleged that they were fightin’ pit-bull dogs in the garage, and when one would get killed, they’d just drag it out in the yard and let it deteriorate.”
Feeling old, tired, and professionally burned out, I wondered why had I volunteered for the grim task of animal cruelty exams and necropsies. I guess, as depressing as it was, it seemed like important work. Maybe I just wanted something besides myself to feel sorry for. If that was the case, I was about to get my wish, IN SPADES.
The following morning after doing the spay and neuter surgeries and rabies observations, I headed for the pens housing the two dogs from the news story. (It’s hard enough for me just to walk through the rows of dog runs at the shelter, knowing that most of the animals will have to be killed….sometimes I get the urge to open all the gates and set them free, but that would not solve their problem.) They suffer from that “most terrible disease,” in the words of Mother Teresa, “of being unwanted.” It’s sad to say, but as outcasts, they are much better off in the shelter than anywhere else.
When I got to the first dog’s run, it looked empty. I’m used to seeing dogs with sad faces begging for a crumb of attention or warily cringing against the distal parapets. There was nothing so animate as either in this run. When I first saw him, he was curled up so tightly, he could have been mistaken for a water dish. As he tried to stand up, I could see the pitiful remains of a large pit-bull dog. Bones jutted out everywhere. He looked like a skeleton with hair, and what hair he had was in sparse, dirty little tufts between numerous fight wounds, scars, and mange. His ears had been clumsily chopped off and the unhealed edges made him look like a macabre Mr. Potato Head.
I recoiled in horror at the sudden thought of what this poor, wretched dog had endured. What sort of dissolute soul could do this to a helpless old dog?
After staring at him for what seemed an interminable period, I realized that I had five more animals for cruelty exams (each with another story), so I had to move on
Driving back to my clinic, I thought how depraved it was to treat animals this way…….was it sadism, apathy, or stupidity? None seemed in short supply. I kept seeing the pit-bull’s face, a swarthy apotheosis of the downtrodden. There are so many like him, I felt powerless as I pondered the enormity of the problem
Animal cruelty is an epidemic that with only the most egregious exceptions escapes the public’s notice. This poor dog had been beaten, starved, mutilated, forced to fight for his life, and, worst of all, socially isolated.
Dogs are very social animals….more so, even, than humans. How can humans be so inhumane? How can humane people let such things happen? I resolved to rescue him; even though it was a scratch on an obdurate surface, a drop in a very large bucket.
I couldn’t just leave him there to be euthanized. That’s the only way pit-bulls are allowed to leave the shelter…..dead. I wanted him to experience at least one good day on earth. If possible, maybe I could even show him what it’s like to be loved and wanted.
It would take some string-pulling from the D.A.’s office before I could get him released from the shelter……after all, he was a pit-bull, the paradigm of canine incorrigibility. (That is what media mavens would have you believe.) The truth is, pit-bulls are the oldest registered American breed and have long been favored for their courage, (fanciers call it “gameness”) loyalty, and intelligence.
Unfortunately, their fighting reputation has made them very popular with a lot of unsavory characters who have ushered in a spate of backyard-bred, people-aggressive curs. Real pit-bulls are selected to be so people-friendly, they don’t even make good watch dogs. But the newspapers are sold by grinding angsts, not accentuating positives. Consequently, people who wouldn’t know a pit-bull sitting at their feet, still consider them to be the snarling menace of their worst nightmare. So torturing and killing them is, I suppose, more acceptable, or at least easier to ignore.
I’m NOT a pit-bull fancier. In fact, I’m more of a cat person, but let us remember, as “Uncle Mattie” says, “There are no bad breeds, just bad breeding.” We transferred the pit-bull to my clinic and started treating his multitude of problems. I had no idea what kind of dog he would be personality-wise, with all of the abuse and privation he had suffered.
His stone face was inscrutable…blank except for a sadness in his sunken eyes. He was easy to work on so with considerable effort from all concerned, along with lots of treats and loving attention added to the antibiotics, vitamins, and medicated baths, the 30-pound skeletal specimen was morphed into a solid 75-pound dog.
After a couple of months, a shiny coat hid most of his scars, and the glum look on his face had been replaced by an infectious grin that, adorned by his chopped-off ears, was reminiscent of a happy face drawn on a Pompeian ampulla.
Meanwhile, my jaded karma had been ameliorated by his astonishing progress, not to mention his buoyant, stiff-upper-lip charm. Somehow he had managed to come through unimaginable hardship, not only clinging to life, and maintaining a positive attitude, which was to me, an inspiration. We named him, “Pete.”
Pete and I started going on daily walks, short at first because he didn’t have much stamina. Soon we were doing three miles or more, and as we ambled our way through the boswarningky recesses of Boman Acres, we were getting to know each other pretty well. It wasn’t long before I was feeling better than I had in years!
Dog walking is very good exercise for man as well as dog. Pete loves and is loved by all of the neighborhood children, and for the most part has even become a gentleman around cats and other dogs.
Transformed into a doting pet parent, I beam with pride at any compliment directed at my charge. With a cake and party hat, we celebrated Pete’s unofficial birthday in July.
I think it’s safe to say that Pete has helped me at least as much as I have him. When asked what breed he is, I’ve been known to answer, with a slightly cryptic grin, “He’s my ‘Healer.'”
So it was that Pete and I came to heal each other and in the process, became bonded in lifelong friendship. His case was not only a watershed to me, but a source of encouragement to the cruelty investigating team.
Pete’s previous owner is now serving six counts of 5 years each. Judge Turnbull simply termed the case “unbelievable.” I wish that I could agree with that assessment; but, although the brutality of Pete’s former life is now only a distant memory, many other cases continue to pass through the shelter with oppressive regularity. It is all too believable for those of us that grapple with the gruesome, and often overwhelming problem of cruelty to man’s best friend.
If ever you find yourself in need of a cure for ennui, or maybe just a dose of reality, I highly recommend a trip to the city animal shelter, where you will see that taking any kind of significant bite out of animal cruelty remains a formidable, if not impossible, undertaking.
Having learned from my friend Pete, I, for one, have no intention of giving up.