Planes, trains and blind poodles
WASHINGTON — You might say I have a dog in this fight.
He’s tiny. He’s blind. His bark is decidedly unmanly and his bites, usually in defense against things that can’t be seen, are forgivably innocuous.
I am his seeing-eye human.
I adopted Ollie from a kill shelter four years ago via friends who visit the shelter weekly and grab whatever is adoptable. Steve and Squeaky Wangensteen are shrewd and devilish people. Their strategy: They invite you to dinner, wine and dine you, and then, while your defenses are down, say, “Oh, look, he loves you so much. Don’t you want to take him home?”
Which is to say, I was overserved — and went home with a blind poodle.
The Very Fortunate Ollie — named for Olive Street — thus came to join a neighborly menagerie that then included a three-legged cat, Zoe, a gentle mutt named Jake, the pedigreed Miss Maggie next door and yet another Ollie further down, who is often mistaken for Bo Obama.
My Ollie had not been mistreated, but his care had been minimal. He was already 7 and was, as his vet puts it, “genetically challenged.” (We don’t tell Ollie.) His previous family, who dropped him off at the shelter saying they were tired of him, had bought him from a pet shop knowing he was blind. They did teach him the word “no,” which stops him in his tracks and for which I am grateful.
Ollie is higher-than-usual maintenance, true enough, but his blindness is part of his charm. He is fearless precisely because he knows I won’t let him hurt himself. Like a child confident of his mother’s proximity, he knows I’m right there.
Except, alas, those times when work takes me away, usually from D.C. to New York via the train, which doesn’t allow canine travelers. Not even a 6.5-pound blind toy poodle. Instead, I hire a sitter, which is expensive and an absurdly unnecessary burden.
For reasons that remain mysterious, Amtrak allows only service dogs. This, despite the fact that domestic pets are more than welcome on airplanes for a fee. If small enough, they can be tucked under a seat. Yet Amtrak, with trains naturally noisy and not exactly luxurious, is utterly snooty when it comes to pets.
I once spotted a woman with a cuddly canine next to her in the Amtrak “Quiet Car” and asked her secret. Proudly, she whipped out a letter from her psychiatrist. Well, that’s one way.
The rest of us are out of luck, but perhaps not for long. With gentleness of heart — and more sanity than we’ve come to expect from Washington — a bipartisan measure could open the way for pet lovers to travel by rail with their canine and feline companions.
Four House members have proposed the Pets on Trains Act of 2013 to allow people to travel with their domestic pets. The act would require that Amtrak devote at least one car for kenneled pets for passengers traveling less than 750 miles.
The bill’s sponsors have focused primarily on the family and humane concerns, earning the support of the Humane Society of the United States.
“My dog, Lily, is part of our family and travels with us to and from California all the time,” says Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a co-sponsor. “If I can take her on a plane, why can’t I travel with her on Amtrak, too?”
But there’s also an economic benefit. Dogs and cats wouldn’t get a free ride. They’d need tickets, too. Who knows? Perhaps Amtrak could use the extra cash to hire restroom custodians. No self-respecting dog or cat would enter these foul places as they are customarily maintained.
But more to the point, disallowing well-behaved pets in carriers to travel by train makes little sense. We’re not talking about boarding goats and chickens, though I’d take a goat to some of the cellphone yackers who seem to find themselves so fascinating. Compared to many travelers whose company is far less appealing than a dog’s, Ollie is hardly visible and rarely makes a peep. Any dog or cat causing a ruckus can be forbidden from future travel.
This important measure is long overdue. It’s sensible, pro-family, humane, smart business and no one’s bother. Finally, a bipartisan measure that offers an opportunity for humans to be the kind of people our dogs think we are.