Make way for a national pet policy

For years, I've been wondering when pets would enter the realm of policy discussion and political debates. The news media generally treats this subject as a business story because Americans now spend massive amounts of money on pet-related products and services.

Our furry friends are everywhere. Two dogs and a cat are lounging around my home right now. But while their emotional and economic impact on individual households is significant and ongoing, pets have not risen to the level of "hot button issue" on the national scene. No reporter has ever stood up during a presidential debate and said, "Senator, should leash laws be mandatory in every city?" Historically, candidates haven't considered pet owners as a voting bloc worthy of tailored slogans and other special attention.

Hurricane Katrina may have changed everything. Animal rescues are no longer cute feature stories to use at the end of a newscast. Remember that scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when the twister was approaching, and the farmhands turned the horses loose from the corral and then ran for the storm cellar? In the real world of pet disaster relief, we definitely aren't in Kansas anymore.

I can foresee one immediate topic for all emergency planners to start thinking about immediately: When the next major crisis displaces a large number of citizens, should public shelters make accommodations for nonhuman family members?

That question needs to be handled by people with more expertise than I've got. My top priority now is just reevaluating our family emergency preparations to include canine and feline needs such as extra bags of kibble. One added complication is the fact that I may be dealing with an array of stranded livestock.

On my street, I'm the go-to guy for picking up mail when neighbors take a vacation. So if a catastrophe strikes and pet owners around me can't get home, guess whom they're likely to call? In theory, this is fine because I know all the animals here, so they won't be scared of me. But some of them can't stand each other. My cat, Sooby, likes Molly, the cat across the street, but he loathes Jared from two doors down. They had an ugly scrap recently, and I don't want any encores.

My biggest worry is Lassiter, our old black Lab. We adopted him nine years ago after he flunked out of guide-dog school. He means well, but anytime we accidentally leave him unattended, he snoops around and swallows dirty socks in closets, and coughs them up three days later. If something terrible happens to me, Lassiter might end up inflicting this incredibly annoying habit on total strangers, and I cannot allow that to happen.

So I'm storing extra pet supplies around the house, and hoping at least some of them will be accessible in whatever emergency situation may strike. Thinking about survival scenarios is not my favorite pastime. One consolation is looking into the trusting eyes of Lassiter and Lottie, our yellow Lab. They think I have everything under control. Lucky dogs.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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