A Rare Breed of Love

How a three-legged dog won the hearts of everyone from an angry homeless man to Barack Obama.

A Rare Breed of Love: The True Story of Baby and the Mission She Inspired to Help Dogs Everywhere By Jana Kohl Fireside 224 pp., $25.95

America has a love affairs with dogs. I should know. As the director of the White House website during President George W. Bush’s first term, I couldn’t help but notice that, whenever we put first dog Barney on the website, traffic soared.

(In fact, the highest-trafficked day on the site was Dec. 17, 2003 – the day we released the second annual Barney Christmas video, “Barney II: Barney Reloaded.”)

So with President Obama now in the Oval Office, it isn’t a surprise to me that anytime I write about the Obama family’s search for a pet dog, it becomes one of the most visited stories on the Monitor’s website.

There’s even a dog who has enjoyed a resurgence in media attention as the result of Barack Obama’s election. That’s Baby, the star of A Rare Breed of Love, a book published last summer by Dr. Jana Kohl.

Baby, a small white poodle with only three legs, has a high-powered connection to the president of the United States. In fact, you may have seen a photograph of her in his arms.

So how did this little poodle – a three legged one at that – meet the most powerful man in the world? The story, of course, is in the book.

It all started when Kohl, who describes herself as a “one-time unlikely dog lover,” decided she wanted to buy a poodle. She went to see the dogs at a breeder – only to be horrified at the conditions under which the dogs lived.

So she decided to adopt a shelter dog instead. That’s where she found Baby – a 9-year-old toy poodle who had been imprisoned in a cage in a puppy mill for her entire life. She was useful to her owners only as long as she could produce puppies. No longer able to do this, she was thrown away, literally.

Baby’s leg had to be amputated due to the years of abuse.

What Kohl saw and learned through her experience with Baby has led her to devote her life to protecting dogs and shutting down puppy mills.

Before you dismiss the book as the rantings of an animal activist, know this: Once upon a time, Kohl wore fur and was basically indifferent toward animals. But her one experience at a puppy mill redefined her life.

She set out on the road with Baby, hoping to reach the highest profile people possible. So she took Baby to Capitol Hill and met with both Republicans and Democrats. Sens. Ted Kennedy, John Ensign, Dick Durbin, Maria Cantwell, Rick Santorum, Elizabeth Dole and many, many others met with Baby and Kohl and, as Kohl explains, there were many teary eyes during the meetings.

Little Baby melted the heart of Bill Mahrer. She made Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler sing. She went on the air with Paul Harvey. She palled around with Martina Navratilova’s dogs and hung out with Jim Cramer on the set of “Mad Money.” For star after star, politician after politician, the little dog put a face to dog abuse and made people stop and care.

And, as Kohl explains, her tours across the country also touched thousands of everyday people. Not to mention one homeless man whose rage all but stopped when he saw the three-legged poodle.

“He charged down the sidewalk toward us, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs ranting unintelligibly,” Kohl wrote. But upon seeing Baby, the man stopped and questioned Kohl about the three-legged dog, before suddenly becoming an advocate for her.

“ ‘You’re taking good care of her, right,’ he asked looking at me squarely. ‘You aren’t going to hurt her,’ he added more as a statement than a question. I felt my throat tighten and my eyes well with tears for the empathy this troubled man was offering Baby, someone he identified with and wanted to protect, someone who, for that moment, inspired him to put aside his own agony and feel the pain of another. In the two years since I adopted her, I had never seen a clearer example of Baby’s transformational power to elicit love, kindness, and empathy even in the face of one’s own suffering. It is a power that animals singularly possess to heal the human soul.”

Baby’s story makes for a transformational book.

The pictures are priceless. The stories are touching. Some of it is not easy to read. Not only did Baby lose one leg, but her vocal chords were removed with scissors so she wouldn’t annoy her keepers by barking.

But it’s much easier to read it than to live it. Baby’s done the hard part.

“A Rare Breed of Love: The True Story of Baby and the Mission She Inspired to Help Dogs Everywhere” reads like a collection of articles interspersed with dozens of photos.

And that picture with the president? Back in 2005 when President Obama was a US senator, he was one of the politicians who agreed to meet with Kohl and Baby. He agreed to the photoshoot and pledged to Kohl that when he brought a dog home for his family, it would be a rescue dog – not one from a breeder. And now, it seems, the president is living up to his word.

If we believe Mahatma Gandhi had something to offer, we may want to listen to his words, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Kohl, through her work and her book, is helping our country. And I’m glad she has the president’s ear.

Jimmy Orr is the Monitor’s online editor.

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