As a 20-year-old copyboy at a large newspaper in 1977-1980, one of my unofficial jobs was ensuring the 70-something photo editor would not forget to put obituary photos back in the file to be given to the sender. A non-glamorous job for sure, but I found it was important in this sense: many relatives of the deceased only had one or two photos of their dearly departed.

I often saw photos from a marriage or WWII soldiers placed in that file with a strong “Please, please return this after using — it is the only photo we have of our dad, my husband, etc.” This sounds crazy now, in light of us having scores or hundreds of photos of our family on cell phones, computers, etc. But that was back then. A fairly new obituary issue is whether our pets should be on the obituary pages, just as our human dead are.

According to a New York Times (NYT) article on Sept. 25, 2018, by Melina Delkic, there have been notable exceptions, or near-exceptions, in which a deceased animal was featured in the paper. In 1931, The Times published an obituary for Igloo, the white fox terrier owned by Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd, who traveled with Byrd on his legendary explorations of Antarctica.

“Few men number among their friends the men of prominence whom Igloo came to know,” The NYT reported. “President Calvin Coolidge patted his head. President Herbert Hoover petted him. … Colonel Charles Lindbergh knew him well.”

Igloo, unlike most dead pets, was honored at a high level. (Igloo’s obituary, however, still ran two pages behind the rest of the obituaries and death notices section).

On NPR April 2012, Barbara King recalled accepting a request in 2007 to write a death notice for chimpanzee Washoe in the American Anthropological Association.

“Through her creative signing phrases in American Sign Language,” King said, “Washoe had helped shift people’s views of the intelligence and emotion of animals. So to me, the request made good sense.”

 There was precedent (for a newspaper obituary) to have a prominent pet’s obituary. When wild chimpanzee Flo, whose mothering skills were made by Jane Goodall (famous primatologist), died in 1972, Flo’s obituary appeared in The London Times. But a huge controversy arose when an Iowa newspaper printed its first animal publicity.

The black Labrador named Bear was popular with many residents; he frequently walked along and napped on the town’s streets. A bitter debate started in the town; especially offended was a woman whose sister-in-law’s obituary was printed on the same page as the town’s wandering black Lab.

“Why does a newspaper’s obituary incite such negative emotions when other customs that honor a pet’s death do not?” asked anthropologist Jane Desmond. “Answer: With physical or virtual pet cemeteries, or on-line memorial pages, people share their pet memorials with others of a similar mind. Newspaper obituaries, by contrast, are a highly visible matter of public record.”

The NYT has stopped publishing obituaries for animals, and only rarely covers animals that have died.

“Obituaries are summations of lives — of people,” said William McDonald, Obituaries editor. “You can’t give that kind of treatment to an animal, a dog or a horse. It would be a little incongruous to see an animal’s story on the obituary page right beside men and women who lived exemplary lives, accomplished things.”

Occasionally used for accomplished or famous animals, the paper sometimes runs news items or an “appraisal” — a more balanced obituary. It includes the first person or personal anecdotes from the writer. Other major newspapers have written appraisals.

“Appraisals” are likely to run in other sections: sports, for Triple-crown winning race horses, such a Secretariat; or national or international for pets of presidents, like Fala, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier.

Maybe a good solution would be a separate page for obits for humans and a second obits for pets. That has two problems: 1. Newspapers are losing editorial space. Some papers even cut back from five days a week to two or three. Many jobs have been eliminated, especially for the major newspapers (AJC, Birmingham News).

2. Another problem for separate pages for humans and the pets that went to their Heavenly Rest is formatting changes. Layout people would have to change the initial plans due to a delayed story, computer gaff, etc. Your dead uncle would be next to Fido, the dog in the paper. Your late aunt would be posed just inches from Princess, the cat. I predict arguments between distraught pet owners and the shocked family of a person sharing a page with a pet.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has masters degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer for 12 years. gm.markley@charter.net