Heavy Petting in America

We love pets. That is borne out by the fact that more than 58 percent of the households in this country have at least one. Considering that only 70 percent of us have cable TV, 93 percent have indoor plumbing, and 42 percent think Paul Wolfowitz is a breed of dog, that's a pretty high number.

The most popular pets are cats, with nearly 69 million of the fuzzballs lying around licking themselves while pretending not to hear their owner calling their name. Surprisingly, they outnumber dogs, of which there are 6.1 million, and you can bet the cats never let Fido forget it for a second. Or any other dog for that matter since, face it, no one actually names their dog Fido, Rover, or Spot.

Ferrets are becoming popular as pets, with over 1 million of them hiding under the sofa trying to avoid kids who scream Pop Goes The Weasel while chasing them all over the house. This puts them ahead of hamsters, which used to have a pet population that high but have fallen out of favor. This in spite of Carl and Ray, the stars of Blockbuster's TV commercials, the dancing hamsters on the Internet, and the popular meat-sharing peer-to-peer computer program, HamSter. There's just no accounting for taste.

Reptiles, including turtles, snakes, lizards, and timeshare salesmen, are far more popular, with over 2.8 million of them being kept as pets. This isn't surprising since they're not only cute, cuddly, and fun to walk on a leash -- particularly the timeshare salesmen, but they're more effective than a burglar alarm. At least the snakes are. A company in Harare, Zimbabwe named Repsec, short for reptile security, rents cobras to act as security guards when people go on vacation. The company tapes up all potential exit holes, drops a couple of cobras in the living room, and posts a warning sign outside which is in two languages and shows the international symbol of "Caution: Watchsnakes Inside," which is probably a thick line with a big human-shaped bulge in the middle. Not bad for $12 a day. It sure goes a long way towards answering why there aren't more hamsters as pets, at least not when you come home from vacation.

Chickens, it seems, are an up-and-coming pet, especially among vegetarians who prefer to play with rather than eat something with a face. A recent news story from the Associated Press claims chickens are becoming "hip suburban pets." It's difficult to tell if they mean the pets are hip or the people who own them are delusional enough to think they are, but one thing that's certain is that the neighbors consider them to be potential dinner. The chickens, not the owners. I hope.

People think of their pets as more than just, well, pets. A survey by the American Pet Association (motto: "Petting is fun.") found that 19 percent of cat owners celebrate their pet's birthday, 6 percent of dog owners are as attached to their pet as their spouse, and most pet owners would rather answer a survey than answer the question, "Does this make me look fat?".
Thus it's not surprising that San Francisco has recently joined Boulder, CO, Amherst, MA, and the state of Rhode Island in officially declaring that animal owners will no longer be known by that name, but will be called pet guardians. Advocates of this change say the new terminology promotes greater responsibility and respect for pets while following the federal government's guidelines for using euphemisms whenever possible. While not nearly as good as regime change, collateral damage, or Rumsfeld's declaring Iraq's looting and anarchy to be "untidy", it's still better than the other suggestions they considered in lieu of pet owner, which included pet custodian, dirty rotten chicken lover, and sucker who buys expensive canned food when the cheap dry stuff will do just fine.

Pet, uh, guardians will tell you that they do these things because their pets are so smart. They are when compared to lower forms of life such as sea slugs, dung beetles, and Carrot Top, but few are as smart as Jim the Wonder Dog. Jim lived in Marshall, MO from 1925 to 1937 and was so smart that there's a statue in his honor, right next to a building full of Wonder Dog memorabilia. It seems Jim was psychic. He could predict the sizes and sexes of a cat's expected family, foretold Franklin Roosevelt's election, and for seven straight years predicted who was going to win the World Series. And it was never the Chicago Cubs. He even interpreted Morse code for the state legislature, though he failed when he tried to interpret the laws they passed. Hey, you can't expect everything -- he was only a dog, after all.

The truth is, all pets are smart. Smarter than we are, as a matter of fact. After all, who's the one who gets to sleep 20 hours a day, is fed well, never has to pay for a haircut, doesn't have to work for a living, and always gets a Christmas present? Someone tell me, where do I apply for that job?

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com

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