In San Francisco, pet owners recast as 'guardians'

Alex Hunter seems oblivious to the fact that it is a miserable day.

Yes, he is dressed in bright yellow raingear that gives him the appearance of a wayward sea captain swept ashore. But beneath his tightly drawn hood, his weathered face beams.

Never mind the rain slanted sideways and the wind that chafes the sky flint gray. Today is his day to bring Dalmatians Buddy and Isabelle here to the grass-tufted dunes of San Francisco's seashore, and his plans were never likely to be canceled on account of weather.

"It's one of the simple pleasures," he grins.

Nor is he alone on this shock of sand. Even in the storm, he is joined by a half dozen others. It would seem an unusual display of devotion were this not San Francisco, perhaps America's most pet-obsessed city.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to change city codes to include the word "guardians" wherever "pet owners" are mentioned. The change - which requires a confirmation vote next month - would not give pets the rights to divorce bad owners or collect wages for years of servitude. But it is a powerful symbolic statement that accords pets a new level of respect in the public consciousness, supporters say.

This is the city of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. It invented day care for dogs and pet résumés to sway reluctant landlords. In the local shelter, dogs and cats get rooms with furniture, artwork, and in some cases televisions. Dog Fancy magazine last year rated it the best city for dogs, and rallies to oppose leash laws often take the same moral tone as protests against war in Iraq.

Along with a handful of other cities, it is carving out a role for pets as companions in a much broader sense than ever before. And regardless of next month's vote, it offers a glimpse of what happens to urban life and politics when pets become something more than possessions.

I'm not sure there are any places that are more pet-friendly than San Francisco, says Martha Armstrong of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington. "There's a greater feeling [there] toward including pets as a part of the family."

In truth, the "guardian" name change would have little practical impact on this. Although some critics say the change could actually harm pets by creating legal confusion, the move is seen solely as a means to get residents to think about pets in a different way.

At K9 to 5, a doggie day-care center, many are seen as nothing less than children.

That's no surprise. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of kids of any major city in the United States, and according to some estimates, it has more dogs than children. In this former warehouse, probably 80 percent of the dogs come from families with no children, says employee Shannon Mahler. "These are their kids," she says.

To some observers, the two trends are inseparable. Doggie day care started here, they say, largely because there are so many singles and childless couples who turn their affections toward pets.

But it can also have a darker side. The most sensational trial in the city's recent history involved the mauling death of a Pacific Heights woman by two massive attack dogs doted on by their owners. The proceedings generated so much attention and emotion that they were eventually moved to Los Angeles.

For its part, K9 to 5 rejects overly aggressive dogs. K9 to 5 claims to be the first doggie day care in San Francisco, and its halls - lined with the august black and white pictures of past graduates - take on the air of a prep school for pooches.

Interviews are required for entry and often take 30 to 40 minutes. Enrollment costs $32 a day. And, like any grade school, each student gets a brightly colored bin of treats and toys as well as a daily report card.

If San Francisco has the Ivy League of pet day care, it also has the best welfare system. It euthanizes only 25 percent of its impounded animals, the lowest figure of any major US city.

Kiska Icard of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is proud of that. "The only reason we're able to achieve these landmarks is because San Francisco is so supportive," she says.

One in 10 households here donates to the SPCA, the group estimates. In total, public and private spending on animal welfare adds up to about $10 a person each year; the national average for major cities is $1.70.

The most obvious manifestation of that philanthropy is Maddie's Adoption Center, where dogs get daily walks and cats peer out from rooms appointed with aquariums and TVs.

But that spirit is also apparent out on the wind-whipped dunes. Although Judy and Greg Jones's hunched shoulders suggest they aren't as happy in the rain as their dog, Sierra, it's an outing they couldn't pass up.

Says Greg: "San Francisco might not be as good as out in the country, where no one bothers you, but it's probably as good as any city in the country for dogs."

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