Is Mitt in doghouse over mutt mishap?

Some locals vexed by 1983 incident – and lingering coverage of it

Monique McAlister pets her dog, Izzy, while talking about the Romney family trip, when the presidential hopeful strapped his dog, Seamus, to the top of the car in a dog carrier. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Monique McAlister pets her dog, Izzy, while talking about the Romney family trip, when the presidential hopeful strapped his dog, Seamus, to the top of the car in a dog carrier.

In the summer of 1983, Mitt Romney loaded up the family station wagon for a 12-hour drive to Canada, placing Seamus, the family’s hefty Irish Setter, in a dog carrier strapped to the roof. Romney had constructed a windshield for the dog carrier, hoping to make Seamus’s journey more comfortable. Yet, hours later, Romney was forced to pull over, as Seamus’s diarrhea began dripping down the rear windshield.

Though it happened more than a quarter of a century ago, today, this anecdote is the foremost gag in national news: regular fodder for comedians David Letterman and Stephen Colbert, the subject of the New Yorker’s March 12 cover; and a Facebook group “Dogs Against Romney” with 42,000 fans. Since 2007, New York Times columnist Gail Collins has invoked the incident – with puckish glee – more than 50 times and both President Barack Obama and Rick Santorum have used it to malign Romney’s character as weird and without compassion.

The tale has palpably hurt Romney with Durangoans – who, when it comes to loving dogs, are perhaps second only to the canine-worshipping Hindus of Nepal.

Walking Izzy, a 4-year-old English bulldog in Rotary Park, Monique McAlister said customers at her nail salon “keep telling me about it. He’s a monster. I’m not real big on politics, but the way somebody treats their animal affects my opinion of them.”

Lou Galinson, owner of Pet Haus, said, “We’ve never had anybody come in and say, ‘I need to put my dog on the top of my car, like a kayak.’ That just sounds like animal cruelty.”

Galinson said the proper way to transport a dog would be inside the vehicle, ideally secured by a seat belt.

Dr. Brian Marshall of Bridge Veterinary Clinic said, “My concern is that if he got in a car wreck, that dog is curtains.”

Though Dr. Stacee Santi, of Riverview Animal Hospital, said she did not have enough information to diagnose Seamus, she said his diarrhea might suggest anxiety.

“It’s got to be terrifying traveling at that high speed – 65 mph – with the wind and the motion.”

Jon Patta, director of La Plata County Animal Control, said it’s illegal to drive a vehicle with a dog atop in Colorado.

In a national poll of 900 registered voters released by Public Policy Polling this week, 68 percent said it was generally inhumane to put the family dog on the top of a car for a long trip. Fourteen percent said it was humane and 18 percent weren’t sure.

Chris Nelson, director of the La Plata County Humane Society, noted that Romney is “running for president, not chief dogcatcher, right? But I’d never transport my dog that way.”

Despite multiple attempts, Velbeth Jones, chairwoman of La Plata County Republicans, could not be reached for comment. A man who picked up when her home phone number was dialed, and took a message describing this article, asked, “Why does this matter?”

The Romney campaign is sensitive about the episode, at one point insisting Seamus’ carrier was “airtight,” which Fort Lewis College engineering professor Ryan Haaland explained was impossible.

“Or the dog wouldn’t have been able to breathe,” Haaland said.

On hearing the parable of Romney and Seamus, Gordon Greve, who is active in the La Plata County GOP, said, “Why would you put a dog on the roof of a car? Then again, when you drive around, they’ve got their heads out the window all the time.”

Greve said fellow Republicans did not discuss the incident when they recently caucused.

Sydny Zink, a Republican, said the attention paid to this event was both “entertaining and frustrating.

“We talk about strapping the dog to the top of the car because we don’t want to tackle the difficult issues like the economy. I think it’s sad,” said Zink.

Zink said that within the news media, the story had been unfairly spun.

“You could frame it differently. As not a huge dog person myself, I think they went out of their way to keep the dog part of the family,” Zink said.

In an email, Denise Bohemier, chairwoman of La Plata County Democrats was incredulous that the Seamus’ erstwhile woes had taken on such outsize importance in public debate.

“Seriously?” wrote Bohemier, “there are more substantial issues to worry about.”

Colorado Democratic Party’s communications director Matt Inzeo sympathized.

“Will certain elements of a person’s background be caricatured in a presidential race? Sure, but that’s an occupational hazard – just ask our guy,” said Inzeo, referring to an incident in which Obama confessed his partiality for arugula, which critics used to paint him as an elitist in possession of a rarified palette.

Even some diehard dog lovers say the tale has neglible importance.

Jessica Reed, petting her dogs Rohan and Stout in Buckley Park, said, “As much as I love my dogs, I definitely feel more strongly about judging Romney’s political stances, for instance, his position on Planned Parenthood.”

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