Last Monday night, Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, discussed a 'scandal' that has been plaguing her husband's campaign: During road trips with his family of seven in the 1980s, her husband used to habitually strap their Irish Setter, Seamus, to the car roof in a crate.
"He would see that crate and, you know, he would, like, go crazy because he was going with us on vacation. It was, to me, a kinder thing to bring him along than to leave him in the kennel for two weeks," she says. Sawyer brings up the fact that, during one twelve-hour sojourn with the family in 1983, Seamus got diarrhea and his poop dripped down the rear window, much to the delight of his five young sons.
One of them repeated the story to a reporter in 2007, and that's when the subject of dog poop made its way into politics in the most serious way since the hubbub surrounding New York City's 1970s Pooper Scooper law. I don't think the son, Tagg, was trying to skewer his father by recounting this family anecdote. It's just that more than twenty years later, it was still funny.
In the ABC interview, Ms. Romney points out that the diarrhea incident only happened one time out of the many, many times that Seamus took the upper deck. And it was only because he'd just previously stolen a turkey off the kitchen counter. Said the possible future First Lady: "He had the runs."
This has been no small issue. A Public Policy Polling found that 35 percent of voters said they were less likely to vote for Mr. Romney because of his dog-handling. The New York Times' Op-Ed page has mentioned the incident more than a hundred times in the last year. In January, Obama political consultant David Axelrod tweeted a picture of the president holding his dog in a limo and wrote, "How loving owners transport their dogs." Last month, The New Yorker ran a cover that showed Romney driving a car with Rick Santorum strapped to its top. Dogs Against Romney super PAC on Facebook has more than 40,000 members who are hoping to dissuade potential Romney voters by posting Photoshopped photos of dogs strapped to Romney's head and selling bumper stickers that say "I ride inside."
Dog Lovers in Defense of Romney?
I love my dog. I've never put my dog on the roof of a car. But I'm not sure he'd totally mind it. Have you ever seen a dog stick his head out of the side of a car? Best thing ever.
The idea of a twelve-hour road trip without a break is inhumane, yes. And we don't really know how well Seamus was strapped up there, or if he was scared or not. Maybe Ms. Romney was right: He really did like it and just that one time happened to get sick. People, and dogs, sometimes get sick even when they're riding inside.
But it's unusual that we should be so worried about the dog's feelings. The fact is we often treat pets in ways that they probably don't like. I'm not even talking about the four million cats and dogs who perish each year in this country's largely ill-kept shelters. I'm referring to ones that we have already sanctified as furry family members worthy of transportation -- ones that we want to transport with us because we love them. Horses don't cheerily trot into their trailers. It might be safe, but no one has explained car mechanics or the federal highway system to the equine population.
Several dozen animals die each year in plane cargo. (PetFlight.com lists every reported incident.) And there are probably tens of thousands of tiny puppies flying overhead right this moment, taken away from their puppy-mill-resident mothers and siblings at a few weeks old and flown, alone, to pet stores in other parts of the country where they face unknown fates at pet stores. It's sadder than Bambi! Then there is the sad fact that many dogs don't do so well inside cars: Countless dogs die from overheating in parked vehicles. In the grand scheme of things, Seamus didn't have it so bad.
A Better Future for Pet Transportation
We live in a world of increasingly thoughtful pet ownership, and for this I'm glad. Dog owners have many great dog safety products at their disposal: There are many lines of doggie seat belts, in-car safety guards and even booster seats. There are special comforting shirts and herbal sedatives you can get for a dog who is anxious about being in a car. But this is all very new. Even seat belts for humans have only been around a few decades. Not long ago, we transported animals in ways that were, by today's standards, very weird.
In 1932 there was the Bird Dog's Palace, an insulated-steel cage for dogs that was locked to a car's running board. "The barred door slides upward, permitting the dogs to be released without the driver having to leave his seat."
A 1936 canvas getup, also designed to be hinged to the running board, seemed to offer more protection to the car than it did to the dog.
In 1955, Dewey Blanton of Columbus, Ohio, debuted his method of both exercising his dogs and traveling to his destination (at speeds up to 35 miles-per-hour.)
By 1975, things were starting to get slightly better for road tripping dogs: A Florida woman, Marie French, patented a pet trailer designed to be towed behind a car.
In comparison to these condoned dog transport methods, the possible candidate's homemade affair seems... not so bad.
I wouldn't vote for Romney, but not because of how he treated his dog. I'm with the missus: At least the dog was going on a trip with a family he loved. Really, she's the one I feel bad for. Twelve hours in a car with five kids and Mitt Romney? I'd rather ride on the roof.