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Mutts in the White House

February 4, 2009 by Tails Magazine in February 2009, Fun Stuff with 0 Comments

What embracing pet adoption on Capitol Hill means for our country

By Lauren Lewis Innocenzi

There’s been a shift in our country. And it’s not just from Republican to Democrat. The election of Barack Obama as our president has ushered in a renewed hope for animal-welfare advocates simply with his decision to adopt a dog for his family—particularly, as he has said, “a mutt like me.”

In addition to typical politics, a large part of the media frenzy in the last few months has focused on the Obamas’ quest for a new family pet. Thousands of people have signed petitions, joined groups, and voiced opinions for the first family to adopt. We’ve seen advice and suggestions from trainers to rescue groups to dog lovers in Peru. Pundits are regularly weighing in on the issue. In fact, the notoriously contrary panelists of The McLaughlin Group have actually agreed that adopting a pet is the right thing to do.

“The measure of a society is how we care for a need. And sometimes helping an animal in need is truly the reflection of a good society,” says Bash Dibra, evoking Ghandi’s famous quote.

Dibra is no stranger to White House pets. The famed animal trainer has helped out with two of our presidential pooches in the past—Rex, President Reagan’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Buddy, President Clinton’s chocolate Lab—and he says he’s hoping to get a call to assist the Obamas soon.

Plenty of presidents have had canine companions in the White House, but the majority of them have been purebred. Although no one knows for sure whether the Obamas’ dog will be the first adopted one in the White House, he or she will certainly be the most famous rescued pooch to date—and, we hope, a reason for potential pet parents in our country to follow suit.

“Here’s a family who decided to save a dog—adopt a dog—let America follow the same path,” Dibra says.

Michael Markarian, the executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), echoes Dibra’s sentiment. “By adopting a homeless dog, the Obama family will send a message of hope and change for all the dogs suffering in abusive puppy mills and waiting in animal shelters for a second chance and a loving home,” he says.

Markarian believes that Obama can set an important example by not only adopting, but also in regard to veterinary care, spaying and neutering, and being a responsible pet guardian.

In addition, Markarian, who also heads up the Humane Society Legislative Fund (an organization that lobbies for animal-welfare legislation and works to elect humane-minded candidates to public office), hopes the Obama administration will shine a positive light on other animal issues as well. “The president can have an enormous impact in the lives of hundreds of millions of animals, not only by weighing in on Congressional legislation, but also through regulatory actions by the Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and other executive agencies,” he says.

Obama pleased animal advocates when he selected HSUS-endorsed former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the next Secretary of Agriculture, a position that oversees the Animal Welfare Act, Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and laws to combat animal fighting, puppy mills, and other abuses. However, the appointment of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado as Secretary of Interior marked a disappointment for some, given Salazar’s mixed record in support of animal legislation. As Secretary of the Interior, Salazar will oversee wildlife laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The HSUS says it looks forward to working with both men to address animal-welfare issues.

According to Markarian, the HSUS already has legislative plans in the works for the 111th Congress. The organization will advance its Change Agenda for Animals, which pushes for policy reforms to protect pets, wildlife, animals in research, and farm animals.

“Over the past year, the American conscience has been jolted by the cruelty of puppy mills— through The Oprah Winfrey Show, the undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United States, and increased awareness,” says Markarian. “We need a combination of public policy changes, corporate responsibility, and consumer action to stop the overbreeding of dogs in puppy factories and decrease the euthanasia of homeless pets in shelters.”

And now we’ve come one step closer to the goal.

“The Obama family’s adoption of a dog will undoubtedly encourage other Americans to rescue homeless animals and be part of the solution,” says Markarian.

Political Pets:

• More than half of U.S. presidents have had dogs in the White House.
• Lyndon Johnson took in a mutt his daughter found abandoned at a gas station.
• Twenty-two of 43 presidents have had purebred dogs.
• Jimmy Carter was the last president to bring a mutt to Washington. The pooch, Grits, was banished because of bad behavior.
• The Best Friends Animal Society gathered more than 50,000 signatures to persuade the Obamas to adopt a dog instead of going to a breeder.
• When Bob Dole was Senate majority leader, he adopted his dog, Leader, from the Washington Humane Society.

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