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DAVI: Our pets are family, too

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COMMENTARY:

In the early 1980s, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about an elderly couple who were out walking their beloved dog when a group of young thugs robbed and beat them to death. The thugs also killed the dog.

The article then discussed two different incidents in two different American cities. In the first, a group of people were outside a building yelling to someone on the ledge about to jump. They yelled "Jump! Jump!" and laughed. In the second incident, the same scenario was taking place, only this time people frantically yelled "Stay! Stay! Don't move!"

What is striking is that in the first incident, a human being was on the ledge. In the second, a dog was on the precipice. The article stated that the thugs who beat the elderly couple and their pet to death most likely never had had the privilege of having a pet. They had not experienced the care, sensitivity, love and healing qualities animals provide us.

The author wrote that pets actually help us to be more human, and perhaps if the thugs had had pets when they were younger, they might not have so easily bludgeoned the elderly couple and their pet to death.

It's no coincidence that the Bible describes God's instructions to Noah to take two of each animal. The story illustrates the love God has for all of his creatures. For those who have not read Matthew Scully's book "Dominion," I strongly suggest it.

As one of God's creatures, Bo Obama, a Portuguese water dog, gets settled in the White House, we are all compelled to think about how America's love for animals can contribute to our economic recovery.

My cousin Leo Grillo has been at the forefront of animal welfare for more than 30 years, and his sanctuary, D.E.L.T.A. Rescue, has more animals than the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States combined. It is the largest animal sanctuary in the world and the first no-kill, care-for-life sanctuary.

My cousin has firsthand stories of peoples' concern and love for their pets. He has dedicated his life to God's creatures and believes, like many of his supporters, that animals are children. He knows and is respected for his work by those truly devoted to animal welfare. He has thought for a long time that our pets should be income-tax exemptions.

Our pets do a tremendous amount for us. For the elderly, pets provide companionship and a sense of independence. For children, pets provide lessons in responsibility and care for other creatures. Dogs and cats have been used successfully to rehabilitate the sick and the incarcerated.

Studies show that pet owners have improved cardiovascular health and immunity to diseases. If a majority of U.S. households had a pet, America could save $790 million and $1.5 billion in health care costs, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

Our pets become part of the family. They are like children. I have sometimes been overheard to say to my Neapolitan mastiff, Stella, "Is there a daughter in the house who loves the father?" Stella responds by lovingly coming to me with the most amazing affection. Upon seeing this, my mother-in-law once said, "He finally has a child who looks like him." Though it was meant as a dig, I actually take it as a compliment.

The tragedy is that when one of our pets becomes ill, the cost can be astronomical along with the heartache at seeing it suffer. I recently ran into a woman at the airport who had a dog with her in the next seat. Being curious over the care they showed each other, I struck up a conversation with her. She told me her pet had saved her life. She has had him for seven years and owes her life to him. This and stories like it are not uncommon.

It has become clear to my cousin Leo and me that we should have a national debate about the ability to declare our pets as tax exemptions like any other dependent or valued property with costs. Nearly 63 percent of American households have a pet. More than 44 million homes have a dog, and an additional 38.4 million have a cat. Most owners spend up to $1,000 each year on food, veterinary care and other costs, according to the ASPCA.

In 2008, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimated that Americans spent more than $41 billion on their pets. Being allowed to use these expenses as deductions would positively affect the tax burden on a majority of American households. I am pleased to report that Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Michigan Republican, is taking the lead on this, working closely with us to write legislation.

Using the tax code to encourage positive behavior is a common practice. About 500,000 Americans are able to receive a tax credit for up to $3,150 for owning gas-saving hybrid cars. Many cities and states also reward hybrid-vehicle owners with access to HOV lanes and additional tax breaks. Why not allow a tax exemption for pets that would reward Americans for behavior they already are following to improve their health and well-being?

Every city in America spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on programs for abandoned animals. Like many government-funded programs, they overspend and underperform. By contrast, a tax exemption for pets would add to the education and rescue efforts and bring an added incentive to responsible prospective pet owners.

Given the benefits pets provide to our emotional and physical health, the time has come to include pet exemptions in the tax code.

Let's begin a national dialogue on this issue. As author Louis Sabin said, "No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich." I will take his statement a little further and say having any pet of our choice enriches our lives.

Robert Davi is an actor-director best known for his roles in "Die Hard," "License to Kill," "The Goonies," "Predator 2," the series "Profiler" and "Stargate Atlantis" and his directorial debut of the award-winning film, "The Dukes." His new film, "Magic," will be in theaters later this year.

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