Posted 06-18-2003 at 06:23:11
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My kids asked me to take them down to the river to swim. It was a hot day, and in a rural area like ours, it's one of the few pleasurable activities that we can afford. My immediate reaction was a flat 'no'.
The Peace River flows smack through the middle of our small town, with the occasional park or boat ramp punctuating it’s banks at convenient intervals. It’s taken me awhile to get used to the concept of using this river for recreation, as it is not unusual to see the occasional alligator, sunning itself along the bank.
This day, though, my thoughts were not on the gators. Over time we have learned how to function around the gators, learned what to watch for. The river is full of people all the time, it's just a way of life in Florida, so far as I know, no one in this area has ever been attacked. The reason I didn't want to take them was something that happened last summer. Something that I still haven't gotten over.
On the particular day in question, the day that I still think of with a mixture of pity, fear, and dreadful sadness, the dangerous beast was not in the water or even an alligator. It was a boy. If I live forever, I'll never forget this boy.
I saw him when he came out of the woods, picking his way carefully through clumps of ferns and stepping over palmettos with practiced ease. His clothes were dirty and worn, and he was small in stature, dark headed. The only thing really alarming about his sudden appearance was the emaciated pit bull dog that he had tied to a short length of rope. It wasn't until I engaged him in conversation that he began to scare me.
"Nice dog." I said, even though it was an outright lie. The dog was practically starved to death, had runny eyes and assorted scrapes and cuts. The boy, probably in his late teens said...
"Thanks, but I'm trying to get rid of him." He replied with a slight hispanic accent.
"Why's that?" I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun with one hand.
"He's dangerous. Tries to bite."
I eyed the dog nervously and calculated the distance between us, did a quick inventory of the length of the rope and the distance between the three of us and my kids, who swam at the river’s edge and had as of yet, not noticed our visitor. The boy went on, providing the following information like he was relating a weather report.
"I tried drowning him in the river, but he swims too good, he wouldn’t stay under. I haven't fed him in days, but he just won't die. A couple friends of mine tied him to a tree in the woods and threw stuff at him but he just went behind the tree." He shrugged suddenly, the abrupt action yanking the slack out of the rope, and the dog flinched.
It occurred to me that I was not dealing with someone who was right in the head. My immediate reaction was to set about putting as much space between him and his dog, and me and my kids as quickly as possible.
I took a step back. I didn’t want to let on how frightened I was of this boy and his dog. The kids, by now, had noticed the boy and were one by one moving toward the bank. Their intent was clear, they were coming out to meet our visitor.
"You kids, get your shoes and walk along the bank to the ramp and get in the truck. We're gonna be late, Your dad is waiting for us."
"What about the cooler? You can't carry it alone." My son called up.
"Never mind the cooler, I'll get it, just do as I said!" I snapped. The boy hadn't taken his eyes off my face. Despite my fear, I had to tell him what I thought. I got the feeling that he wanted to hear what I thought.
"You know what you're doing is wrong.” I said gently. “You know you can take that animal to the pound and they'll find him a home. Why torture him?"
I bent down to gather up the blanket, and the empty soda cans and stuff them in the cooler. The boy took a step forward, I saw his feet move toward me as I was bent over involved in my task. It dawned on me suddenly that I had nothing to use for protection, and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The boy was almost in as bad a shape as the dog, but if he wanted to try something I had not only him, but the dog to deal with.
"Because he's mean.” The boy said simply. “Always has been. He'll bite you as quick as look at you."
I had all my bits and pieces crammed into the cooler, and now only had to figure out how to get it to the truck alone. I stood and gazed down at the dog.
"Did it occur to you that maybe he's mean because he's been mistreated?"
I felt a lump come up in my throat and was dangerously close to tears. I had a strong suspicion that the boy had been mistreated too, there was something about it in his eyes. Something like jealously, and hatred, and the loss of hope. Someone, somewhere, had neglected or abused this boy, and the result of that mistreatment was standing before me today, his dark eyes challenging me, his mouth set in a grim line.
"I treat him the way I do because he's mean!" The boy shouted, and I flinched involuntarily. The dog's head swung around and it pinned it’s eyes on me, it’s upper lip curled to reveal an amazingly white set of teeth, and he let out a soft, rumbling growl. Even after the he11 of his life at the hands of this boy, the dog was prepared to protect him.
"Well, I guess you do what you have to do." I said, and grabbed the handle of the cooler and started dragging it in the direction of the truck, my heart pounding like a bass drum.
I managed to get the cooler loaded and jumped into the truck, and made a bee line to the nearest pay phone.
"Sheriff's office, this line is being recorded, state your emergency."
I related what I had seen. I stressed the fact that I thought the dog was dangerous and not well restrained. They gave me the standard rigmarole that a crime had not been committed and there was nothing they could do.
"If I told you that he was walking around down there waving a loaded machine gun, would that make a difference?" I asked incredulously. I had visions of the dog breaking loose from his meager tether, attacking an innocent family out of revenge, or hunger or desperation.
Yes, that would have made a difference. That would have been something they could have reacted to. They didn't want to hear about what I thought, or what I felt, or what I suspected could happen.
"Try animal control."
At animal control there was a recording. I left my message and drove my kids home, to safety. A better person than me would have maybe taken the dog, but I couldn't, I was afraid. When an animal has been so mistreated it's like handling a grenade with no pin. You never know when it's going to go off and how bad it's going to be. I felt like I had failed the boy, or at the very least failed the dog. My husband has a saying when faced with situations like these..
"You can't raise everybody.."
True. This boy had been failed long ago. When it would have mattered most, and now with his dog he was continuing the tradition.
When my kids asked me to take them to the river and I said no, it was out of sheer reflex. I'll admit it, I'm still afraid. I have no doubt that the boy succeeded and the dog is dead by now, which can only be a good thing. That animal was ruined beyond any repair. It is my sad observation that the case may be the same with the boy.