He’s barely begun his term as our country’s 44th president, but already Barack Obama risks alienating some powerful core constituencies: fans of mixed-breed shelter dogs, a.k.a. mutt mavens. And if you think mutts and their supporters don’t matter, think again. As Obama himself quipped in answer to a reporter’s question at his historic first press conference on November 7, little knowing how much truth underlay his jest, “With respect to the dog, this is a major issue.”
Fans of mixed-breed shelter dogs, this reporter included, were charmed when the biracial president-elect announced that day that his family’s preference was to adopt a pound pup, noting that “a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.” With animal shelters across the country experiencing enormous operating difficulties due to the recession, many of them forced to close, and the remaining ones barely able to keep alive the animals already in their care before the recent onslaught of more pets surrendered by owners who now can’t afford to care for them, a shelter-dog advocate in the White House sounded like a dream come true. In a curious, embarrassing case of lingering racism, American animal shelters report that black dogs (and cats) have historically been the last to be adopted, so many mutt mavens — this reporter included — were hoping that America’s first president of color would tap a black shelter dog as canine-in-chief.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art recently commissioned portraits of Obama from A. Michelle Page, a dealer in hand-painted dog signs whose business employs Nepali artisans in Kathmandu. Deeply impressed by Obama’s reclaiming of the M-word, having authored a book titled The Underdog: A Celebration of Mutts, I ordered a sign with the legend MUTT! to commemorate Obama’s pride in his mixed racial heritage.
Mutt appreciation is a grand presidential tradition that has always crossed party lines; it’s “bi-paw-tisan,” if you will. Commanders-in-chief with beloved mixed-breed dogs have included Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. First Daughter Malia Obama charmed fellow history buffs when it was revealed that she intends to write papers at the desk where Lincoln signed the Gettysburg Address, “because I’m thinking that will inspire big thoughts.” Here’s a historical factoid Malia will surely appreciate: Lincoln had a beloved dog named Fido, and Fido was a plain, brown mutt. That’s right, Lincoln was a mutt maven.
Now, because of Malia’s well-documented pet allergies, to the dismay of mutt mavens on both sides of the political fence, the search for the presidential pup has narrowed to two types of canine alleged to have hair that’s easier for allergic humans to tolerate: the Portuguese Water Dog and the Labradoodle. The first is a purebred recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), and a usual suspect at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show; the second is a designer hybrid dog, first created in Australia in 1970 by crossing the Labrador Retriever and Standard Poodle, to produce a service dog for blind people who are dog-allergic. The Labradoodle is definitely not recognized by the AKC, and widely sniffed at by purebred purists; in fact, Westminster co-host and commentator David Frei calls it “a fad breed.”
Pooch pundits predict that the Obama camp won’t want to piss on the hydrant of the powerful lobbying force that is the AKC — which, for better or worse, oversees all purebred dog activity in this country — by selecting an unpedigreed un-breed. So that leaves the fancy-pants Portuguese Water Dog as the front-runner.
Never mind the impressively double-jointed ideological acrobatics of the shift from “a mutt like me” to an elitist purebred or “designer” hybrid. Never mind that shelter-dog adoption is the right thing for all proud Americans to do. Never mind that one of Obama’s most high-profile supporters, Oprah Winfrey, renowned for having purebred Cocker Spaniels and Golden Retrievers, announced last April that henceforth, she would only adopt dogs from animal shelters. This after viewing an upsetting expose of puppy mills on her own TV show.