With Fred, beauty definitely is more than skin deep

Among the sights I have yet to see is that of a protestor marching in front of the corporate headquarters of Raid, carrying a placard that says, “End the killing of spiders, fleas, houseflies, chiggers, mealworms and cockroaches!”

Among the sights I have yet to see is that of a protestor marching in front of the corporate headquarters of Raid, carrying a placard that says, “End the killing of spiders, fleas, houseflies, chiggers, mealworms and cockroaches!”

As far as I know, there is no PETA-like group that speaks out in defense of stinkbugs, snout beetles and termites. True, there is general affection for ladybugs, arguably the kind of critter someone had in mind when they invented the phrase “cute as a bug.” But overall, the uglier the insect, the less love there is for them. (Although religious people generally respect the praying mantis.)

It’s not only insects that receive a lack of support. We humans tend to give our hearts to baby seals much more than to Gila monsters. We’re much more likely to have pictures of dogs, cats and horses on our desks than horned toads, warthogs and skunks.

Everybody loves a baby bunny; fewer love baby nematodes. Even mommy nematodes aren’t that crazy about them, and can’t wait until they leave home.

Ugly creatures don’t have a lobby.

So it’s no surprise that plenty of folks in Texas – especially ranchers – have little regard for buzzards. In fact, they’re obtaining federal permits to shoot them. The buzzards there are actually vultures, but I guess it’s easier to shoot something when it’s called a buzzard.

A newspaper story recently quoted a Texas A&M University professor as saying, “Unquestionably, they’re as ugly as sin.” Good thing buzzards can’t read. Their self-esteem would be shattered by that remark.

When I read about the buzzards, it brought to mind that I had a dog like that once. His name was Fred. He, too, was “as ugly as sin,” although since he didn’t eat road kill, he had better breath than most buzzards.

Mutt for sore eyes

Fred’s ears were different sizes and his nostrils were so huge, they looked like they’d been borrowed from a hippo. His tongue – thick, rubbery and red – looked like a fresh cut of liver. Children, old ladies and war heroes alike all recoiled at the sight of him. No one could figure out exactly what kind of mutt Fred was. The best guess? A cross between a spaniel and a manatee. But I always thought I could see some shovelhead shark in him, too.

But what a wonderful animal Fred was! No one in our family cared that he would have been laughed out of the Westminster Dog Show. He was always affectionate – the kind of pooch that greeted everybody with unfailing tail-wagging, whether they’d been gone a month or a moment. And he had a grin – at least it looked like one. I’d never seen even the most high-falooting canine at a dog show do that.

Fred couldn’t do any tricks, but why should he have been expected to? It never seemed right to me that dogs are expected to roll over, heel and fetch on command, while cats get a free pass. Dogs catch Frisbees while cats lie in the window watching them? It’s just plain unfair.

After all, it wasn’t that Fred didn’t have abilities. He did. His greatest skill was escape. He could slip out of any collar, any chain, any fence and then disappear.

Since my wife and I were newly married with two kids, we both had to work during the day. That meant that Fred, like it or not, had to spend his day in an enclosure we had set up for him in the back yard. But as soon as we were gone, Fred would do his Houdini thing. We never saw how he accomplished it, but he did –and often. In the true American spirit, he yearned to be free.

We would usually find him later at a neighbor’s house or down at the school waiting for our kids. But one day, we couldn’t find him. We searched everywhere. No Fred. We put up a poster around the neighborhood. We didn’t have a handy picture of him, so we just wrote, “Lost: Ugly dog named Fred, but doesn’t answer to it. Reward.”

A day later, there was a phone call. It was from a local animal control shelter. They had found Fred. “We have bad news and good news, and then bad news again,” said the shelter person. “The bad news is that he was hit by a car. The good news is that he is alive. The bad news is that the impact of the car hit him so hard that he broke two of his legs and he lost his left eye.”

It turned out that our beloved Fred had been hit in such a way – I hope you’re not having breakfast as you read this – that his eye had been literally knocked out. So now, the world’s most unattractive dog also had two gimpy legs and an eye missing.

The shelter person asked if we’d prefer to have Fred euthanized. But in our family, it wasn’t up to a vote.

When I picked him up at the shelter, Fred’s frisky tail went into hyper-drive, and he limped toward me as best he could, his left eye socket now sewn shut into a permanent wink. He smiled that Fred grin and started licking my face faster than a postage stamp machine.

And at that moment, I realized he was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen.

Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com