Pets in the News: A Call for Reform

I have been known to give good quotes, but this time one of them may land me in the doghouse.

I am quoted at length in today’s New York Times – you know, the paper that sets the world’s news agenda – as saying that I love my dog, Rex, more than I love my wife, Karen.  To deepen this quicksand, I gave the reporter the name of the dog (a Poynter tradition) but not the name of the wife.

The context, as if it matters, concerned the number of interesting and dramatic pet stories that spun out of Hurricane Katrina.  According to the Times piece, written by Andrew Adam Newman (hate those guys with three names), Bark magazine, which should never be rolled up to slap Fido in the snout, devoted special coverage to the storm’s aftermath, including stories of rescue and reunion.

I was asked to analyze standard pet coverage in the news and came up with three prototypical stories:  “One is the cynical story that satirizes humans’ over-attachment to their pets.  Then, there are the outrage stories, usually written when human beings cause intentional harm to animals….And then there’s the heroic dog, sort of the Lassie paradigm: ‘What is it girl? What are you trying to tell me?’”

None of these proved adequate to describe what happened during Katrina, which led me to argue that “there’s a renewed understanding of how much pets mean to certain people, and how hard it is for some people to take life-saving actions if it requires them to abandon their pets.”

This, in turn, led me to the conclusion that news organizations should cover pet ownership in a more sophisticated, more humane, more complex way:  “It’s one of the things that people talk about most,” I said, “and talk about most with strangers.”

In spite of recent scandals at The Times, these quotes are chillingly accurate, which makes the next paragraph a bit iffy for my homelife: “Mr. Clark has an 11-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Rex ‘who my wife and I love more than we love each other, even though we’ve been together 35 years.’”

OK, I said it. There are you happy?  But what did I mean by it?  What evidence do I have that my declared inversion of affection is authentic?  Let me answer with another brief series of questions:

• When I come home at night, who is there to great me, wagging his bottom, sniffing my feet, looking as if he is actually happy to see me?

• Who is willing to snuggle on my lap, any time, any place, even when the yard work has me smelling as if I rolled around in a school of dead fish?

• Who, when I come out of the shower, is willing to help me dry off by licking drops of water off my shins?

If you find any of this interesting or even mildly amusing, you are helping me build my case for the reform of coverage of pets and pet ownership in America.  But what would such reform look like?  What kind of reporting would be necessary?  Which story frames would replace the trite ones?

[If you have a take on this, or if your news organization gives special attention to reporting on pets and pet ownership, share it here with the rest of us.]

Oh, as for my spouse, she says she has no plans to rub my nose in this mess.  Actually, she seemed delighted when I read the story to her over the phone.  She didn’t have any praise for my comments, but was proud of Rex getting his props in the New York Times.  See?!  See what I told you?!?

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