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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Member of the Family

Friday, June 6, 2008

I wonder if you saw the small story of 5-year-old Molly, the chocolate Lab retriever whose serious need for medical attention recently brought a Missouri community together in a common cause.

Molly is carefully and expensively trained in "cadaver retrieval," and if that doesn't sound like the kind of pup you'd like to get down on your knees and throw your arms around, her owners Allen and Alicia Brown and their little daughter Allison would disagree, vociferously.

When the Browns noticed their normally alert and whippy pup suddenly grown lethargic, they brought her from their home in Saginaw, Mich, to the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, down here in Columbia. Vets here diagnosed Molly with a "complete electrical heart blockage." Her heart rate had plummeted from a normal 80 to a scary 38. Molly needed a pacemaker . . . fast.

Now, here's where the dog story takes on a heartening human dimension. After The Joplin (Mo.) Globe ran a story on the unsinkable Molly's selfless, albeit a tad putrescent, deeds and personal trials, ordinary citizens began, often anonymously, to pitch in and help. Medtronic, Inc. donated the pacemaker, but an anonymous Kansas businessman offered $2,000 for the operation, and other anonymous donors contributed for vets and travel, neither of which could've proved inconsiderable.

Skip a couple of weeks.

Evidently, Molly is now back in good working order, her nose fully alert to the slightest whiff of rotting flesh, no more heart blockage.

Why were the Columbians so generous to this pooch? You might say because, for the sake of their own tax dollars, they wanted to preserve a fairly valuable commodity, to replace such a highly trained dog would cost about $20,000. So, all the donations made hard-headed, practical sense.

But, curmudgeon that I am, I'd prefer to believe that most people's basic impulse, when they hear of an animal in pain or in danger of dying, is to try to help. One of the garden variety arguments for letting a youngster (past infancy, that is) own and care for his own pet is that it helps develop a sense of responsibility for other living beings.

Which we're not, I guess, born with.

I wonder, however, if most parents think that far ahead, or whether they don't simply buckle under their kids' thoughtless and momentary clamoring for a dog. ("Oh, Zach, will you please dig the newspaper out of the trash, find a dog listed, any dog, buy it, and bring it home for Jethro! I can't stand this damned whining any more!!") My family has adopted three cats (Betty, Boots, and Harry) in the past three years. They spend nights inside our house, but we let them outside in the morning, because they're content to lounge around the brick front porch basking in the shafts of sunlight, watching cars drive toward the high school in the morning, back toward Austin in the afternoon.

Once in a while, one of them ventures across Spring to visit our renter and her cat. We've had them all given their shots by a local vet; we feed and water them all; my sister in Columbus, Ohio, keeps them amply provided with catnip and a multitude of mechanical marvels that momentarily turn our family room into a raucous bird sanctuary.

Our three cats are all refugees. Harry was left in a rental houses when the renters decided to cut their losses by abandoning him and high-tailing it for a different rental house. Boots was abandoned by a neighbor in the part of Vernon County where our Talley Bend 10-acre farm is located. Betty, a tiny female runt likewise discovered at our small farm, her tail recently halved and bloodied by one of the large dogs who wander the neighborhood.

Ginny and I don't squander the money we've earned in the past thirty- five years here in Missouri. Now that I've retired and Ginny is all but there, we've ditched our recent plan to drive to California this summer, because of the astronomical price of gas. But we long ago assumed responsibility for these cats because their lives were, in a sense, thrust on us. But we didn't object. And we didn't pile them all into our car, drive out to the highway, and abandon them on the side of the road, to fend for themselves. That would be, I think, supremely immoral.

And we've agreed to pay the consequences of our decisions. When, for example, a teenage driver roared up Spring Street at 3:15 p.m. of a weekday, thrilled to be sprung from the rigors of high school, he hit Boots without even slowing down. Even though the collision made a most audible sound, the driver didn't bother to investigate. It was probably only a cat or small dog, he must've thought, as he sped toward Austin.

The next morning, Boots, in obvious pain, came out of hiding, and we took him to the vet, to have his broken leg treated. That cost us $300+, but that's all part of owning a pet, and we've accepted that.

About a week ago, Ginny and I inadvertently began playing host to a very large taffy-colored cat who simply appeared in the empty flower planter on our front porch. He had no collar or other identification, he appeared to have a hole in his head, terminally matted fur, scrawny body. In all, a kind of Disney cartoon of a down-and-out cat, awaiting the kindness of strangers. When I recognized his need, my first impulse was to hold the screen door open to him, but then I heard Boots register his reaction to big Bruce (Yes, I'd already named the stray, a very bad move, I admit), and it wasn't what you'd call warmly welcoming. Besides, I didn't want my house starting to resemble those apartments of aging silent-film stars which used to be discovered, at their renters' deaths, virtually clogged with 329 yowling cats demanding to know where their food was. So, instead, I filled one small Tupperware container with fresh water and another with Purina dry cat food, and placed them both on the front porch.

What would I do when the temperature dropped to freezing and below? How would I handle Bruce if he suddenly turned meowishly aggressive toward our other two cats? What if, in his frustration, he began spraying our front door? What if his teeth began to rot and fall out?

When you adopt or buy an animal, you're assuming a moral responsibility for him or her, just as when you bring a human infant into this world, you're assuming a sobering responsibility to keep him or her not only physically safe from harm, but also to prepare your ward to cope with the complexities and snares of the world toward which he or she is rapidly moving. To refuse to recognize this grave responsibility, or to cast it aside as someone else's problem, is, it seems to me, a kind of murder.

Be the victim a pricey Westminster winner or a scruffy, 3-legged refugee from the local dog pound, one of God's creatures is in your hands.

How are you going to handle it?