2011-08-17 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Owney’s profile is on a Forever stamp. The tribute is only fitting. Such a deserving dog has been dead for 114 years. This Terrier type was both a mascot and martyr for the US Postal Service. For years, he accompanied mail by rail and ship. Folks he met along the way added over 100 souvenir tags to his harness. Then in 1897, when a policeman shot and killed Owney under suspicious circumstances, mail clerks raised funds to have his body preserved for postal posterity.

Recently Owney- his taxidermy incarnation, that isgot an extreme make-over at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. His refurbishing coincides with his stamp issued this summer, and with an upcoming contest, searching for a living Owney body double. Maybe your dog has “the Owney attitude” the Smithsonian so desires. Top prize is an iPad2, and the winning photos will be displayed in Washington DC right beside the real Owney. More about the contest a bit later.

Owney, the postal dog. Owney, the postal dog. Owney lore begins two different ways. One version says that in 1888 workers at the Albany post office found a stray pup asleep on their mailbags. They felt he was attracted to the scent, texture or warmth of the sacks. The other story is that the scruffy Terrier was owned by an Albany postal clerk who moved away and left him in the care of the railway mail handlers there.

Either way, Owney loved to travel with the mail. At first Owney rode atop the mail sacks pulled by horse-drawn wagons. Following the mail to the Albany station one day, Owney jumped aboard a train. Once he found his calling as a hobo, the dog was allowed to accompany the mail by rail throughout the US. A return address tag on his collar read: “Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York”. Eventually the traveling Terrier logged 140,000 miles on the railroad. He made lots of friends in his travels. Many would clip tags and tokens to his collar. In Mexico, someone added a Mexican coin to his collection. By 1894, the collar got too heavy, so the Postmaster General presented Owney with a harness-style jacket to display his “trophies”. There are 123 tags, as counted recently by the preservationist at the Smithsonian.

Owney Stamp Owney Stamp Travel by rail was dangerous in the 19th century. There were lots of wrecks, yet for some unexplained reason, no train crashed with Owney aboard. He soon got the reputation of guardian angel to the US Mail. During his heyday, Owney became the star of scores of newspaper articles, some claiming he protected fallen mailbags from thieves. He could be a tenacious Terrier when he had to be.

Owney looks like a Border Terrier mix to me, but the Brooklyn Eagle described him more eloquently in 1902 when the stuffed Owney went on display in DC, by stating: “Owney was a cross between an Irish and Scottish terrier, and of the dull gray in color secured by the combination of the seven prismatic rays of the sun.” (I find it particularly intriguing that Owney was a contemporary of the Westminster Kennel Club Pointers I am trying to chronicle in Babylon. Owney was adopted by the post office one year after Sensation was buried near Southards Pond.)

In 1895, at age 15, Owney left Tacoma by steamer for a good will ambassador voyage around the world. Supposedly he acted badly in the presence of the Mikado, interpreted by some as symbolic of US/Japanese relations. Can’t really blame him; I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan either. His behavior didn’t seem to matter much because the Mikado still gave Owney a passport with the seal of the Emperor.

However, the tramp mail dog had his foes. Perhaps some were jealous of his fame; some like the Chicago mail superintendent banned free rides for the celebrity canine. Tired of the pooch’s publicity, when quoted in the 4/7/1897 NY Times, he insisted: “He is only a mongrel cur which has been petted until the thing has become disgusting”. These cruel remarks foreshadowed

Owney’s murder a few months later.

Early in 1897, Owney retired. By then he was blind in one eye, reportedly from an accident with a hot cinder during one of his rail trips. He returned to stay at the Albany Post Office. Old age and being confined indoors made him a bit ornery. In June, he stowed away on a train bound for Toledo where the fatal “incident” occurred. The same 1902 account in the Brooklyn Eagle says that a Toledo clerk wanted his photo with Owney so he chained him. Owney bit him, and the clerk summoned a marshal who shot the dog. Alas, no one ever claimed credit for the dirty deed.

In 1904 the “stuffed” Owney went on tour again. This time the Post Office displayed him at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. They issued a commemorative silver spoon for the occasion. Just before the Owney stamp was unveiled last month, the Smithsonian taxidermist fixed him up. Repair work replaced his eyes, patched some bald spots and resculpted his snout.

Owney has been immortalized in several children’s books. The Smithsonian and Post Office are also selling toy Owneys, and, of course, he has his own Face Book page where you can see the contest details. You need only to submit a photo and blurb about your Owney wannabe. When voting begins on September 16 ask your family and friends to vote your pooch to the top. Be forewarned, you have a tough competitor at Babylon Shelter. Read on:

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: You guessed it. There is a young Owney-type at the shelter. “Owney Jr.” #94318, a leggy Yorkie mix came in as a stray. It is yet to be determined whether he has an affinity for mail and rails. Despite looking as if she has had a very rough life, “Dusty” in C-7 is an extremely loving cat who is responding well to veterinary care at the shelter. She is FeLV/FIV negative. Her ears are bent from chronic infections, making her look like a faux Scottish Fold. This solid white lady has a blue and a light green eye.

Cats: “Princess Calico” #20859 in the lobby; “Twinkle” in the cat colony- Russian Blue mix; “Goya” in C-3- tuxedo kitten growing up at the shelter.

Dogs: “Leroy Chestnut” #94237; old Shepherd soul; “Mona Lisa” #93957- loves to run laps; “Sheba”- #94256- Husky mix; “Lola” Pit puppy in the puppy room.

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