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What Saying No Means in Rural Tennessee

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing my pack. I may not be able to foster dogs right now, but I can still help by giving a voice to the voiceless. I hope these stories change a few minds about adopting shelter dogs and most importantly, I hope they help the next Floyd and Sara.

(Floyd and Sara)

(Floyd and Sara, 2009)

(Sara, 2009)

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

 

We were driving home after a four-mile walk with our mutts when we saw the abandoned puppies. Our dogs had their snouts pushed out the station wagon’s windows. They looked like wind-riders, ears flattened against their heads, noses slick and working overtime to investigate the cacophony of scents rushing past. Ancient trees edged both sides of the road. Red, yellow, and orange leaves glimmered like jewels in the sky, some raining downwards from the branch-draped ceiling. It was nine years ago, but I still remember that afternoon because it was a perfect October day, too perfect for seeing two starved dogs ditched on the roadside.

The potholed pavement on our isolated, country road snaked like a slinky, forcing my husband Mason to slow down, so when we passed the puppies crouched at the road’s lip, I got a good, long look. The copper dog caught my attention first. Then I saw the tinier black pup leaning against the red one, as though she didn’t have the strength to sit up on her own. Both dogs wore the confused expression of someone who had been dumped in a foreign country without a dime or a voice to ask for directions.

I didn’t know how long they’d been living on the street, but judging by their physical appearance they wouldn’t last much longer. In our society, canines exist in a strange purgatory, trapped between two cultures, existing somewhere along the continuum of natural instinct and domestication. Dogs’ behaviors can still be very wolf-like. But after living with humans for thousands of years, they are dependent on us for their most basic survival needs, particularly food and shelter. Surviving in the wild is often as difficult for them as it would be for me.

“Did you see?” Mason asked.

“Keep driving,” I said.

It sounds harsh, even now, but the practicality of taking home two sick dogs at that time was nil. We already had a pack of four, plus in seventy-two hours we would be flying to Dallas, Texas for work. And those dogs were obviously ill. They needed to be quarantined or they could spread worms, fleas, or worse to our mutts.

“If we don’t do something, who will?” Mason asked.

That was the crux of the problem. Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in the rural south and agencies like ICHBA were nonexistent in Robertson County nine years ago. Of the nonprofits operating outside our county, many had waiting lists or restrictions on health and breed. The bottom line was if we picked them up, they were our responsibility.

We drove to the Farnival in an uncomfortable silence. Mason brooded, pulled the brim of his Nashville Predators hat over his hazel eyes. Thirty minutes after we got home, he marched inside my office.

“I’m going back to look for them,” he said.

I felt the word no rise in the back of my throat. Push the issue, Melissa. Explain the complications and cost of taking in two sick dogs. Say no. Even with all these perfectly legitimate concerns, the word never left my mouth. I couldn’t shake the image of that pathetic black puppy slumped against her brother. If we did nothing, it would be too late.

Mason returned a few hours later cradling the copper pup, who we later named Floyd. Floyd was six-months-old and emaciated, fifteen pounds stretched over a skeleton that should have held twenty-five. We found Sara two days later. Mace said that when he reached for her, she feebly tried to bite him. That image haunts me still, a tiny mound of bones and mangy fur making one last attempt to survive.

Sara suffered from starvation and mange like her brother. But she also had a broken tail and pelvis, and a black vulture or coyote had attacked her. She wore numerous gashes on her paws and stomach that oozed pus. They tellingly resembled claw and bite marks.

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

Needless to say, Sara had a tougher time recovering than Floyd. He regained his energy after twenty-four hours, but for five days Sara’s survival was questionable. We poured all our energy into nursing Sara back to health. Every achievement, from urinating outside her crate to walking across the yard, felt like a victory. Her integration with our pack was the Super Bowl. When Floyd and Sara regained their health, we talked about finding them homes. A few people were even interested, but we always found a reason for saying no.

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