First of all, let me say that I am not one of those who thinks animals are more important than people. It just turns out that I like almost every animal I meet. Especially horses. Inevitably dogs.
The SPCA, the animal shelter, the pound, is a dangerous place for me to be. When I walk down that aisle between the cages of dogs available for adoption, I want to save them all. Except for the big, mean-looking ones. Then, I want someone else to save them.
But I do want them to be saved.
Pippin comes to the chain-link fence to look me over. Somehow, he can tell I am not a serious customer, and he retires to his corner.
Tan and white, he's an improbable mix of boxer and terrier. Distinctive, you might say. A sign on his chain-link cage says he's housebroken and ''good with people.'' He was given up, a note says, because he ''needed a better home.''
Often, the reason cited for bringing animals to the Colerain Avenue shelter in Northside is that the owners are moving and pets aren't allowed at their new place. One note says, ''wife no longer wants to care for dog.'' So, what's wrong with you, buddy? Maybe it's your turn.
Most of the notes say simply, ''stray.''
My tour guide is Harold Dates, who stops to pet the dogs and the cats as we pass. He can't help himself. He likes them. And he wants them saved, too.
He is my hero.
Mr. Dates, who has a degree in sociology from the University of Cincinnati, wisely decided that animals were more interesting than people and went to work for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 21 years ago.
In 1986, he became general manager. At the time, there was no spay/neuter clinic and no veterinarian on staff. Besides fixing both those things, he organized a network of local vets who are available to the SPCA for emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In 1975, the SPCA here ''dealt with'' more than 36,000 animals. In 1995, that number was down to 21,000. Lots of adoptions, some lost pets reclaimed, some destroyed. Fewer every year. The spay/neuter clinic, Mr. Dates says, substantially reduces the number of strays.
Nationally, Mr. Dates is known as the organizer of disaster relief for animals, especially during floods.
I am not saying he's perfect. For all I know, he eats ice cream directly from the carton. But, from everything I can see and hear, this is a very good guy to have on your side. He's not just nice, he's nice and effective.
Prescription: one dog
Three years ago, he started the equivalent of a soup kitchen for dogs and cats. ''A lot of people were bringing in pets and saying they couldn't afford to feed them.''
His golden retriever, Sol, is a therapy dog who visits the sick, so Mr. Dates has seen firsthand that pets can be just what the doctor ordered.
And maybe if you don't have very much, a good dog is exactly what you need. A dog thinks you're a huge success even if your boss doesn't. And he'll give you a warm welcome if you live alone, plus plenty of reasons to get fresh air and exercise.
For that reason, Mr. Dates has arranged for people 60 or older to get a free cat or dog and free instructions. He started the Senior Adopt Class in 1987. They meet at 10 a.m. every Thursday in the auditorium at the SPCA. If you ask me, by now, their pets are as trained as they're ever going to be. It's just an excuse to get together and check up on each other.
Harold Dates doesn't care.
Like Pippin, he's kind of an improbable mix. He's part smart administrator, part softie. A formidable fund-raiser, he just can't wait to give it away. Distinctive, you might say. ''Good with people,'' too.
His business is saving creatures. Unconditional love, I believe they call it. In other words, Harold Dates doesn't count feet before he decides whether to help.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.