The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dogs are the true heroes of the pandemic

People participate in a “Pet Trick or Treat” event in Windber, Pa., on Oct. 17. (Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat/AP)

During a recent visit to base camp — i.e., The Post, Capitol Hill and points thereabout in D.C. — I was struck that my day revolved almost entirely around dogs.

Not that every moment here should be filled with politics and punditry. But a full day of dog talk is rare, even for a columnist who writes often of animal rights and who once negotiated a TV contract to include her blind toy poodle. I think my exact phrasing to then-CNN President Jonathan Klein was that Ollie was a “nonnegotiable condition of employment.”

For the record, I wasn’t angling to have Ollie on the show, as some believed (a tiny misunderstanding), but in the building. I had just adopted the poor fellow from a kill shelter and felt I couldn’t then abandon him for 12-hour workdays. This was perhaps not my most brilliant business decision, but some of you surely understand.

Thus, when I swung by The Post’s K Street offices Wednesday, I wasn’t disappointed to land in a canine-centered conversation. This wasn’t a brief, oh-I-love-dogs sort of thing, but a detailed discussion that lasted 15 to 20 minutes. One of the participants was Ruth Marcus — the Harvard-educated lawyer, columnist and deputy editorial page editor. She and I may disagree on one or two issues, but we’re sisters in solidarity when it comes to our dogs.

You gotta start somewhere. I made a mental note that sharing dog stories not only breaks the ice but also opens our hearts, a ritual that might be helpful to our bipartisan negotiations. Couldn’t hurt.

Later that evening, dog talk came naturally at a dinner hosted by the Best Friends Animal Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless dogs and cats through adoption and to making America a no-kill country by 2025. It runs the country’s largest no-kill shelter in southern Utah, where, on average, about 1,600 dogs, cats and other animals live at a time until they’re adopted. Since 2016, the Best Friends Animal Society and its partners have managed to help reduce the number of dogs and cats killed in U.S. shelters from roughly 1.5 million a year to about 347,000 in 2020, the organization announced this year.

Rarely have I heard so much laughter at a D.C. dinner, especially among other writers and editors. We tend to be an overcautious and, therefore, dull group in such settings. As is customary, we began by introducing ourselves to one another, but this time we also introduced our dogs, telling stories and producing photos. By the time the last person spoke, we were no longer strangers but, well, Best Friends bonded by our love of dogs. (One person confessed to not currently having a dog, but Jim Acosta’s secret is safe with me for now.)

My dog day in D.C. prompted me to revisit familiar ruminations about the human-dog relationship. My life has been a steady stream of communion with dozens of strays and shelter-adopted pets, a word I don’t much like. My dogs have been much more than pets, which implies a master-servant relationship and ownership. Spooky, Shasta, Moses, OD, Max, Malcolm, Asheville, Brevard, Winston, Akela, Harley, Mister, Ollie and Honey are characters in the chapters of my life. They’ve punctuated milestones, shared victories and losses, licked my tears, healed my wounds and broken my heart as no human could.

The steadily growing U.S. pet industry, which reached an estimated $118 billion in 2019 and spiked during the pandemic, is testament to America’s love affair with animal companions. By 2030, the industry is expected to reach $275 billion, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. Anecdotally, it seems that pets may have become stand-ins for children in some cases, as birthrates have declined.

What is clear is that animals often fill a void that transcends service, entertainment or companionship and that is deeply connected to our need to love and be loved. When Asheville, a mixed breed, died several years ago, a friend said, “I know you must miss her so much because you loved her so much.” And I said, “No, I miss her because she loved me so much.”

Ollie, who died on Christmas Eve 2019, was 100 percent dependent on me. I was his service animal, his seeing-eye human. He had spent so much of his life confidently perched on my right forearm that when he died at 18, I felt his absence like a missing limb. I once ran looking for him while he was on my arm.

My devotion to Ollie doubtless filled an empty space in my heart, possibly the need to nurture after my son was grown. There’s not much mystery there, but a goldfish would have been a lot easier. It seems, therefore, that we humans reap benefits from tending to others, especially the weak and defenseless. Dogs have served human beings in various capacities for millennia, but they’ve also trained us to serve them. In this way, they’ve deepened our humanity by expanding our capacity for empathy.

And for that, we owe them their lives.