You can tell a lot about people – and their governments – by the way they handle their pets. Specifically dogs.
A few days ago, I received an envelope from a longtime Monitor reader containing two yellowing clippings from December 1988 and October 1989. They were columns I had written about the acquisition of my Labrador puppy "Holly" and her first year of puppyhood. As a devoted dog lover, the reader had enjoyed rereading them over the years, but in sorting out in preparation for a move to smaller quarters, decided to share them with me.
When the grown Holly came to the end of her life and left me, I wrote another column about it and received a torrent of mail from readers. They sent letters of sympathy, uplifting poems, and photos of their dogs who were no longer alive.
If all of this may seem a little odd, I must explain that there are dog people and nondog people. To dog people this camaraderie among owners is merely a logical extension of the special relationship between them and their dogs.
You can write columns that you hope are helpful about Iran, Cuba, nuclear proliferation, illegal immigration, and presidential hopefuls, and you get a steady stream of reader mail. But if there is one subject guaranteed to draw more mail than any other, it is the life and times of the household dog.
This preoccupation with dogs is not something peculiar to ordinary people. It extends to the highest ranks in society. Bush 41 had dogs in the White House, as did Clinton. Bush 43 has them, too. Some presidents or first ladies have written books about their dogs.
When Henry Catto was Pentagon spokesman some years ago, he came close to disaster over a dog incident. Reporters were hounding him about some military experiments in which dogs were alleged to have suffered abuse. In knocking down the story, Henry said firmly that Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger would never permit cruelty to dogs. "Why," said Henry, "the Secretary himself has a dog he loves, a collie-type dog." It was a slip of the tongue, almost fatal. Within minutes after the briefing, Mr. Weinberger was on the phone to Henry, pointing out acidly that his dog was a pedigreed collie, not a "collie-type dog."
When Henry Kissinger was secretary of State, he sometimes brought his Labrador to the office. Mighty are some of the names today of important US diplomats who, as assistants then to Mr. Kissinger, were awarded the dubious honor of taking his Lab for a walk around the block.
Some of this American canine history flashed through my mind as I read of Beijing's attempts to bring a million dog owners to heel (forgive the pun) in the Chinese capital. The government has sought to limit households in certain districts to a single dog, and to forbid people from owning large dogs, such as Labradors and German shepherds, and "collie-type" dogs. It has caused quite a bit of yipping and yapping. Imagine how New Yorkers or Washingtonians would act if told to limit their dogs to one per household, each perhaps no taller than a 12-inch ruler.
The reason Beijing gives for these draconian measures is fear of an outbreak of rabies. Beijing dog owners say they are not opposed to registration and vaccination but argue that official reports prove the capital does not have a rabies problem. Instead, they suspect the real motive is to get the city cleaned up, and the dog population reduced, in time for the 2008 Olympics.
China has not always been kind to dogs, and there have been purges before. But the interesting aspect of this crackdown is that it has touched a nerve that is causing dog owners to push back. Some are smuggling their dogs out of Beijing to sanctuaries in the countryside. In some districts, the police, who are supposed to enforce the regulations, are turning a blind eye to infractions and cooperating with dog owners in hiding their animals. There is talk of protests and passive resistance.
China is embarked on complex transition to a free market economy while maintaining autocratic communist rule. It is intriguing that it thinks it can still dictate such bureaucratic minutiae as rules determining the size and number of dogs a citi- zen can own. It is even more intriguing that at least one segment of the populace is telling its rulers they are doggone wrong.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.