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Not Everybody Can Afford a Dog

This is what Pelham aspired to be, but this pointer doesn’t subsist on table scraps.

My beloved Uncle Lawton was smart, handsome and charming, but he never amounted to much. Whatever job he had he left when hunting season rolled around. He took to the fields and the woods, hunting quail and rabbits, with dogs as likeable and sorry as he. One of them was a pointer named Pelham.

Once when we were young, my sisters and I spent a night with Unc and his beautiful, long-suffering wife, Sarah. They lived out on the Siloam Road in what had previously been a country store, with one enormous linoleum-floored room and a smaller area behind it, which contained their bedroom and the kitchen. It was there after supper that Unc scraped all the leftovers from everybody’s plates into Pelham’s bowl for his supper. We children stared as Pelham happily ingested potatoes, carrots, lettuce, meat scraps and bread crusts. Ever since that evening, a meal that combines dribs and drabs of several different leftovers has been known in our household as a “Pelham supper,” and I enjoy it with the same enthusiasm as the eponymous mutt.

At that time, although he did get occasional scraps from the table, our rat terrier, Tippy, was accustomed to a steady diet of canned Red Heart from the store, and all he had to do to earn it was hang around.

Tippy had a long and healthy life, and his only exposure to the veterinarian, as I recall, was his annual 25-cent rabies vaccination up at the courthouse, where Doc Durham would set up shop on a Saturday, for the convenience of the public.

This was in nearby Greensboro, an even smaller town then, long before Richland Creek and the Oconee River lay beneath the lake.

Dogs hung around the house or, if they felt like it, roamed free. They occasionally got hit by cars, but they never got lost, because everybody knew whose they were. That rabid dog Atticus shot out there in the street in Maycomb? They not only knew the owner’s name, they knew the dog’s name. Maybe the owner was too poor to think about paying Doc Durham for the vaccination.

I remember being at an ACC commission meeting one night when a man spoke during the public comment period, objecting to the fine he received for keeping his dog on a chain in his unfenced backyard. His crime boiled down to law and economics. He was required to keep his dog in his yard, but he couldn’t afford to build a fence to keep it in. What nobody said but was painfully clear: That man could not afford to own a dog.

In a town where 37% of our people are poor, there are a whole lot of folks who cannot afford to own a dog, though I’m sure our local vets do what they can to accommodate less-well-off clients.

Think about it. When folks can hardly afford to feed their families, even table scraps won’t sustain a dog, and Red Heart costs an awful lot more than what we used to pay. Dogs get sick, and vets can accomplish miraculous cures, but they do it with high-priced equipment, and those costs must be passed on. Dog ownership, like so many of life’s amenities we take for granted, has become a luxury. There’s even a considerable cost to adopting a dog from the animal shelter, and you’ve got to show proof of a fenced-in yard. Once a dog becomes a member of your family and you love it and care for it, you’re liable for what could become catastrophic expenses to keep it alive when illness or accident strike.

So, let’s add one more index to the calculus of poverty. Do you own a dog? Can you afford the comforting presence of a friend who loves you unconditionally, asking naught but food and shelter, happy to be with you no matter your station in life? You who are poor, who need more than anybody the loving companionship of a dog, must be denied even this simple pleasure.

All the more reason that in this period of renewed social conscience, we as a city must engage our resources in a War on Poverty that drills down to the tangled roots keeping so many of our people in financial subjection. At the minimum, we need to figure out how everybody can at least have access to a living wage, even the aspiration of owning a dog, instead of living like one.

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