Lifestyles Left and Right

Canine Compassion

Now the First Dog can help man's best friend.

By 4.27.09

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I'm full of hope that the surfeit of interest in the recent New York Times piece -- the ninth most emailed "Does Bo Know He's Top Dog"? -- will shift over with equal gusto to what I feel morally compelled to write on behalf of under-privileged dogs.

The gift of a pedigreed pooch from Senator Kennedy to President Obama symbolizes a passing of the torch from one pedigreed politician to a politician who, by virtue of his open-armed acceptance of this dog, has now become pedigreed himself as a full member of a class he's always shunned: limousine liberals. This also serves as a stark visual reminder that the president also went back on his word to adopt a pound dog.

But let's let sleeping dogs lie -- if only momentarily -- and pound some pressing points instead. Adopting a mutt symbolizes a compassionate reaching out for the underprivileged, something Obama espoused in his books and throughout his campaign. Even his foreign policy approach of scanning the globe for international partnerships with a kinder, gentler intervention and personally reaching out to previously dismissed leaders reflects this nicely.

Though he missed the rich opportunities that come with having an underprivileged canine in the White House, it is not too late. President Obama can still bow to the cause and wow the world. If he takes the lead with my modest proposal.

But first, some background. Throughout the majority of this planet dogs run free. I learned this growing up in Brazil. My wondrously childish mind was moved by the common sight of these cute animals protectively curled up like Gerrit Dou's discriminating painting "A Sleeping Dog." I remember my constantly beseeching my dad not to run over them because my impish height prevented me from realizing that this obviously was not going to be the case. What was obvious to me is that street mutts either foraged for food or they didn't eat. Indeed the word for mutt in Portuguese is viralata, one who turns over trash cans.

Before Slumdog Millionaire brought the horrors of poverty to the media rooms of the first world, I was fortunate enough to traipse across the magnificent lands of the developing world and take in the rich tapestry of cultures. And it is on these trips that it dawned on me that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs does make sense: If you are dirt poor, providing for animals, even those you call your own, is at the bottom of that triangle.

Unfortunately, it also opened my eyes to the sad reality that a dog's plight is even more tortured than constant hunger and I don't know which of these compounding realities is worse: disease or the cruelty inflicted by man which, I suppose, is a form of ignorance, at best. In Jaipur, India, with all my hot-blooded fervor, I took a man to task in the middle of the street when he kicked a flea-ridden pregnant pooch, so famished her ribs were a striking contrast to her hanging teats. My God, there is never be a reason for cruelty, I blurted out.

In the desert terrain of Jaisalmeer, towards Pakistan, I lost track of our guide when my eyes were riveted to the pained grimace of a black-and-white mutt whose brain, upon closer inspection, had been exposed by maggots feverishly eating him alive. And mind you, this on a skeletal body weak from malnourishment and pelted with open wounds from the ravages of scratching the hundreds of flea bites. I cried, in pain for his.

I was helpless in the flimsy hope that my caring voice and gently placing the fine sands of Jaisalmeer on his infested brain-matter would bring some relief. His grateful countenance, I shall never forget. And neither the sad reality that the relief I brought was also ephemeral and that he would soon, I prayed, be dead.

In Yangon, Myanmar, outside the ostentatious oasis of the historic Strand Hotel is a visual cacophony of third-world activity with people so oppressed they are dispossessed of even a scintilla of humanity. In a country whose collective moral sentiment drives even its impoverished citizens to open-handedly feed rice to the parade of red- robed monks in the wee hours of each morning, it was shocking to watch women mercilessly shove away a mutt who'd just been hit by a bus.

He struggled to the other side confronting the helter-skelter chaos of dust, exhaust, rickshaws, people and vehicles whizzing by on this six-lane avenue. His already paralyzed leg from a previous injury and dripping with infection was now torn open with muscle and ligaments hanging in shreds.

In all my sobbing and unenlightened despair the only thing I could think of was to give him some of the food from the hotel breakfast that I always carry in my purse for this very purpose. But again, thin relief for this pathetic little creature so painfully, well, on his last leg.

It was not till a few years later when we made the trek to the Pushkar Camel Fair that a humongous sign hanging in the midst of the intimidating barrage of its sights, sounds, and smells gave me great hope. "Help in Suffering." An outfit in Jaipur that provides animal care via the superior knowledge of the kind-faced veterinarian Dr. Jack Reece, whom I instantly dubbed the James Herriott of India.

They'd brought a mobile treatment tent all the way from Jaipur and I spent the next two hours watching him treat camels, horses, and dogs for broken jaws, maggot infestation, infected wounds, and so much more. Reece and his teams tirelessly treated nearly 900 camels and about 400 equines at last year's fair and with minimal resources, to boot.

This is the first and only such organization I've come across. It was here I realized there is an outlet to funnel my energy, time and donations to help fill that desperate need I'd known since childhood.

Sadly, Help in Suffering has only enough resources to look after the animals in Jaipur and in limited ways given the world's street dogs are an orphaned cause that suffers from a paucity of funding, particularly now with the global financial crisis. Notwithstanding, the dog population has declined by about 50% in the Pink City, based upon Reece's surveys. "Visitors tell us that our street dogs look better than those in other north Indian cities, and we attribute this to our efforts to stabilize the population at lower levels, reduce the stress of reproduction and the numbers of puppies which are born, suffer and die on the streets," he says.

But for every street dog in Jaipur there are thousands more. Dogs who are not bouncing around the White House lawn being offered furry microphones by obsequiously adulating reporters. Not being carried in $1,000 luxury pouches from Saks Fifth Avenue to save their paws from pounding the privileged pavement of Park Avenue. And they're certainly not perfumed, pawdicured, and physically pampered like the genetically tampered dogs of the Westminster Kennel Show. No, they're dogs who would treat the Prozac pills their first-world canine counterparts take to cure "depression," as food.

So here's my modest proposal to turn the tide of public opinion for the Portuguese waterdog. Just as POTUS aims to fight for the underprivileged, so too should DOTUS. Instead of parading his activities before the doting media, or penning mindless books as previous White House occupants have done, Bo could start with a website: www.dotus.com would make dog-doting humans aware of the dire needs of developing world dogs. Bo's television and photo-ops could be used to remind viewers, especially if he were to don a symbolic collar or jumper with, perhaps, a request for donations to HIS-Vets that would also help them to create more of these animal treatment centers in the many other parts of the world where none exist. And to throw him a bone, they could even be named after Bo.

Imagine how DOTUS may have enlightened Leona Helmsley to divert even a fraction of the millions she left behind for her lapdog of luxury. And how he could have pulled the Brazilian heart-strings of Gisele Bundchen into wrapping a simple ribbon around her dogs and sending the untold sum she paid for their Dolce and Gabbana lace collars directly to Jack Reece instead. And just think of what could be done with the $5 million that Gerrit Dou's dog painting fetched at auction in 2006.

The mind boggles.

In these countries, a little goes a long way: Eight dollars would spay and vaccinate a dog, or employ an animal care technician for three days, or treat 2.5 camels at Pushkar.

President Obama and his best friend would be in good spiritual company. As President Woodrow Wilson said, "If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience."

The burden must now rest on this adorable beast named Bo. Dogs know nothing of noblesse oblige, but given their dogged caring for their canine brethren, I know Bo would bark two woofs in agreement with Will Rogers who always said that "a dog does nothing for political reasons."

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.