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Welcome to the First Dogs!

By Julie Castle

There has been a lot of news about the new administration in Washington, D.C., and as animal lovers, we take great interest in the fact that dogs are back in the White House. But for Gregory and me, it goes a little deeper because the Bidens’ dogs, Champ and Major, have stories that are really similar to two of our dogs and, even deeper, their stories reflect the direction of the nation when it comes to pets.

Like the president, Gregory bought his first dog, a “champion” German shepherd named Judah, from a breeder. And, also like the president — whose second German shepherd, Major, came from an animal shelter — Gregory and I adopted a second shepherd, Shadow, from a shelter.

I don’t know who named Shadow, but the name is pretty much spot on. A plain black dog, he became extra nervous when people even looked at him in his kennel at the shelter. But, like so many dogs who try to pretend that they’re just a shadow in shelters, he blossomed at home with us and soon he was cavorting around with our other pets. We probably should’ve changed his name to Spotlight.

The Bidens’ dog Major also had a rough start. He was from a litter of puppies with medical issues, and their people didn’t think they could afford the care the puppies needed, so they relinquished them to the Delaware Humane Association. The Bidens visited the shelter and decided to foster Major. Of course, we know how a lot of those foster situations work out. Like Shadow, Major turned out to be a playful, exuberant pooch, and the Bidens fell in love and adopted him. I remember reading that President Biden hurt his foot chasing Major around his office and thinking, “Yeah, I can relate to that.”

Back when Gregory bought Judah, most dogs and cats were purchased from pet stores and breeders. That’s just what people did back then. The dogs and cats usually came with “breed certificates” that showed you their bloodline, which was a big thing. Also back then, as many as 20 million pets were dying in shelters each year for no reason other than they didn’t have a home. As of 2019, that number has been reduced to about 625,000 per year, and an “adoption certificate” has become the new symbol of pride.

Speaking of pride, Delaware (the home state of the Bidens and Major) has been celebrating a massive accomplishment for homeless dogs and cats: It’s the first state to reach no-kill status. That means at least 90% of the dogs and cats entering shelters in Delaware are saved. Plus, five other states are close behind, which is really amazing.

There’s still a ton of work to do, though, if we’re going to reach our goal of every shelter in every community in every state achieving no-kill by the end of 2025. And the Bidens’ dog Major actually represents two of the many areas we’re focusing on: animal-friendly housing and financial difficulties.

We don’t typically think of the presidential family as renters, but that’s what they are — they live in the White House under what’s basically a four-year lease. If they had been moving into a typical rental home, having two large dogs, or even one German shepherd, could’ve been a real obstacle. So many cities still have breed restrictions, and many landlords and insurance companies have restrictions on breed, size and number of pets. Also, remember that Major was relinquished to the shelter because of his family’s possible inability to pay medical costs. Housing and financial issues are the main reasons that people are forced to give up their pets, which is heartbreaking for the people and traumatic for their pets.

Through our continued push toward community-supported sheltering and the incredible work of our advocacy team, we are taking these challenges head-on. Among other things, we’re working toward bringing veterinary care and other resources to communities that need them, getting rid of breed-discriminatory laws, and dispelling myths that lead to unfair insurance and rental policies. By doing so, we’re not only working to get more pets adopted from shelters, we’re preventing them from entering shelters in the first place.

And, while we have a way to go, the bright spots are clearly eclipsing the dark ones. Even in the midst of a devastating pandemic, an unprecedented number of people took the life-affirming step of adopting or fostering a pet from a shelter. For people who have been spending more time at home, it has been a joy to have a new furry face around the house. But more than that, when you adopt or foster a pet, you’re saving a life, and that’s a huge part of the success of our movement. Plus, being kind, doing right by all living things, just feels good. All the better if the act of kindness results in purrs or tail wags.

And what better reflection of this than the fact that a dog from a shelter has made it all the way to the White House. It not only validates the work that Best Friends and many other organizations have been doing for so long, but millions of people are going to look at Major, a sweet, beautiful, loving dog, and think, “Maybe the right dog for me is waiting at a shelter.”

Of course, we know that’s true, but now this message is being amplified on the biggest stage in the world, and that can make a world of difference for countless other sweet, beautiful, loving dogs and cats.

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Julie Castle with dog
Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society