In praise of mutts
On January 20th, 2006 Thurgood and I will celebrate our 13th anniversary.
Like last year, I will not receive flowers, or even a card. We will not
go out to our favorite restaurant. Actually, we don't even have a favorite
restaurant. Thurgood is not allowed in restaurants, because he is a dog.
I remember the day Thurgood came into my life because it was the same
day President Clinton was inaugurated. I had graduated from law school
the previous spring, passed the bar, and was woefully under employed without
the prospect of a real job offer in sight. As the letters of rejections
accumulated and the law school loans were coming due, I was seriously blue.
On the day of the inauguration I was simply too depressed to drag myself
out of bed to my barely above minimum wage receptionist job. I called in
sick and pulled the covers back over my head. When I heard an animal whining
directly outside my bedroom window, I thought it was one of the neighbors’ dogs
and tried to ignore it. When the whining became louder and more insistent,
I summoned all the ambition I had to force my heavy soul out of bed to
investigate. A brown puppy, maybe 9 months old, greeted me joyously as
if he had been expecting me all morning, jumping up and down with unmitigated
I knew all of my neighbors’ dogs; this chap did not live on my street.
At the time I was dogless, a rarity in my life, but responsible pet ownership
and being a law student, meaning someone who rented, did not go together.
I had no intention of changing my state of doglessness, because I could
barely afford to feed myself at the time, let alone pay for dog food and
vaccines and veterinary care. But I resigned myself to locating this pup's
rightful owner, or finding him a good home.
My new friend seemed to have retriever in him, and I wondered if he liked
to play fetch. I picked up a stick to throw, and much to my horror he immediately
cringed. For a flash he fully expected me to hit him with that stick. Judging
by the magnitude of his response, he expected to be hit hard. At that moment
I abandoned any notion of locating his former owner. No one ever bothered
to look for him.
Before I even started to seek a new home for him, the puppy got sick.
It started out with him not wanting to eat, then vomiting, and finally
bloody diarrhea. My checking account probably had less than $50.00, and
he wasn't even my dog. But something compelled me to take that pup to the
closest vet, credit card in hand, tears in my eyes, and say "Save
him. Do whatever it takes."
Thurgood, named after my favorite Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,
had parvo, a highly contagious and often deadly virus. It destroys the
linings of a dog's intestines so that the dog can't absorb food or water.
Without treatment, the puppy will die, usually of dehydration. The virus
has an incubation period of several days, whoever dumped Thurgood probably
knew that he had been exposed and would soon get sick.
I am happy to say that Thurgood survived. To this day I consider the money
I spent to save his life the best investment I have ever made. I have been
repaid with years of loyalty and loving devotion. He is always happy to
see me, regardless of how late I am. He did not hesitate to jump in the
moving truck and go to Virginia when I was so sure I had landed my dream
job. He did not reproach me when we moved back less than a year later.
Thurgood has been a constant, through my first trial and every one since,
through three boyfriends; through every challenge life has presented.
Thurgood is a mutt. He will never go to the Westminster Dog Show, he has
no pedigree. Thurgood appears to have some pit bull in him, (something
I will adamantly deny if my homeowner's insurance company inquires), and
beyond that it is hard to say. Maybe Chesapeake Bay Retriever, or Chocolate
Lab, or Doberman. He is at least 14 and has not been sick even once since
he got over parvo. Other than a little arthritis he enjoys perfect health.
This is in sharp contrast to his best friend Shadow, a third hand AKC registered
Siberian Husky that has a heart murmur and epilepsy, and required surgery
for hip dysplasia.
Huskies are not the only breed that suffers from genetic maladies. The
results of careless breeding and over breeding are appalling. German Shepherds,
Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers and many others suffer hip dysplasia and
other crippling joint disorders. Almost all Collies either have eye problems
or carry genes for such problems. English bulldogs and pugs have difficulty
breathing because of their pushed in faces. Blindness, deafness and bleeding
diseases plague other breeds. Many large breed dogs live only six or seven
years. All in all, pure-bred dogs suffer from literally hundreds of genetic
There is a widespread perception that pedigreed dogs are by definition
high quality dogs, which is simply untrue. Even the American Kennel Club's
website includes a disclaimer warning that a registration certificate in
no way guarantees the quality or state of health of the dog. Given the
practices of the puppy mills that supply supposedly purebred puppies to
pet stores, the true identity of a pet store puppy's sire and dam is highly
dubious, pedigree notwithstanding.
Some claim that because mixed breed dogs draw from a broader genetic pool,
they are not as prone to genetic illness that is predictable in purebred
dogs. Others insist that there is no evidence that mixed breed dogs are
healthier. As tempting as it may be, I will not generalize from my own
sample size of two. As the anniversary of Thurgood's approaches, I feel
joy and gratitude, and awe at whatever benevolent force of the universe
delivered that precious pup to my bedroom window. However, my happiness
is tempered by the ugly fact that tens of thousands of mixed breed dogs
like Thurgood will be euthanized this year in South Florida animal shelters,
overlooked by dog owners that mistakenly believe they got a healthy, quality
dog because they paid for a registered "purebred".
PS: In the summer of 2007, after he had blessed my life for 14.5 years-
I lost Thurgood, along with a big piece of my heart. His equally heartbroken
best friend Shadow died ten days later.