By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 13, 2007
A bomb had struck the Iraqi parliament earlier in the day, but it would take more than that to bring the United States Senate to heel.
"For many in America, pets are more than just companions -- they are members of the family," Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) said at the start of his Appropriations subcommittee's hearing yesterday into contaminated pet food.
"An important part of the family," agreed the ranking Republican, Bob Bennett (Utah).
"Members of the family," echoed Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Our pets are our companions, our soul mates and our hedge against emotional turmoil."
Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, tried to establish dominance over the pack by raising a can of Alpo for the cameras -- but not before Byrd broke free of his leash. In a lengthy discourse, he informed the panel three times that he has a Shih Tzu, nine times that his late wife named the dog Trouble, and three times that he prefers to call it Baby.
"She sleeps on my bed," said Byrd, in his 90th year and prone to meandering. "She goes with me to the Senate, rides in the car with me. She stays in my office. When somebody comes into the office, she rises and comes over and greets them, goes on about her business and gets back on the couch."
The ostensible purpose of the hearing was to determine what legislation or regulation might be needed to prevent a recurrence of the contamination that may have killed hundreds of animals and sickened thousands before a huge pet-food recall. In reality, it gave the lawmakers, the regulators and even the pet-food makers a chance to say how very, very much they love dogs and cats.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted that "I have two dogs. And when we learned of the recall, I was feeding one of the products on the recall list."
Another witness, veterinarian Elizabeth Hodgkins, invoked her "deep concern for the health of my own pets, my many patients, and, indeed, dogs and cats everywhere."
Even Duane Ekedahl, representing the pet-food makers, tried to get out of the doghouse by talking about his pets. "In our family we have a 12-year-old cat, Gus, and a 4-year-old dog, Sven, and I think I know where I stand in the family hierarchy," he testified.
The FDA's Sundlof appealed for calm, saying, "Consumers have access to an ample supply of pet food."
This assurance didn't tame Kohl. "Is the FDA confident that this recall will not grow? When will we get the all-clear signal?"
Sundlof picked at his cuticles and pawed the microphone cable.
But it was Ekedahl, of the industry group, who really made the senators growl. Durbin demanded to know why Menu Foods, the company at the center of the pet-food recall, "waited more than three weeks after finding out that the dogs wouldn't eat their food and were getting sick."
"I don't have the facts on Menu," Ekedahl replied, rubbing his fingers together.
The phrases coming from the wood-and-marble hearing room in Dirksen Senate Office Building were not the usual Appropriations fare.
"I have found Kibbles 'n Bits in my Cat Chow occasionally," said veterinary witness Claudia Kirk.
"Someone once said old age means realizing you won't own all the dogs you wanted to," posited Durbin.
But best-in-show honors went to Byrd, who, in a statement notable for its breadth, explained why his eyes had been closed ("I have what is called dry eyes") and why he has tremors in his hand ("I'm not scared or anything"), noted his friendship with the late Chicago mayor Richard Daley, mentioned his 49 years in the Senate, called himself "Popeye the Sailor Man," and demanded the witnesses be sworn in, even though the hearing had been going on for nearly an hour.
Byrd even brought some dog doggerel for the occasion. "A poem that has always meant so much to me begins with this stanza, 'All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the lord God made them all,' " he said.
After the verse, he devoted the next quarter of an hour discussing his Shih Tzu. "There is a unique, special relationship between pets, like my little dog," he said. "She is a Shih Tzu. They were lap dogs. They were trained to be lap dogs in the palace in Tibet, China."
The senator was just beginning. "Dogs -- I could talk a lot about dogs. I can tell you about great dogs in history. Truman, Harry Truman, former president, said, 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.' Or buy a dog. But I have a dog. Her name, by my wife Erma, is Trouble. Now, I call her Baby."
Muffled laughter rose from the audience; senators on the panel struggled to maintain their composure. Byrd became aware that he was spending too much time on his Shih Tzu. "This is not for a show. I don't often do this. I'm interested in a little dog," he explained.
It had become a dog's breakfast of a hearing, but Durbin, preparing legislation to rein in pet-food makers, called it a success. "I'm barking up the right tree," he said.