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If Bo is oblivious to politics, he's the only one

As the new first puppy romps on the White House lawns, controversy swirls about the Obamas' choice of a purebred over a rescue dog.

April 15, 2009|Rebecca Cole

WASHINGTON — In Washington, everything is political -- even the choice of a family dog.

As President Obama and his family officially introduced the new first puppy at the White House on Tuesday, critics inside the Beltway were panting that Obama had broken his promise to find a rescue pet.

"Welcome to your life," Michelle Obama told Bo, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog.

The first lady, the president and daughters Sasha and Malia walked the dog along the South Lawn. As cameras clicked and reporters scrambled for a view of the white-pawed specimen, Bo took it all in stride, wagging his pouf of a tail and tugging at his leash.

"He's a star," the president said. "He's got star quality."

The adoption of a family dog would seem to be the height of simplicity. After all, 40 million American households own at least one dog.

But nothing is simple in Washington.

In promising his daughters that the family would get a dog once his campaign was over, Obama had thrown a bone to animal lovers. Then, he made yet new friends when he and his wife repeatedly said they would seek a rescue dog.

But now tongues were wagging that Obama, in picking a pricey purebred pup over a rescue dog, had once again given people one idea then taken another tack. Earlier, the family had shown interest in public schooling for the girls, then enrolled them in the private Sidwell Friends School.

Last summer, Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization, launched www.obamafamilydog.com, gathering 50,000 names asking the Obamas to adopt a dog from a shelter.

John Polis, public relations manager for the group, is disappointed in the president's choice of a purebred. "We're always happy when a dog gets a new home," Polis said. "But we feel that, overall, it was an opportunity missed by the president to adopt from a shelter or a breed rescue organization and make a statement for the 4 million to 5 million animals euthanized every year."

Obama had said, during his first news conference as president-elect, on Nov. 7, that he'd be looking for "a mutt -- like me."

"We were real happy about that," Polis said, "but it turned out not to be the case."

Obama's defenders argue that, technically, Bo is a rescue dog, having been given up by his first owner and returned to the breeder, who also bred one of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Portuguese water dogs, Cappy, a littermate of Bo. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, who have three of the dogs, gave Bo to the Obamas.

The White House is Bo's fourth home. Registered with the American Kennel Club as "Amigo's New Hope," he was born at Amigo Portuguese Water Dogs in Texas, moved to Washington with his first owner and then lived for a month with Kennedy's dog trainer in Virginia before settling at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

On the Humane Society's website, society President Wayne Pacelle offers Bo a warm welcome as a "second-chance dog," but encourages people to visit "their local animal shelter or breed rescue group."

There was no political spin in the first dog's first public turn around the South Lawn, though. "I've finally got a friend," Obama said.

The first lady appeared comfortable walking the energetic Bo, holding firmly on the leash as he scampered and sniffed at the damp grass.

The one time the president took the leash, however, the pooch took off on a sprint.

Luckily, Bo was headed away from the White House's new vegetable garden.

"Apparently Portuguese water dogs like tomatoes," Obama joked. "Michelle's tomato garden is in danger."

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rcole@tribune.com

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