It was a chilly pre-spring day when Olivia Hickman ventured to the Waynesville Recreation Park, looking for nothing more than an hour or so of play with her 2-year-old son on the wooden jungle gym. But a dog lying on the outskirts of the area soon became the center of attention.
“My son kept saying, ‘puppy, puppy,’” recalled Hickman, who lives in Waynesville. “We were there for a while, and he (the dog) didn’t move.”
Further investigation revealed an animal so horribly skinny, so covered with mange and red, swollen skin that Hickman knew their day’s itinerary was in for a change. She couldn’t leave without him. She and the dog soon showed up on the doorstep of Junaluska Animal Hospital.
“His condition was so severe it would keep anyone from coming near him, but not her,” wrote Lacy Austin, who works at Junaluska, in a reflection on the episode. “I even told her with all my experience I am not sure I would have tried without gloves, but she did.”
The dog, likely a pit bull mix, wasn’t aggressive. But he was sick.
“Pitiful is the only word to describe his demeanor,” Austin wrote.
His mange was at such a critical stage that he was basically hairless. His eyes were infected, his toenails beyond long. The outlines of bones poked out beneath reddened skin. He could barely walk, and even guessing his age was next to impossible — 4 or 5, maybe? The vet recommended that he be put to sleep.
Hickman thought about it. Her job doesn’t leave her a lot of disposable income, and the dog was in such pain. But she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She told the vet to do whatever was necessary to get the poor guy fixed up.
“He slept for the first week. He just slept and slept,” Hickman recalls. “At first we didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
But he did make it. Hickman and her mother, who’d spent years of her life working with the Humane Society, made it their business to nurse him back to health. Eventually he started eating and began to gain weight. His hair grew back and the eye infection cleared up — though his sight still isn’t the greatest and he’s prone to clench in fear when someone in the room moves too suddenly. He got a name — Preacher — and was introduced to Hickman’s other dog, a red-nosed pit bull. The two get along wonderfully.
“He’s a very playful dog,” Hickman said. “He’s come a long way.”
When Austin thinks back to that day, she still wonders at the fact that Hickman took it upon herself to take the shell of a dog that was to become Preacher under her wing. After all, how many other people had passed by him that day, and how many other uses might Hickman have had for the money on that wound up going to vet bills?
But for Hickman, the calculation was simple.
“I couldn’t live with myself knowing I left that helpless animal,” she said.