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April 10, 2009

Presidential Petkeeping: A New Era?

The Humane Society of the United States

by Bernie Unti

Like so many aspects of his presidency, the selection of Barack Obama's Top Dog has excited public imagination to a degree unsurpassed by his predecessors in the White House.

Moreover, for those who care about the nation's companion animal overpopulation problem, no presidential pet has achieved the symbolic importance of this one, whose identity is not yet known.

Will the Obama dog come from a shelter, a rescue group, or a purebred breeder?

Will their dog be spayed or neutered? Is there really such a thing as a hypoallergenic dog? What will the Obamas name their pet?

First mutt

For Obama's part, he made it plain in his November 10 post-election press conference that if his daughter's allergies were not an issue, he'd go for a mixed breed dog from a shelter.

The newly elected president, willing to be self-referential in talking about his preference for a "mutt," energized those who would love to see the Obamas become the first presidential family to take home a shelter dog.

There's no doubt that this would give a boost to the drive to make shelters the first choice for animal adoption.

As in so many matters presidential, however, there is a political needle Obama will have to thread.

The fault lines have been clear from the start, and sharpened by Malia's allergies. Thousands of Americans with an interest in the matter have already affirmed their desire to see the Obamas adopt a shelter animal, or take in a dog from a rescue group. 

In another camp are animal breeders and fanciers, led by the American Kennel Club (AKC), which launched a July 2008 contest featuring five purportedly "hypoallergenic" breeds it deemed suitable in light of Malia Obama's allergies. Their message: adopt from a breeder, and boost the breed fancy.

No such thing

According to Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City, there really is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog.

Dr. Wanda Phipatanakul, chair of the Indoor Allergen Committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), agrees: "The studies have not supported that there's any type of hypoallergenic dog. Even if you get a hairless dog, it's still going to produce the allergen." This is because allergies are caused not by hair, but by a protein found in animal dander, saliva and urine. All dogs produce allergens; a smaller dog may produce fewer allergens, but a person's reaction to the dog also depends on the individual.

A life-saving gesture

That said, there is no mistaking the point that by adopting from a shelter or rescue, the Obamas would be making a powerful gesture in favor of the work of our nation's humane societies, which have been struggling to curtail pet overpopulation and place animals in loving homes since the late 1860s. Given the impact of presidential decisions, it would be more than symbolic for an American president to grace the work of humane societies with a choice that affirms their mission: it would actually save lives.

While there is no evidence of a president having adopted an animal from a shelter, a few (including Theodore Roosevelt, LBJ, and Jimmy Carter) took in strays or animals of the Heinz 57 variety, brought home by their children or given to them by admiring citizens.

For most of the 20th century, however, purebred animals from breeders have dominated the White House kennels, and when it comes to the pet overpopulation problem, the presidential record is decidedly mixed. White House animals were breeding during the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, and George H.W. Bush administrations. Bill and Hillary Clinton, despite the ribbing they took, did the right thing by neutering Buddy.

A politician's best friend

The symbolic importance of White House pets is well known. Herbert Hoover thought it important enough to include a photograph of himself with a dog in his campaign literature.

Warren Harding's Laddie Boy, and more famously, FDR's Fala, lent themselves to their masters' political agendas in ways that resonated with friend and foe alike.

Pets help "[paint] a whole picture of a president's life," says William Bushong, White House Historical Society historian and curator of an exhibit on White House pets. Good for publicity, pets have helped presidents weather both political storms and personal battles.

Not just a presidential pet, an Obama family dog

For their part, by avoiding an impulse decision, and asking their daughters to wait until they had settled into their new lives and their new home in Washington, the Obamas have already set a powerful example for the nation.

Too many animals are returned or abandoned in situations where families have not done enough to prepare themselves and their homes for a new pet. In this instance, the children have shown great patience, and the parents have shown great wisdom. That bodes well for the life of our next presidential pet.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D. is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO of The HSUS. He is the author of Protecting All Animals, a history of The HSUS and is currently writing a book on the 19th century animal protection movement.

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