This has been an emotional week. The death of a French bulldog puppy aboard a United Airlines flight has filled Americans with shocked sadness and mournful indignation. And I am no exception. As a dog owner and frequent flyer, I can readily imagine the grief that the deceased’s family is feeling right now.
For this reason, upon hearing the news, I immediately offered my thoughts and prayers over Twitter, and put a French-bulldog-themed frame over my Facebook photo. And as friends, family members, and internet acquaintances “liked” my social media contributions, I suddenly felt that this puppy might not have died in vain; that its tragic end might just help to unify our bitterly divided nation by reminding us that, in truth, there is no “red America” and “blue America” — no “cat people” and “dog people” — but only, the United States of American dogs and cats and people.
But then, of course, Republicans decided to politicize the tragedy. On Wednesday night, before the investigation into Kokito’s death had even been completed, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana decided that now was the time to push the far right’s anti-dogs-in-overhead-bins agenda.
In a written statement, Kennedy went so far as to suggest that Americans who oppose dog-storage control don’t actually care about their pets. “For many people, pets are a member of the family,” the senator wrote. “They should not be treated like insignificant cargo. Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold, much less an overhead bin.”
By now, such rhetoric from smug conservatives isn’t surprising — but it’s still shameful. I do not question the sincerity of Kennedy’s love for his canines, and I don’t see why he refuses to give that same benefit of the doubt to those on my side of the dog-storage debate.
What Kennedy and his fellow conservatives fail to understand is that, for many Americans, stowing dogs in overhead bins isn’t some abstract “issue” — it’s an identity, a culture, and a heritage.
I come from a humble, cosmopolitan community full of good, god-forsaking coastal elites. In liberal enclaves like mine, it is not uncommon for a family to own six or seven small, yappy dogs, and to take upwards of a dozen European vacations each year. Republicans think that my parents stowed our Yorkies in overhead bins because they did not see them as members of our family. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It was love of animals that prevented my father from keeping those pups in a kennel during our annual trips to Davos and Milan. And it was also love — of our peoples’ culture and traditions — that informed my family’s commitment to maximizing our legroom on intercontinental flights.
Put simply, the liberty to shove our dogs into the dark, airless compartments of passenger airliners made our way of life possible.
No one wants to see dogs die from suffocation. And it’s understandable that, in the wake of a tragedy like this one, people would look for ideologically comforting answers to that timeless scourge. But condescending to the cultural values of half of America will not make our nation’s pets any safer; especially since the connection between storing dogs in overhead bins and canine suffocation is tenuous, at best. Who’s to say that increasing the number of dogs stored in overhead compartments wouldn’t actually reduce the incidence of such fatalities, by conditioning those pets to get by on less air, thereby saving their lives, should they ever accidentally fall down a mineshaft into a poorly ventilated space? (Throughout my entire life, only four of my family’s Yorkshire terriers have died mid-flight, and in all of these cases, it was clear that the true cause of the tragedy was our nation’s failing canine mental-health system.)
What makes Kennedy’s comments so frustrating is that he understands the importance of treating public safety regulations with skepticism when his cultural traditions are threatened.
Shortly after a teenage psychopath in Parkland, Florida, massacred high-school students with an AR-15 rifle, Kennedy told CNN that America did not need a “single” new gun-control law. Rather, the senator argued that what we really need is “more idiot control.”
I agree wholeheartedly. But if Kennedy recognizes that there’s no reason to assume that America’s exceptionally high rate of gun ownership has anything to do with its exceptionally high rate of gun violence, how can he not see that the connection between stowing dogs in airless compartments and canine deaths is also uncertain?
And if he understands that red America’s time-honored tradition of buying military-grade assault weapons over the internet is too sacred to outlaw (even if it did somehow contribute to America’s 30,000 annual gun deaths), then why doesn’t he see that our nation’s 24 annual airline pet fatalities is an acceptable price for preserving my family’s liberty to stow our Yorkies in solitary confinement as we glide amongst the clouds?
Does the latter idea really make any less sense than the former?