One day, Skipper was down and out in Howard County -- a scroungy, underfed, homeless hairball tethered to a tree.
The next, he was lord of a Columbia tract home: hand-fed microwaved breakfasts, surrounded by toys, vacationing at a ski condo and touting his own line of wrist watches.
Well, at least one watch. Donna Kennedy, his "mother," sports a custom-made watch with Skipper's photograph on its face. It is his Christmas photo.
"My husband says I'm on Skipper time," Mrs. Kennedy says with fierce maternal pride.
"Skipper time" is all the time. Like millions of American cats and dogs, Skipper, plucked from an uncertain future at the Howard County Animal Control pound, receives plenty of baby-talking, belly-scratching, head-patting and TLC.
Propelled by the $15 billion-plus pet industry, high-tech veterinary medicine and popular theory that suggests we are a society starved for companionship, animal adulation has never been so visible or vociferous.
The number of pet households has held steady in the 50 percent range for at least four decades, according to a variety of surveys. But in many of those homes, pets have evolved into full-fledged family members.
No longer do they roam the farm killing mice or merge imperceptibly with the furniture. Gallup Poll's first "pet census" in 1990 found that 88 percent of all pet owners consider their pet -- make that "companion animals," for the politically correct -- part of the nuclear family's core.
"We treat them as other people would treat their children. I think we treat them better," said Rick Kennedy of Skipper, a poodle and Lhasa apso blend, and the couple's cats.
Some attribute our increasing pet obsession to shrinking family size, a dearth of friends and fear of crime. "We have a society that is becoming very emotionally and physically isolated," said Maureen Fredrickson, executive director of the Delta Society, a group that studies and promotes the animal-human bond.
"People to me are not for real," said Mrs. Kennedy, who long ago decided with her husband of 22 years not to have children. "Animals have unconditional love and are not going to stab you in the back."
The basic necessities
For companion animals, food, shelter, water and medical care are scarcely adequate. Pets take the family surname, acquire human grandparents, receive Christmas presents and visit the local pet super-store to have their portrait taken in full Halloween regalia.
They are chauffeured to deluxe groomers like Preston Country Club for Pets in Columbia, where a bath with the works can run $65 and boarding pooches may be paired in a buddy program during their stay. Here and there, day care is available, and ritzy ,, hotels in big cities welcome them with biscuits, walking services, sirloin birthday burgers and perhaps an on-call vet.
The old-fashioned pet and supply shop has been eclipsed by pet super-stores -- virtual Wal-Marts for pets -- that are springing up on every corner like imitation fire hydrants. Since Petstuff stores first opened nationally last autumn, with three in the Baltimore area, sales are running 27 percent over initial projections, said Carol Hixson, director of marketing for Atlanta-based Petstuff.
"When a pet is considered to be a family member, the sky's the limit. People don't notice what they spend," Ms. Hixson said. Women, especially, are willing to spend lavishly on their pets, she says.
The shelves at Petstuff's Towson location are stacked with indispensable items like "Frozen Reef Stroganoff" and "Ferret Fresh," a deodorizing spray/conditioner. Aisles are dedicated to a bewildering array of premium foods with names like Science Diet and ProPlan that cost from $25 to $37 for a 40-pound bag.
Pet parents hold hambone-scented chew toys for their animals to sniff while a squad of uniformed employees readies to scoop up after careless customers.
As they shop, Susan and Howard Sugarman take turns cradling 9-week-old Lucy (as in "I Love Lucy") like a newborn. Their shopping cart brims with essentials for their Golden Retriever fTC puppy: collar, leash, training pads for puppies, shampoo, rawhide chew toys, a brush, food. This is good practice for an infant, they say.
Nearby, Jim and Leslie Pegg push Nutmeg, a long-haired dachshund, in their shopping cart. Nutmeg has a bandanna for every season andsleeps in the bed of his pet parents, who have no children. Fresh from the groomer, Nutmeg has his picture taken at the store's photography booth. After a few false starts, he poses docilely on a throne of black velvet.
