Ellen's Pooch Problem — and Ours

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Ellen DeGeneres sobs on her talk show on October 16, 2007.

From her sobbing, you'd have thought state child welfare agents had just removed adopted children from Ellen DeGeneres's home. But the buckets of tears the celebrity comic shed on her syndicated television talk show on Tuesday were for her dog — a Brussels Griffon terrier that a pet adoption agency had just repossessed because DeGeneres broke the agency contract and gave the canine, Iggy, to another family. (If you're interested, she gave Iggy to that other family because the dog and her cats didn't get along). "I'm sorry I did the wrong thing," DeGeneres pleaded. "Just give [the dog] back to the family. Please, please, please."

My sentiments exactly. Please. Both sides in this dopey doggy dispute need to get a little perspective, and so do the rest of us. Since DeGeneres's tele-meltdown, the story has become cable news fodder and the adoption agency owners say they've received death threats. But they're standing firm, despite the fact that they've broken the heart of the family's daughter, who looks like the kind of kid any pooch would love to greet every day at the school bus stop. It's not as if DeGeneres gave the dog to Michael Vick.

My family is familiar with all this, as are the growing number of U.S. households "adopting" animals these days. The agencies tend to be cheaper than retail pet shops, and the families tend to feel they're doing a good deed by taking in a dog or cat that may have been abandoned or abused. A few years ago we turned to a "Schnauzer rescue" agency because, after our first miniature Schnauzer died of old age, we decided we liked the breed but were having trouble finding an affordable buy from stores or specialist breeders.

But we weren't prepared for the overweening bureaucratic scrutiny the agency subjected us to. There were long, psychological exam–style questionnaires to fill out, strict contractual pledges to sign — and interrogations of the neighbors, whose names we had to submit as character references. When the agency finally delivered the dog — I'm withholding its name because it's still a minor, at least in human years — the agents insisted on staying for much of the afternoon to make sure we weren't going to make it mow the lawn or clean the bathrooms.

To be sure, I appreciated the agency's concern for these animals — it was without a doubt reassuring to know that the dog we were getting had come to us via an ASPCA culture instead of a cramped metal cage at Mutts R Us. And I'm a genuine dog lover: I cried at the end of Old Yeller just like everyone else. Our dog is one of Miami's most coddled canines. (He's on my lap right now as I write this because a loud thunderstorm is spooking him.) But there was also something a bit over the top about the process — something that ultimately made me want to shout, "This is a dog, for God's sake, not the next Dalai Lama!"

And that's exactly what I feel like telling DeGeneres and her dog adoption agency this week. I report on Florida and Latin America. The former has one of the worst child welfare agencies in the nation; the latter is a region where most kids wish they lived as well as Brussels Griffon terriers do in this country. So yes, it concerns me when I realize that we handle the adoption of animals with more care and love than we manage the placement of abused children in foster homes; or that people like Leona Helmsley leave millions to pets in their wills; or that a custody battle over a dog elicits more cathartic emotion than the scores of children who have been dying of malnutrition recently in Panama.

DeGeneres's outburst was, frankly, the kind of thing you expect her to satirize, not indulge in. And today she told her TV audience that the controversy had "gotten out of hand" and said she would drop the subject. As for the pet adoption agency, a Texas woman responding online to a Times of London article on this story (DeGeneres' show is syndicated internationally) got it just right. "Having done animal adoption for over 30 years," Margo Dover of Austin wrote, "I would have said that a compromise was in order. Mutts & Moms [the agency] should have gone and met with the [family DeGeneres had given her dog to], seen if the situation was appropriate and, if it was, collected another adoption fee from the new family. There should always be room to move off a position if it is in the best interest of the pet, [because] it is hard enough to find good adoptive homes that even one that comes along incorrectly should be considered."

I can only hope that pet owners and pet adoption agencies will, in the future, consider Ms. Dover's common sense. Please, please, please.