To My Dear Dog I Leave...
Hotel heiress and grand dame notorious Leona Helmsley left a sizable chunk of her estate to a Maltese terrier named Trouble while disinheriting her grandchildren.
The lady’s will has sparked conversation and fodder for humor on late night television.
Yet Leona, widow of the deceased hotel magnate Henry Helmsley, is not the first to prefer the canine to the humankind when it comes to inheritance. Thirty-nine states now recognize so-called “Pet Trusts.”
Far less affluent individuals than Leona are known to provide stipulations in their will for what and how their beloved pet should be fed, housed and, when the time comes, where they should be laid to rest.
My own personal experience of dogs living the high life after their owners’ demise was during the 1970s in palatial Montecito, Calif. I spent an idyllic summer sequestered with the German actress Christina Kaufmann, Viva, a disenchanted Andy Warhol superstar, her then-husband filmmaker Michel Auder, Christina’s boyfriend, three children and my pug.
We all lived in the one-room servants quarters, which were just outside the wall to the great house. The Spanish style residence had been the home of the Dole Pineapple heiress, who left it to her dogs for as long as they lived.
Aging Pekineses and their caretaker roamed freely while a tall wall separated us from the main house, garden and pool. The caretaker seemed a little disinterested in the dogs’ upkeep as they waddled unkempt and largely ignored around the estate.
I know this because Michel and I often made sport of looking over the wall and once climbed over it. When the dogs died, they were enshrined in copper caskets in a mausoleum on the estate with pictures and plastic flowers commemorating their special place in the heart of their mistress.
I, too, must take my place amongst those that anthropomorphize their dogs and cat as members of the family. I pander to and pamper them, catering to individual whims. On a wall along with pictures of my daughter and mother are photos of my beloved animal friends, present and departed.
Certainly, I am not alone in my indulgence. Caring for pets has grown into mammoth industry. One can find a plethora of pet chiropractors, oncologists, eye specialists and behaviorists that make substantial incomes from animal care.
Elaborate grooming salons and expensive doggie day care centers have become haut rigueur for the well heeled. It is even possible to rent a dog for those too busy to provide requisite care.
I remember the cold winter sun was about to rise on the playground of PS29 in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. Clusters of adults stood talking backed against the tall chain link fencing. In the center of the playground and running with untold speed were their prides and joy.
Dogs of all sizes cavorted with each other, butting and running after balls that were sent randomly forward. An occasional fight broke out amongst newcomers or old friends over a toy and turf.
My little Jack Russell puppy, Pippi, had made a particular friend of a big lugubrious hairy mutt. Morning after morning, these two romped with one another.
The schoolyard doggie park was a place where friendships were born and was, for some, the highlight of the day.
Entrepreneurs soon entered the scene and morphed these early morning and late afternoon encounters into businesses, evolved over the past decades to include a wide range of dog walking and now doggie day care services, which are marketed much like those available to children.
Pet loving individuals working long hours, often gone nine or 10 hours a day, feel guilty leaving their pet along often crated. One way to assuage this guilt has been to find something for the pet to do during the day, hence doggie day care.
The philosophy is dogs can enjoy play dates and socialize with other canines while their guardians are at work.
The fee for such services can be lofty and, as with any form of child care, the quality varies. One wonders if dogs truly want to socialize with others and whether a concept designed for children could be equally beneficial for dogs.
Somehow, I cannot picture Leona Hemsley’s little Trouble enjoying cavorting with other canines unless it was on the red carpet.
Is it reasonable to assume dogs, as the new children, benefit from the same activities we provide for children?
Myrna Milani, a highly respected veterinarian and author of many books about animal behavior, is concerned with the trend providing dogs with activities that were designed for children.
”Do we realty want to encourage dogs to play by canine rules at a doggie day care at the same time we demand more of them in their intimate interactions with us?”
Furthermore, there are worries about throwing dogs into a sink-or-swim day care situation that may result in injury or even death. I have known of situations in which a dog’s hip was broken, was returned to its owner covered with bites and/or picked up various infestations.
Of course, this is not always the case, and surely many doggie day care centers are fastidious and well put together.
However, I think my smaller dogs would much rather lull on the couch than be involved in a rough and tumble game of fetch.
So there it is. For some, the new simulated child-world for dogs, with its games, naptime and structured sports, works. For others, all that frenetic socialization is not appealing.
On a recent walk, I began a conversation with a lovely red-haired woman of a certain age. She was pushing a stroller in which her tiny 8-year-old Pomeranian viewed the world. This little dog was a treasured companion, and as she turned and walked down the street, she spouted a familiar reframe, “Dogs are better than people.”
And, perhaps, therein, lies the rub. Do we want to change the role of companion they have filled so well so long?