When it's time to visit the vet, doting pet owners have a multitude of options.
Owners of felines may select the Cat Hospital at Towson (CHAT for short), where parents, treated as carefully as their pets, read the "Chat Chatter" newsletter and there are no boorish, barking, slobbering dogs to offend a feline sensibility.
For those who prefer alternative remedies, Chinese herbs homeopathic medicine, acupuncture and other treatments in the growing field of holistic animal health care are available.
At pet hospitals, patients can receive CAT-scans ($500), magnetic resonance imaging ($750) and ultrasound ($150) prescribed by cardiologists, oncologists, ophthalmologists and neurologists. For convenience, some specialists make house calls in mobile units.
The technology to apply human diagnostic and surgical procedures to animal care has long existed, said Dr. Joan Hendricks of the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "The limit has always been what people wish us to do."
Dr. Hendricks remembers a dog that suffered complications after swallowing a toothpick and stayed in the hospital for a month to the tune of $8,000.
Clients routinely sacrifice their own health care to afford treatments such as monthly chemotherapy for their pets, said Dr. Bill W. Benson, director of the Reisterstown 24-Hour Veterinary Complex.
With pricey veterinary know- how, life and death choices aretougher. Dr. Benson sees scores of animals put to sleep by distraught clients who cannot afford to pursue additional medical attention.
For owners who consider their pets as part of the family, "the care they require is the same they would want for themselves or their own children," said Dr. Allan Frank of the Hunt Valley Animal Hospital. "Some of my clients tell me they'll bring their pets in before they would take their kids to the pediatrician."
A child stand-in
For a creature that is a pack animal at heart, the life of a child substitute can be a cross to bear.
Sixty percent of Dr. Benson's patients are overweight, for example. Too many Big Macs can lead to arthritis, heart disease and other typically human maladies, he said.
And woe to the canine that acts out.
"People can get too wound up on putting human emotions on what the dog is doing," said Debbi Hutchinson, owner of Kinder-Pup, a Pasadena obedience school. "It reminds me of my mother -- the guilt trip thing: 'You did this just to get back at me.' People do that with their dogs: 'He poo-pooed on the floor because he was mad at me.' "
For their part, pet parents argue, cats and dogs do have a human streak. The Gallup poll found that 82 percent of pet owners believe their pets can intuit their moods.
Leann Seehusen agrees. Last December, she was robbed at gunpoint near a bank machine. One of her three dogs, a greyhound named Becca, was in the car and saw the holdup. "She was so upset she was beside herself," Ms. Seehusen said.
And if her dog had been threat
ened during the holdup, "I would have killed [the criminal]. . . . It wouldn't have occurred to me to ever think about it. These guys are a part of my family," Ms. Seehusen said.
Like other pet fanatics, Ms. Seehusen admits she goes beyond the call of duty when tending her menagerie, which includes four cockatiels. She tosses birthday parties for the dogs, and last year, Becca, dressed in a fake fur stole, lace cape and tiara, took first place in a pet costume contest.
But even Ms. Seehusen thinks she might have have gone too far. She barely stopped a friend from serving her greyhounds a carrot stick dipped in a mound of dog food, arranged on a bed of lettuce and placed on her best china.
A short happy life
With so much love and money invested in animals, it is hard to accept that their life span is so short. And those who have lost beloved pets grieve the same as if a parent, child or friend had died.
"I'm still working through the pain of it," said Richard Faircloth, who lost Robby, a West Highland Terrier, last fall. Attending a bereavement group for pets sponsored by the Annapolis ASPCA has helped greatly. And this spring, Mr. Faircloth, 46, will take the urn that holds Robby's ashes and bury it by his pet's favorite tree at his Blue Ridge country home.
"The intensity between a pet and an owner is almost greater than some [human] relationships," Mr. Faircloth said. "You can be gone five minutes, five hours, five days, and you still get the same welcome. There's no fighting or anything. It's unconditional love."