The Sounds of Silence
Enlightenment, courtesy of a dog who can't see.
(Forethought: West Virginians have always, it seems, been misunderstood. The stereotype of the typical hillbilly has been tied around our necks like red bandanas. Inbred, toothless, shoeless, dirty, rural, and poor. And over the last few years, the rest of the world has looked at West Virginia and thought that we need food, and naxalone. Reduced to our lowest common denominator, in addition to backward and back woods, we’ve now become starving opioid addicts.
There are naxalone stations now on the local college campus. I’m not sure how that works - if you need a key, campus ID, or training to use it. I’m also not sure how many of our college students overdose, or if overdosing community members (like those at the local recovery house) are welcome to make use of them. I’m more confused by this “program” than anything else, which I am sure was funded by some kind of grant.
I’m also confused by the local recovery house — who lives there? How do they end up there? How many can they house? How many are housed? How are they funded? What’s their success rate? Do they have naxalone?
Are we just throwing money at this problem? Is it working? Is it needed?
We have monthly food giveaways in at least three county communities here, and public school students have access to breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks (if enrolled in the after-school programs). Believe me — if anyone local is hungry, it’s because food is being withheld from them, they are flat-out lazy, or their pride is keeping them hungry.
I once saw a man stand on the corner of Main Street and Rt. 33 in Glenville, holding a “will work for food” sign. Within 30 minutes, someone traded two bags of groceries for his sign.
In a rural community, one only has to say, “I’m hungry” to be fed, and fed well. In fact, one of our greatest health problems is obesity. Drug abuse, mental illness, and obesity are our main health problems. As for the naxalone, let’s hope someday we don’t need it.
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All that said, I have been thinking lately about our local homeless. City folk will picture a bum on the sidewalk, wearing a dirty backpack and pushing a shopping cart. Others might picture a tent city, tucked along a railroad track. But the homeless around here look different, and typical grant funding “related to homelessness” will not address our problem.
The majority of the rural homeless are four-legged. Cats left behind by GSU graduates, abused dogs, kittens and puppies dropped off near a farm or in the middle of nowhere (often to be taken out by coyote and/or raccoon). Stray cats are being fed behind City Hall, on little old ladies’ porches, next to vacant buildings. Rural homeless are mostly the four-legged type. Yet, neither Gilmer nor Calhoun have animal shelters. Which leads me to the story of Sun.)
I recently adopted a blind dog. I knew the dog, knew the owner through work, and when the owner ended up in jail, the dog was claimed by the underpaid county humane officer, who then kennels and cares for the animals on his own property.
It was November, and I could not live with the thought of that small, lovable, blind dog stuck in a pen, never to see his owner again, waiting through winter in an outdoor pen amongst other strange dogs, just to be shipped off to a far-off shelter when the officer reached lodging capacity.
Trying to talk myself out of it, even having decided it was not a good idea, and without discussing it with Frank, I drove to the local sheriff’s office to ask about the dog. The next day, I brought him home. His previous owner had given him likely the most redneck name he could, but often referred to the dog as “his son.”
So, I call him “Sun,” and “Buddy,” and when I’m really serious, his true redneck moniker.
My time with “Sun” has been worth the fit Frank threw when I brought a small, blind, mixed-breed, male fleabag into our home, unannounced. He was unneutered, and our year-old female beagle was in heat, yet to be spayed.
Again — I knew it was not a good idea. But it all worked out in the end.
I had been told Sun was approximately three years old, and as far as anyone could tell, had never worn a collar, been leashed, neutered, or provided any shots. He was a trembling ball of fur when I first brought him home, but once bathed, settled, and feeling secure, he has to be the happiest dog I have ever owned.
And he has intensified my awareness of sound. Without his eyesight, his whole world is navigated by memory, scent, and sound. Crate-trained, it took Sun no time at all to learn the layout of the house. As time passed, he ventured further and further from his crate.
Unable to leash him, I worried about walks outdoors, but it was instantly clear that he would follow the sound of my footsteps, and/or follow his nose. When I began walking Sun and Mattie (our must-have-a-leash beagle), he followed the sounds of her clinking dog tags.
Like any dog, he has to stop and inspect scents. With my human nose, I cannot predict where or when Mattie and Sun will pause to examine an interesting scent. But Sun also stops to inspect sound.
At first, I didn’t catch it. He would stop, seemingly with no cause, and tip his head, unseeing eyes slightly cast upward. Then I realized — he was listening. Listening to the crescendo and decrescendo of traffic passing along the road. Listening to the whooshing wings of ducks coming in for a splash landing on the lake. Listening to low-flying aircraft, the neighbor’s dog barking, the wind through rusty leaves, a woodpecker at the edge of the woods.
These things I had let fade into the background of my human busyness.
My daily walks are now an adventure to see where the beagle’s nose leads us, and when Sun’s ears stop us. On days not too cold, our walks are now more than a rush to empty bowels and bladders and get back inside. Together, we are sharing our senses, Mattie led by scent, Sun led by sound, me led by sight.
Mattie’s scent might lead us to a scary leaf, a leaf that, for some reason, spooks her in spite of her curiosity. I lean down to examine the leaf and see then — it has blood spattered on it. A small clue concerning a recent coyote hunt I assume.
Our venture near the water causes Sun to tip his head at the sound of the preening geese and I realize he will never understand what that sound is. Nor does he have any explanation for the flapping wings of the ducks we have spooked passing now above our heads.
No wonder he stops to take note. As now do I.
Mattie’s nose leads us onto a patch of fur, mostly white patches looking like wet milkweed seed, a sure sign that a rabbit — opossum perhaps — had been a recent meal for someone. Mattie examined the crime scene for any remaining edibles, Sun examined it for assessment of the attacker and the victim, and then raised his leg and peed on it.
Sun’s happy attempts to catch the chickens are like a game of Marco Polo on land. He chases their sounds, not necessarily them. By the time he gets to the source of the sound, the chickens have moved on. Mattie likes to play keep-away, intentionally stealing socks/shoes/gloves/hats/etc when she wants attention so you will chase her down. (The minute you catch her, she drops the item, drops to the ground, and exposes her belly.) She has learned that Sun will only chase her if she continuously squeaks the squeaker in the squeaky toy.
I have had pets most of my life. And yes, they are a responsibility, but they are a consistent source of enjoyment (cuddling & playing), and entertainment (zoomies, sploots, and quirks). But animal relationships can also enlighten homo sapiens, reminding us of our connection to nature, teaching us empathy, and trust, and how to live life more fully.
Our pets can teach us to be better humans. But far too often suffer from the darker side of human nature. So if you have in mind to adopt a dog, and live in a location without an animal shelter, before driving out of county to one, check with your county sheriff’s office first to help the local homeless.
Sun was one of eight dogs in “county custody” when I picked him up from the humane officer’s house. Last week, twelve were pictured for local adoption on Facebook prior to transport to a shelter somewhere else. (No matter where; a shelter overbooked already.)
So, if you would like to address homeless concerns in the country, don’t simply picture the two-legged. Consider donating to the local animal shelter (if you have one) or to your local, underfunded humane officer. Consider taking in local homeless before driving far to a shelter or pet store.
In a perfect world, there would be no hunger, no overdoses, no obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, or homeless. But I’m not sure blanket policies and funding parameters created by far-off lawmakers are helping much either. Perhaps food pantries should also offer pet food to the community and local humane officer, and those in recovery have naxalone training and access since they are statistically more likely to overdose if they fall off the wagon.
And everyone who can adopt a dog, should. It will help solve the local homeless problem, and it doesn’t need to be blind to help you better appreciate life.
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