Mike Mallory walked along the sidewalks surrounding South Park on Wednesday morning, pulling his dog Red in a bright yellow wagon behind him while going through his morning routine of picking up trash and debris — not for a job, but because of the kindness people have shown him over the last few months.
"It's just one of my ways of paying it forward," he said. "I can't pay it back financially, so I do it this way."
Red is Mallory's 5-year-old red heeler, his constant companion and best friend. Last year, he learned that the pooch needed the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left hind leg replaced, but Mallory — who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a car crash in 2001 and lives mostly on limited disability benefits — couldn't afford the surgery.
They were eventually referred to Dr. Ken Brown at the Animal Clinic of Billings by the Caring Hands Veterinary Hospital. That surgery, along with rehabilitation and other post-procedure work, cost more than $3,000.
"When he came to us he said, 'I don't have any money but I'll figure something out,'" said Kay Lynn Allen, a canine physical therapy rehabilitation practitioner at the clinic. "Dr. Brown said, 'We'll get your dog fixed up and then we'll get that taken care of.'"
As his name implies, Red is covered in a soft red coat, flecked with white. The friendly, well-behaved dog has no problem greeting strangers, save the occasional bark, and is quick to respond to Mallory's quiet commands.
Mallory, a self-described "tumbleweed that's lived in 15 to 20 states," said he became disillusioned after his accident when several people tried to take advantage of him because of his disability. He planned to live alone in a cabin in the mountains in his home state of Virginia.
But thanks in large part to Red — whom he bought as a puppy with an ex-girlfriend — and his efforts to gather money for the surgery, his outlook has changed.
"I'm a better man because of him," Mallory said. "He's the most loyal friend I have. He's made me more caring, more loving and more respectful."
Red had the surgery in January, and for most of the year Mallory has been carting him around Billings in the wagon. Walking for Red is the name of a campaign he created to cover the surgery costs and raise awareness of pet emergencies.
Later this summer, Mallory plans to embark on a "walkabout" in which he and Red travel on foot to a yet-to-be-determined city out of the state to continue spreading awareness and raise money for people in similar situations.
"There's a lot of love in this world," he said. "I've seen that, and I want to see more of it and spread more of it. This walk is about awareness; it's about paying it forward."
On Tuesday, Mallory hit the goal for Red's first surgery — thanks in large part to a Facebook page promoting it and donations from people as far away as Germany — but the effort's not done yet.
Dr. Brown warned him that in many cases, another ACL will go out on a dog not long after the first. Shortly after the first surgery, the ACL in Red's other hind leg did just that.
Once again, the clinic said it would do the surgery and worry about the payments later. Dr. Brown waived his usual surgery fee, Allen said, and it will cost about $2,500.
"There's just this crazy bond between them and it's so touching," Allen said. "That dog is really what keeps (Mallory) going."
Red is scheduled to go in for the second surgery on Thursday morning. When healed up from the second surgery, Red should be able to walk, run and play like any other dog his age, although Mallory said he still plans to use the wagon at times.
Patty Daponte, who lives in Connecticut, learned of the effort in April and has been helping to gather donations and running the Walking for Red Facebook page ever since.
She said Mallory's love for the dog caught her eye.
"That man would walk across the world for his dog, and I really believe that," she said. "But he wants to help other people, not just his dog, but other people whose pets need help. He's the real deal."
The day before the second surgery, as the pair strolled around South Park, Mallory stopped to chat with another early riser and shared his story, Red in tow in the wagon.
The conversation ended with the two exchanging numbers, a quick photo of the woman with Red and a wish of "good luck" from her.
"That's why I love this dog and love this," Mallory said. "I don't have to pull this wagon. I love to pull this wagon. I get to pull my boy around all day."