Perfect companions By Ardeshir Cowasjee

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi once said that a country’s level of civilization can be gauged by the way its people treat animals. Well, in a country such as ours, where the treatment meted out to human beings is largely deplorable, particularly to women and children (the latest ghastly case being the murder and alleged rape of two girls, a six-year old and an eight-year old, by the police in Gaddap), animals stand no chance.

However, it was somewhat encouraging last year in April to read in this newspaper about the death of Brita, a five-year old white tigress who was born and died in the Lahore zoo of a brain disease. What was most unusual was the effort that was made to save her – she was taken to Imran Khan’s Shaukat Khanum Hospital for a CT scan, she was under constant observation by the zoo vets, and it was recorded that “WWF officials and the zoo administration expressed grief over her death.”

This February 24, came another news item about another white tigress, six-year old Jill, who had died in the Lahore zoo. Experts of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences were called in to try and save her, but sadly could not.

Some of us obviously feel for tigers and lions, the lords and kings of the jungle (certainly not for our political cowards who assume their names as titles), but when it comes to dogs, problems arise as our president well knows. The photo opportunity given to Pervez Musharraf’s two Pekinese, Dot and Buddy, soon after he took over in 1999, became the subject of much harsh censure from our ‘holier than thou’ brethren, that the two dogs were consigned to oblivion, to be seen and heard of no more.

Not mentioned in our press, quite naturally, but covered in the western media, was the death on February 21 of Spot, President George W Bush’s loyal English springer spaniel. Brown and white Spot, would have been 15 years old on March 17. She was one of six pups born in the White House in 1989 to Millie, the favourite dog of the president’s parents, and will go down in history as the first dog to have twice lived at the White House. Spot was seen frequently with the president travelling with him in his helicopter.

A statement was issued on the day of her death by the White House press secretary: “The President and Mrs Bush and the entire Bush family are deeply saddened by the passing of Spot. A loyal and loving companion, Spot was a beloved member of the Bush family for nearly 15 years. She will be missed.” Nobody, simply nobody, could possibly take this as one of the usual insincere political statements.

Luckily, the Bush family is not left bereft of canine company. Barney, a black Scottish terrier, born in 2000, is still very much at the White House. Barney, unlike Spot, is not keen on helicopters and often has to be chased by the president and carried on board. He far prefers Air Force One. George W has nicknamed him ‘Caterpillar’, and his sleeping quarters are located in the First Bedroom.

One of the world’s most famous dogs, also a black Scottish terrier, was Fala – Murray of Falahill to give him his full name – who was inseparable from his master Franklin Delano Roosevelt and as much a celebrity and as well known as any other member of the president’s circle. Born in 1940, Fala became Roosevelt’s friend in a way no other pet had been. He accompanied him everywhere, he ate his meals in his master’s study, sat with him in the Oval Office, slept in a chair at the foot of his bed – and was a witness to much history, sitting in on negotiations, on discussions, on signings, and on occasions travelled abroad with Roosevelt.

On one trip, on the heavy cruiser Baltimore bound for Pearl Harbour in late 1944, Fala’s dignity and looks suffered as the ship’s crew snipped locks from his hair to send home as souvenirs. At home, he was a constant traveller by train, known to the Secret Service agents as ‘The Informer’ because, try as they might to keep the president’s trips secret, Fala, like any other dog, would insist on being taken for a walk when the train came to a stop. The sight of a closed train standing at a siding, heavily guarded by military sentries, as a Secret Service agent walked a little Scotty dog was a dead giveaway to any American of the 1940s.

One famous speech made by Roosevelt is known as the ‘Fala Speech’. It was delivered in September 1944 in Washington, at the newly-built Hotel Statler, to the Teamsters Union. His thrust was the Republican Party’s antipathy to the New Deal laws. He derided the Republicans for their labour policies and for their allegations against him and his government, and his words were aimed at Thomas E. Dewey’s presidential campaign. Halfway through the speech came this passage:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks and my family does not resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to, libelous statements about my dog.”

Fala had leapt in to the presidential limousine in January 1941, for Roosevelt’s third inaugural ride to the White House, only to be ousted. On April 12 1945, Fala sat at Eleanor Roosevelt’s feet in an open car as Roosevelt’s body was taken down the dusty clay roads of Warm Springs where he had died to the railway station where a train waited to take him back to Washington. Fala rode his master’s funeral train, and was at the burial service at Hyde Park where he barked furiously at the gun salute and parting volleys.

Fala went to live with Eleanor Roosevelt in Val-Kill. Eleanor records in her memoirs, ‘On My Own’, that he never really adjusted to the loss of her husband, though he was her constant and loving companion. “I was just someone to put up with until the master should return. I felt that Fala never really forgot. Whenever he heard the sirens he became alert and felt again that he was an important being, as he had felt when he was travelling with Franklin.” When General Eisenhower came to Hyde Park in 1945 to lay a wreath on Roosevelt’s grave, Fala heard the sirens of the motorcade and thought his master was returning. “His legs straightened out, and his ears pricked up. He was hoping to see his master coming down the drive.”

Fala died in 1952 and was buried in the rose garden, near Roosevelt’s grave. At the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, by the statue of FDR sits a bronze Fala, ears pricked, watchful eyes under shaggy eyebrows, for ever on guard at his master’s feet.

President Harry Truman, not known to have owned a dog while in the White House, once remarked, if you want a friend, get a dog. There have been many First Dogs of the US – Bill Clinton had Buddy, his chocolate Labrador, who, during the Lewinsky story, stood by when all other deserted him; Ronald Reagan had two companions, Lucky, a Bouvier des Flandres, and Rex, a King Charles Spaniel; Nixon had four, Vicky, a poodle, Pasha, a terrier, King Timahoe, an Irish setter, and Checkers, a spaniel; Lyndon Johnson had three, Yuki, a mongrel, and Him and Her, the beagles; Abraham Lincoln had Fido, a brown and yellow dog said to have been killed by a man in a drunken rage; and George Washington, father of them all, had eighteen hounds, amongst who were Drunkard, Vulcan and Sweetlips.

In this context, one may appreciate a quote from a February 23 editorial in The Times (London) written on the occasion of Spot’s death, empathizing with President Bush: “The loyalty, devotion and all-round lovableness of dogs – so unlike the backbiting, snapping and snarling of a harsh human environment dominated by statesmen and lawyers – make them the perfect companion for men at the lonely pinnacle of power.”

Source: Dawn February 29, 2004

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