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Love pets for what they are, book advises

May 22nd, 2003, 11:29 PM
BOOK BUZZ: Love pets for what they are, book advises

For The Journal-Constitution

A few decades ago, most of us treated the dogs in our lives like, well, dogs. We loved them, but we made them sleep outside. They chased passing trucks at will and nosed through garbage cans for snacks.

But the world has changed, Jon Katz contends in his carefully researched book, "The New Work of Dogs." Divorces are up, along with layoffs and relocations. We spend our time surfing the Internet or watching TV and often never know our neighbors' names.

Increasingly, animals fill the emotional void in our lives. Americans spent $29 billion on their pets in 2001, Katz reports, and may spend $34 billion by 2005. Half of today's dogs sleep in our bedrooms; a quarter of them sleep in our beds.

Through interviews with pet owners, Katz records the many ways dogs serve us. Harry, a Welsh corgi, sits patiently beside its mistress as she endures cancer treatments. Dre, a pit bull, helps 14-year-old Jamal command respect in his neighborhood although the boy beats the dog to make it "tough." Janice, a member of the Divorced Dogs Club, brags that her dog loves her, even if her ex-husband didn't.

But, Katz asks, is this new work fair to dogs? Do we expect too much, and jerk their leashes or punish them when they don't meet our expectations? When our needs change -- we find a new love, tire of daily walks or move across town -- do we discard these friends "like junk-food wrappers," abandoning them to shelters and possible death?

Katz cautions that a dog's love can only help so much; they are not "family members with fur."

"They are animals that sometimes mean the world to us. But they are moons, not suns; they revolve around us and our lives; they're not meant to occupy the center."

It's an urgent plea to love our pets for what they are, and an unspoken reminder to cultivate love wherever we can find it in our own species.

Kristin von Kreisler, author of "For Bea: The Story of the Beagle Who Changed My Life," had to learn how to love a dog unconditionally. When the animal rights advocate found a lost beagle in the woods one night, she thought the tattoo in the dog's ear was an owner's ID number. To her horror, she discovered the traumatized dog had been a laboratory research animal.

Determined to rehabilitate the frightened creature, Von Kreisler kept the dog and named her Bea. Progress was slow. In spite of her "picket fence of ribs," Bea refused to eat. For months, she froze at the gentlest touch and shook at loud noises. A veterinarian surmised that Bea remembered the sound of cage doors slamming shut.

Von Kreisler pressed on, offering pats and dog biscuits, tennis balls and walks, until one day, Bea finally snuggled into her lap. Bea lived for 15 more years, giving back, von Kreisler says, as much love as she was given.

The author speculates that Bea came into her life to draw attention to the plight of lab animals. About 20 million animals are used for research in the United States alone each year, with about half coming from shelters. It's sobering to realize that a family dog or cat left at a shelter could wind up as the subject of a life-or-death experiment.

Von Kreisler carefully considers whether animals should be used in research to benefit humans, and draws an honest, painful conclusion: The question is too big; she will leave it up to God. But she asks us to work diligently to lower the number of animals used in research and to limit their suffering. It's the least we can do, in memory of Bea.

Lynn Coulter is a writer in Douglasville. She and her family have a golden retriever named Choo Choo; pet mice Caesar and Odysseus; goldfish Scully and Mulder; pond fish Tara, Bubba and Mike; and a hamster named Rudy.