Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Boston; and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Like fellow candidates vying to be First Dog – and dozens have formally declared – Bear is a born networker. He doesn’t just kiss babies, he plants big wet ones on anyone who crosses his path, and he likes to sit down (on your feet) and share a quiet moment. (Indeed, in two days of interviews, Bear only barked once.) What he lacks in polish, he makes up for in drive – at a lamp-tipping, carpet-wrinkling galumph.
And his résumé is perfect: rescued labradoodle, great dignity to “ding-ity” quotient, highly trainable (read: food motivated), ready to move today.
But Bear is not the only dog with a campaign team of dreamers hoping to get the Obama family’s attention in its search for a rescued labradoodle or Portuguese water dog.
The competition is fierce – among animal rescue advocates who see a public relations bonanza for the broad animal adoption movement which struggles to save 4 million stray and unwanted dogs nationwide each year, not to mention a windfall for their own shelters and agencies if their dog is The One.
There’s the Martin County (Minn.) Humane Society’s “Wema to the White House” Internet campaign in which a rescued Portuguese water dog was given the Swahili name for compassion and kindness to win Obama hearts. There’s the Winnipeg Humane Society’s gambit to get Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to give Obama a labradoodle from a shelter-born litter of 11 when the new president visits in coming weeks. (The US Constitution is silent on the citizenship of a first dog). There’s the Humane Society of the United States lobby of “high level” administration officials to take a look at its California labradoodle “spokesdog.” And there are countless other canine orphans being offered up on rescue and shelter websites across the country.
“There are probably a hundred shelters in the US that would dearly love the president to take [their] animal,” observes Bill McDonald, executive director of the Winnipeg Humane Society. He doesn’t mind entering the fray with his organization’s month-old, foreign-born pups. “You can’t buy publicity like this” for animal rescue, he says.
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Every rescued dog’s story has chapters of heartbreak and, not often enough, happy endings, say experts. Bear’s is a typically tear-stained but heartwarming rescue tale.
Like a good share of dogs who end up in shelters, risking euthanasia if not adopted, Bear was the product of an amateur breeder’s moneymaking plan that went awry. Conchita Ray, who lives on a farm in South Carolina, says she aimed to make a profit selling labradoodles when she got a chocolate Labrador retriever to breed with her black standard poodle. The result was a litter of 13 pups advertised for $600 to $800. Only six sold. Before she could “fix” her dogs, they mated “accidentally” again, producing a second litter of 13, including a fuzz ball she named “Bear.”
Overwhelmed by the cost of feeding the busy pups, she began advertising to sell them for a fraction of the initial cost. “The first litter was fun ... but they all didn’t sell. I felt bad after the second litter because it was an accident [and] there are so many animals out there,” Ms. Ray said in a phone interview Wednesday. Her remorse seemed trebled by the death in a deer chase that day of Bear’s Lab sire. “I will not contribute anymore dogs to this world.”
In October, when he was 4 months old, Bear found his first home with Gerry Green, a retired US Small Business Administration procurement officer who was recently widowed and wanted company in her new hometown of Tuscaloosa. It was a happy match until major surgery left Ms. Green less steady on her feet and the owner-pet balance of power slipped. When the rambunctious, 48-pound Bear jumped up to his full, almost 5-foot-height on his hind legs and plopped his paws on Green’s shoulders earlier this month, she fell and bruised her hip. Green was devastated to realize that she was overwhelmed by his playfulness.
Green can’t contain her tears when she talks of her guilt about having to give up Bear and her relief when a good church friend, Ebba Robb, helped her find a foster home with Amy Trice, a volunteer with T-Town P.A.W.S., a local animal shelter, and owner of Hot Diggity Doggy Camp.
On Jan. 13, when Ms. Robb heard that President Obama had narrowed the search to a labradoodle or Portuguese water dog, she e-mailed the Washington (D.C.) Humane Society. “This is a crazy idea,” she wrote, asking if they were handling the Obama adoption. The subject line: “long shot.”
Within an hour, the office of the president of the organization had e-mailed her back: “We would very much like to talk with you about this dog. I am very optimistic that we could work something out.” The organization suggested they bring Bear to Washington, says Ms. Trice.
Trice says she would like assurances that Bear would come back to Alabama for adoption if he’s not chosen by the Obamas, But a spokesperson for the Washington group says they have no contact with the White House at this point and a guarantee of return “usually would never happen.”
Shelter and rescue officials around the country report similar thrilling moments followed by dashed hope in their search for the inside track to the White House. Dog-inspired enthusiasm often exceeds reach.
“There are a lot of people holding dogs hoping it’s the Obama puppy,” says N. Beth Line, director of International Doodle Owners Group, an Indianapolis-based volunteer group offering education about and rescue for labradoodles and goldendoodles. After having “a lot of people dangle a lot [of offers of political networking to the Obamas],” she adds, “we’ve made a decision that we’re not going to place a dog in limbo hoping the Obamas will look at it.”
Ms. Line further warns that as adorable as Bear and his fellow candidates are, and as deserving as the rescue cause is of the Obama family’s decision to go with a shelter dog, getting swept up in the mania over the White House dog puts a family’s “intimate” decisionmaking “under a microscope.”
“Failure’s not an option,” she says of the judgmental and political circus the pick threatens to become. “Can you imagine the pressure?”
(Indeed, Obama himself joked on ABC that the dog decision “has been tougher than finding a commerce secretary.” And Mr. McDonald, from Winnipeg, muses about the political triangulation his own suggestion to the Canadian government must have triggered: “I can see the policy wonks sitting in a dark room in Ottawa thinking, ‘Hmm, a live animal gift, never done that before....’ ”)
While a lot of rescue groups have their own dog in the fight to get to the White House, the majority say that any rescued dog is preferable to a purchased dog. They cheer the Obamas for taking this route. The president, says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, is setting “a powerful personal example ... that can help us increase adoption rates [and] in combating pet overpopulation which costs our society over $2 billion a year.”
Mr. Pacelle estimates there are over 3,500 public and private shelters in the US, processing 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats a year. “Only half come out alive,” he says.
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There’s very little worry in Bear’s camp about his options should he lose his White House bid. His strong Alabama constituency promises a seat in a local house; and he won’t know the difference between the nation’s first family and his own first family.
“Whoever gets him,” says Green, “he will be a joy. He’s a prize. He’s 18 carat.”