THE EMOTIONAL bond between people and animals became a divisive issue when a snowball of sentiment hit in post-Katrina fury. The story of a boy who was forced to surrender his dog before boarding a bus out of New Orleans touched a raw nerve in Pet Nation. The child cried out repeatedly for his ''Snowball" and vomited in distress. Because the twosome had already endured epic misery at the Superdome, the final act seemed all the more tragic. CBS News footage showed evidence of this love among the ruins as a scruffy white dog on hind legs lunged at a sealed bus before being carted out of the picture by a police officer.
Animal activists seized on the scrap of haunting video, posted it on the Internet, and have hunted for Snowball ever since. Thousands of dollars in reward money has been raised in hope of the fairy tale reunion between boy and dog -- a Timmy and Lassie for our troubled age. The ragged reality is that Snowball is probably dead while the child has vanished into the diaspora.
Nonetheless, this shaggy dog story continues to resonate with political impact. The Snowball angle softened the official ''leave all pets behind" evacuation policy. Displaced people leaving New Orleans have been allowed to travel out with four-legged companions. Some of the evacuees who landed on Cape Cod arrived with their critters -- ''including several mutts, a Pomeranian, and a cocker spaniel," according to the Globe.
Post-Snowball, thousands of animals abandoned in the flood zone have been rescued, although few have been reunited with their original owners. Many orphans will be distributed to shelters all over the country. The website of the Humane Society of the United States features inspiring updates about rescues, media information, and prominent pleas for donations. Nothing like forlorn mugs of mutts and kitties to open hearts and wallets.
Anyone who cuddles a creature can relate. Yet, there are the others who think we're all loony PETA fanatics to put such emphasis on animals in times of crisis.
In the post-Katrina schisms of race and class, a backlash against pet people has also cracked open. Somehow, the message seems to be that foolish New Orleans survivors stayed behind to save their animals' hides instead of their own skins as the new pet evacuation policy values the lives of canines, felines, and pot-bellied pigs over humans. In a Sept. 12 Slate column, Timothy Noah smashes the Snowball legacy: ''Hmm. What is that little boy's name? Nobody seems to know. It's entirely consistent with the warped priorities of this sob story that in its telling, the human being's identity is judged less salient than the pooch's." Tell that to walkers in the park who know each other only by their dogs' names. I answer to ''Shorty."
Peeling away the emotional layer, rational pet owners who consider Fido family would concede that bipeds with free will get to ride in the lifeboat first. Many hurricane victims abandoned the care of their pets, hoping to be reunited later. People simply let their pets loose or tied them up with cans of food or bags of kibble in hopes rescuers would find them.
Each pet owner's sense of the relationship is different. Paris Hilton used her dog as arm candy. Then she tossed the Chihuahua because it had gotten too big. The expectations and realities of tending animals are as varied as the flawed owners who take on -- or shrug off -- the responsibility.
According to the latest statistics from the American Pet Products Manufacturer's Association, there are 73.9 million dogs in the United States and 90.5 million cats. Nearly 70 percent of households have animals under the roof. People spend $35.9 billion on their pets. Some feed holistic food; others buy whatever's on sale at Costco. Some dress dogs in designer clothes; others use a piece of rope as a collar. Some allow their pets to sleep on the bed and share the pillow; others chain the dog in the yard. The care and feeding of pets reflect individual human values.
For many, these inscrutable furry innocents have become child substitutes and best-friend proxies. We give them names and they shamelessly give back, unconditionally serving our emotional needs and demanding merely what we train them to ask for: an occasional scrap from the dinner plate, a romp off the leash, a place on the bus through hell and high water.
Monica Collins writes the syndicated column ''Ask Dog Lady."