The Baha Men once asked, “Who let the dogs out?” A new bill in Congress asks, “Shouldn’t we let the dogs in?”
Audra Elam, a 27-year-old from Illinois, was volunteering with the Peace Corps to teach English to children in the African nation of Togo. Her terrier mix Socrates lived with her over there, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, she had to leave the dog behind at first when abruptly leaving the country, intending to ship him back to the U.S. soon after.
Elam arranged for Socrates to receive the mandated rabies vaccination in Africa before a company shipped him back to the U.S. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refused to allow the dog into the country, citing inaccuracies with the rabies documentation, even though Socrates also received a second vaccination at Kennedy International Airport.
After viral public attention and a call from a D.C.-based lawyer, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reversed itself in a pun-filled statement, writing that “The Trump Administration has once again showed a dogged determination to pursue deregulation and unleash some common sense.”
What the bill does
The PUPS (Permanently Uniting Pets Stateside) Act would require that pets be allowed to enter the U.S. alongside a U.S. citizen or resident returning from overseas during a declared public health emergency.
The CDC or Department of Agriculture would have to let the pet into the U.S., even if the pet hasn’t passed all the official health and safety requirements, so long as the owner “agrees to comply with those requirements as soon as practicable after entering the United States.”
It was introduced in the Senate on September 16 as bill number S. 4597, by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the bond between a person and their animal shouldn’t be broken by government bureaucracy, particularly during a year like this when the world is in such a state of confusion and turmoil.
“Earlier this summer, Socrates reminded everyone that pets must be allowed to come home with their owners whenever possible. The PUPS Act will help keep pets and people safe and together during public health emergencies,” Sen. Kennedy said in a press release. “I hope my compassionate colleagues move this bill forward before bureaucracy tears any more dogs or cats away from their owners.”
Sen. Kennedy’s press release also noted that he owns two dogs named Jack and Charlie. Here’s a picture of Jack.
What opponents say
While GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statement of opposition, there are at least two possible concerns: one related to public health, the other related to legal technicalities.
Rabies is extremely dangerous — and, once it takes hold in humans, fatal. Getting lax about one infectious disease just because the country in the midst of another may not be the best logic. The incubation period, or the time between initial exposure and the onset of symptoms, can potentially be a gap of months for rabies, compared to only two to 14 days for COVID-19.
A possible legal concern is the frequency with which public health emergencies are officially declared. The most recent one declared by the federal government was an October 2020 renewal of the determination that the opioid epidemic constitutes a national public health emergency. The determination was first temporarily declared in 2017 and has been renewed every few months since. It’s unclear when, if ever, the declaration will be formally discontinued.
While it’s certainly a very serious problem, it’s not a contagious health problem in the same way as COVID-19. So while this bill is intended to apply only during situations as dire as the current pandemic, in practice would it apply 24/7/365, in a broader way than the lead sponsors may have envisioned?
Odds of passage
In addition to its Republican lead sponsor, the bill has attracted one cosponsor from across the aisle: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Finance Committee.