A reader called me the other day to talk about her family’s newest member.
Their beagle turned up scared, tick-infested, and hungry. After several days of coaxing, they befriended the old girl. A trip to the veterinarian showed she was in her teens, had heartworms, cataracts and arthritis, and likely had given birth multiple times.
As I write these words, I know Lady is asleep in front of the fireplace with a full tummy, possibly with a little girl carefully brushing her hair or stroking her ragged old ears.
I hear similar stories every year, it seems. There was a time Miss Rhonda and I could have opened a retirement home for hounds, although not all of them were aged like Lady. Some were truly lost (that was rare). Most were tossed aside at the end of the season, or just never picked up when the last cast of the last hunt the last day was complete.
There was Gimpy Jack, who ended up in one of my coyote traps and wound up sleeping at my feet every night, snoring like a dream patient for an ear, nose and throat specialist. I have previously mentioned sweet Persephone, who somehow survived a blow to the head that partially crushed her skull, leaving her half-blind and more than a little mentally challenged. Scarlett and Melanie were black and tan coonhound puppies born out of season and left in a box at animal control on a freezing winter night. They went to a new home with a responsible hunter.
I will stop here to tell you plain: I know the vast majority of dog hunters are good folks. They are the ones who feed their animals year-round. I stand in line with them at the feed store when they buy the next year’s vaccines, new blankets, or straw for kennels. They are the ones with radio collars and trackers, with current telephone numbers and names on the tags riveted those collars. They are true houndsmen, who love the music and the excitement of hearing dogs strike trail, whether it’s on a coon, a deer, a fox, a rabbit or a bear.
Those are the people I call my friends.
Then there are the others.
I know dogs sometimes get lost; I have dealt with it, both with hunting dogs and house mutts. Sometimes things happen, and a dog is well and truly lost, either to poor navigation, coyotes, venomous snakes or cars.
But not all the dogs that end up in shelters fighting possums for roadside trash, or turn up dead beside the highway — not all of them are “lost.”
The problem is always worse when the economy is down. Folks don’t want to feed their entire pack through the winter, and too many will find a convenient place and toss them beside the road.
I’d be willing to bet that on that last ride, some of the dogs are tickled pink at the idea of a bonus hunt, but when they find their way back to where the truck should be, no one is there.
Some wander into the yards of people with soft hearts. Your social media feeds are likely full of their pictures, skinny, shy, confused critters who don’t understand why their humans have disappeared, or why these other humans are trying to befriend them. Hunger and trust usually win out, since even the dumbest hound ain’t stupid. They make great pets, but they aren’t for everybody.
But hounds require a special type of home. Our redbone, William IX, answers the telephone. He doesn’t pick it up and say “Good morning,” but if it rings, his voice roars out as if he were on the trail of the biggest coon this side of the Appalachian Trail, and he’s gaining.
Happy Jack, while not a purebred hound, is pure hound. By his size I think there is some Catahoula or Plott in there, along with some classic Walker and a bluetick who contributed spots to the family tree. He runs like a Walker, trees like a blue tick, and has the football player physique of a Plott. He also answers the phone, and loves to sing. He’s a very diverse puppy. He came to use as a baby, after he and his sister were rescued from a flooding rainstorm.
Hounds are noisy; sometimes they stink, even when they don’t get to enjoy the pleasures of a perfectly-aged carcass. They are working dogs, and when they aren’t melting into the floor in sleep, they require attention.
Folks who don’t know them are drawn by their huge, soft eyes and floppy ears. Indeed, everyone who meets William wants to mess with his ears. He is more than amenable, since he’s loved attention since slinking across a backroad toward me, skinny and sick.
I did some detective work in his case, and William wasn’t the first gun-shy or unwanted hound tossed near that stretch of road. I even managed to track down a possible name, but I never pursued it. I have enough sins that need to be forgiven without adding wrath, a good cussin’ and possibly a thrashing on the individual in question.
All too often I need prayers of forgiveness when I see a hound beside the road, even moreso when I find one dead and forgotten by all but the buzzards and possums. Again, I know some die a warrior’s death on highways, since they don’t look always both ways whilst pursuing a game animal, but too many have no collars, or else a scar where there once was a band of leather or nylon.
I saw one like that the other day, on the way home from church. What I could see of his teeth and muzzle marked him for an old boy. He was skinny when he died. I don’t mean the athletic trim of a hunting dog in December, but rather of a starved animal in January.
There was nothing I could do for him; I couldn’t even offer him a decent burial, since I didn’t have a spade in the truck. He wasn’t far from a couple of homes, so I hoped someone would do right by him.
How many years did he run? Was he the leader, training bumbling pups and similarly inexperienced hunters? Did he have to be loaded into the dog box, or was he such a professional that he responded to a tap on the tailgate when the doors opened? Did he do as one hound I knew, and sit patiently beside the tire tracks of his owner’s truck, waiting to be picked up? For the record, that dog’s owner did retrieve his hound, and thanked me profusely for caring.
I have no idea.
What I do know is that old hounds, like any senior animals, deserve a better fate than even the best shelter has to offer. They deserve to spend their last years as honored family members, resting their twisted hips and graying muzzles, worn-down teeth and clouding eyes, maybe even dreaming of great hunts of the past, much like the hunter who has a wall full of antlers and a heart full of memories, but hasn’t fired a gun in years. At the very least, they deserve a clean, warm bed or a place to sleep in the sunshine while the younger generation works for a living.
A man is judged in part by the way he treats his animals, especially when they have outlived their working years.
Based on that, there are folks out there who will face a severe judgment someday.
I sometimes wish they, too, would know what it’s like to be dumped beside the road and forgotten, drinking from a ditch, eating trash and hoping for a friend at season’s end.