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Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

Owners pamper pets with lavish gifts

December 29, 2002

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You want to pamper her, so you reserve the five-star penthouse suite, replete with expansive views, 24-hour attendants and tasteful decor accented with original artwork.

You schedule time for her to soak in the gentle blue froth of a 90-degree hydrotherapy pool or perhaps engage in a vigorous workout in the state-of-the-art exercise room, followed by a massage and an hour or so in the beauty salon.

You think nothing of spending as much as $230 a day -- not for your bride but for the family dog.

Luxury such as this awaits far more than 100 dogs -- and not quite as many cats -- at the Olde Towne Pet Resort, a two-story, $7 million Xanadu for the fur set that opened last month in Fairfax County, Va.

Billed as a day spa and hotel for pets, the facility was fully booked for Christmas. Similar deluxe pet hotels have popped up across the country in New York, Miami and, of course, Hollywood. Britain expects its first swanky pet hotel next year, in Yorkshire.

The Olde Towne Pet Resort's owners already are shopping in Montgomery County, Md., for a place to open another facility.

"Oh, my God! It's just staggering!" said Merrie Morris, who boarded Molly, her "schnoodle" (half schnauzer, half poodle), for a weekend in the top-flight rooms. "I mean it looks like an elementary school or something!"

Worth the cost

Morris, 44, who lives in Alexandria and works for the city, said the resort is expensive. But, then, she and her husband have no children and no other creature except a deaf cat to pamper. So they splurged.

"And this is something I see in my circle of friends," she said. "When I was growing up, a dog was just an add-on to the family, but it really wasn't like a person. But now, with many people, dogs have become much more like a member of the family. Just like you want to send your kid to a good private school or whatever, you want to send them to a good place."

To pet fanciers, the Olde Towne Pet Resort is another sign of progress toward viewing animals as equals, as measured by the most indisputable standard of status: money. But to others, the new resort -- arriving at a time when humans struggle to find affordable housing -- symbolizes sheer decadence.

"I think what it suggests is that people ... are lacking some priority of values," said Fred Guy, who teaches at the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore.

"Basically, it's showing off, just like a guy with a new BMW," he said.

Like family

Steven Wise, an animal rights specialist and author, said he sees nothing wrong with looking after animals' care.

"There are many people for whom their companion animals are the most significant relationship in their lives," he said. "Should people be spending all that money on Fido when there are people starving? The answer is: If they don't, people are still going to starve."

Recent surveys of pet owners offer a snapshot of the trend to humanize one's pet: 55 percent call themselves "mom" or "dad." Eleven percent say they feel closest to their pets while exchanging kisses; 5 percent talk baby talk to their animal friend. Nearly one in five carries a pet's picture in the wallet.

More than half of all dog owners bought the canine a Christmas present, one in five will buy a toothbrush, and about 8 percent might buy a casket for their dog when it dies.

"Even in this depressed economy, the veterinary industry and the pet industry is holding its own," said Jeff Werber, a California veterinarian and former host of "Petcetera" on the Animal Planetchannel. "Why? Because pets are kids."

Warmth and understanding

With agrarian life and up-close contact with animals a distant memory for most, animals have become more exotic. As the nation grows ever more urban and faceless, people turn to pets for warmth and understanding. At the same time, pets can enhance community life, Werber said.

"Certainly, in the bigger cities, we've sort of lost our trust in people. And one thing I think an animal does, it truly breaks down that barrier," Werber said, pointing to how many times strangers approach a person with a dog and strike up a conversation.

Or, picture Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, a client of Werber's, sweating because one of his shoe-size Pomeranians seems to have a limp, Werber said. In sum: We love them because they love us. Unconditionally.

"I can leave my house for 30 seconds to go take my garbage out to the curb, and I can come back and my Labrador will greet me as if he hasn't seen me in a month. I only wish my kids would get half that excited after not seeing me for a month," Werber said.

Peter Singer, an Australian often viewed as the father of the animal rights movement, cautioned that pet excess is not necessarily proof that people have deepened their regard for animals, except superficially.

"If people are still sticking a knife or a fork into a pig or calf while they spend thousands of dollars on medical care for their dog," he wrote in an e-mail interview, "it doesn't do much for animal rights, nor for an ethic of equal consideration for all."

Even Werber said some people go a little overboard, sometimes sparing no expense on cancer treatments despite little or no hope.

"In other words, it's only going to buy you an extra three months," he said. "They don't bat an eye."

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