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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 delight.

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 disorders.

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.


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