Monday, January 26, 2009

A First Dog From Down South

In choosing his Cabinet, President Obama turned to the North, the Midwest and the West. Because Obama stiffed the South, he really ought to look below the Mason-Dixon line for the First Dog. This would be a solid move politically, but it's also a matter of supply and demand.

The Obamas are reportedly leaning toward a labradoodle or a Portuguese water dog. They say they want the First Pet to be a dog from a shelter, a decision that's both fashionable and morally sound. But as with other shifts in our collective tastes in pets, the growing popularity of shelter animals has had an unanticipated side effect -- there is a mismatch between the number of people who want to rescue a dog and the number of dogs needing to be rescued.

In 1970, 24 million dogs and cats were put to death in animal shelters in the United States. By 2007, the number had fallen to 4 million. This reduction was the result of the most successful crusade in the history of the animal protection movement, the spay-and-neuter campaign.

But the rush to pluck the reproductive organs from every household pet in America has been so successful that we may be running out of dogs.

In fact, some leaders in the animal welfare movement worry that the slack will be taken up by puppy mills in countries such as Mexico and China. Meanwhile, others believe that the United States has plenty of dogs to go around. The only problem is that they're in the wrong places.

There is distinct geographic disparity in the distribution of adoptable pets because spay-and-neuter campaigns have been much less successful in Southern states than in other parts of the country. For instance, the per capita rate of unwanted pet euthanasia is 40 times higher in my home state of North Carolina than in Connecticut. It seems a lot of people in the South don't like restrictions on the sex lives of their pets any more than they like zoning laws or gun control.

There is, however, an upside to my region's historic resistance to animal birth control. It is that, on the whole, our shelter dogs make better pets than the shelter dogs in other parts of the country. Michael Mountain, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, the nation's largest sanctuary for abandoned pets, says that animal shelters in the urban North are "overrun with pit bulls." And because a higher proportion of dogs in Northern shelters have been neglected or abused, many of them suffer the canine equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. That means that they are not good candidates for adoption into the average home.

The bottom line is that most of the people who want to adopt a dog are up north, while most of the dogs in need of good homes are down south. That's why the animal rescue group in my rural North Carolina county ships 200 dogs a year up to shelters in Connecticut, where they find loving homes with dog-craving suburbanites.

And that's small potatoes. Since 2004, the Rescue Waggin' program operated by PetSmart, the national chain of pet product superstores, has transported 20,000 abandoned dogs from states such as Tennessee and Kentucky to places where they are snapped up by grateful owners.

The geographic differences in attitudes toward spay-and-neuter laws have created another paradox as well: The more successful a region's efforts are at controlling pet overpopulation, the more aggressive -- and less adoptable -- the dogs in their local animal shelter tend to be.

Jennifer Brehler, director of operations of the Asheville (N.C.) Humane Society, which ships dogs to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has told me that visiting workers from animal shelters in Northern states have said that they are amazed at how sweet her dogs are compared with shelter dogs in the North.

Just to be clear, it's okay with me if our new president picks Yankees and Midwesterners to run the country. But he really should get Malia and Sasha's rescue dog from a Southern state. We have more pooches to choose from, and our dogs are nicer.

Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., has studied societal attitudes and behavior toward animals for more than 20 years.

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