Saturday, June 28, 2003

The paws that refreshes

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The movies are wrong: all dogs do not go to heaven. Some of them, like Kirby the pit bull from Westport, come to Fall River, where dogs live in circumstances that range from heavenly to purgatorial to hellish.

Kirby didn’t stay long in this city before he was back on his home turf, but if he had stayed here he would have seen that Fall River’s a melting pot. A quick survey on a walk through Kennedy Park reveals that our dog breeds run the gamut from boxer-pit bull mixes to pit bull-boxer mixes. Some live in squalor, others in confinement. Many, like my own dog, Sable, lead lives of comfort equaled only by landed English gentry. Kirby would have found his niche.

The dog of choice in Fall River is clearly the Big Mean Dog. By the way, you’d think the most popular dog in Fall River would be the Portuguese water dog. Like 65-percent-of-all-local-dogs popular. Let’s look into this sometime.

Anyway, a Big Mean Dog can be of any breed, as long as it’s snaggle-toothed and built like a rhinoceros. Kirby is allegedly a Big Mean Dog, which is why the Westport Board of Selectmen allowed him to come here when the many complaints against him forced the board to act — Kirby could easily make new friends in a place like Fall River.

Kirby’s not a big fan of leashes, so he would have fit right in. Big Mean Dogs in Fall River are never on leashes. It embarrasses the poor animals. Their owners sometimes use heavy chains as leashes, but not for restraint — it’s an affectation, like suspenders on already snug pants.

Unlike Kirby, mean dogs in this city often have evil names to discourage strangers from feeding them Snausages, names like Brutus, Attila, Killer, Lucifer. I once met a dog named Hitler. It was galloping rather happily through Kennedy Park with a stick, like any other dog, and the guy was yelling commands at it: “Hitler! Get over here!” I was unsettled more than I can say — which, I suppose, was the point.

It’s difficult to find Big Mean Dogs in Fall River that lead truly happy lives, so the Kirbmeister is probably lucky he made it back to Westport while he could. I’m sure there are many exceptions, but reading the news every day makes it easy to be cynical. Real estate is tight in this city, patience runs thin and not all owners are conscientious. Drive down any street and you’ll see an assortment of mean dogs that spend every minute of their lives locked in tiny cages in back yards, unloved, eating leftover slop, riddled with vermin, and working as living, barking home-security systems. Some are unlucky enough to be owned by criminals who train them to attack cops. A few others, according to the rumors, are bred so people can spend their leisure hours watching them try to kill each other.

Years ago, I heard of a man who was feeding gunpowder to his pit bull. The poor dog sat outside in all kinds of weather, thrashing at the end of a chain. The gunpowder was supposed to keep it aggressive so nobody would break into the guy’s apartment and steal his stuff. The guy isn’t around anymore. I never found out for sure what happened to him, but I like to think that the dog ate the guy, stole his stuff and ran away with a traveling circus.

For every dog trapped in that kind of hell, other Fall River dogs wait in purgatory, chilling out at the animal shelters and hoping nice people adopt them. Hint, hint.

Partly to balance all the bad Dog Karma hanging over this city, I treat my dog, Sable, like she’s in paradise. Sable is a mutt, rescued from limbo 12 years ago by my wife.

First of all, Sable’s in the house. That’s a huge step for some people. My dad often reminds me that in the Azores, dogs were never allowed in the house. They worked for a living, tending goats. Sable has never seen a goat, and if I can help it, she never will.

So while other dogs are chained in back yards, eating gunpowder and the odd squirrel, Sable is sprawled on our couch. If I’m on the couch and she feels like lying down on it, I move. She has a collection of 14 tennis balls, two bones, two ropes, and a badly disfigured snowman squeak toy to keep her busy, but I still leave the TV on for her when we go out without her. I’m pretty sure she appreciates it. Sometimes I feed her treats just for looking at me in a cute way — no tricks required. We both know she can do them.

I’ve been keeping Sable up to date about Kirby and his misadventures. I’m leaving out the part where Kirby could possibly be euthanized if another alternative isn’t found. No use worrying her if I don’t have to.

The other day, I sat her down and said, “Now Kirby’s dad has a lawyer, so this whole mess could be dragged out for years. You know how lawyers are.”

Sable burped at me. She has an uncanny ability to burp on cue.

“He’s staying with the dog officer now,” I said. “I hope they walk him enough. At least twice a day — right, Sable?” I waved a tennis ball in her face. “Goobity goobity goo! Wanna ballie?”

She gave me her paw.

“You got it pretty good,” I said, shaking it.

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