Public Health

Kennedy Legacy Extends To Animals, Too

The deaths of Senator Edward Kennedy this week and his sister Eunice Shriver two weeks earlier have brought floods of stories about their work helping people in all walks of life. But less attention has been paid to their devotion to animals.

edward kennedy and splash i i

hide captionSen. Edward Kennedy walking to a press briefing with Splash in 2001.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
edward kennedy and splash

Sen. Edward Kennedy walking to a press briefing with Splash in 2001.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

I can attest to the latter personally. I, like many Capitol Hill reporters, was the target of quite a few saliva-laden tennis balls courtesy of Splash, the senator's Portuguese Water Dog and a fixture at news conferences and briefings in Kennedy's hideaway office.

As a child I remember visiting Timberlawn, then the Shriver estate in Montgomery Country Maryland. It was crawling with dogs and horses—right in the middle of North Bethesda. I couldn't have been more jealous of Maria, about a year my senior, because she had her own pony basically in her backyard.

Now comes word that Mars, a maker of candy and pet food, will contribute $2 million to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (part of the National Institutes of Health) to study the contributions of pet ownership to human health.

The field, called human-animal interaction, is no joke. Earlier in my career, I wrote a lot about animals and attended one of the first major academic conferences on the effects of pets on human health at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. Previous academic studies have shown pets can decrease blood pressure and alleviate depression in the elderly, among other things.

Yes, Mars markets all kinds of pet treats and chow, including Whiskas and Pedigree. But boosting research into the effects of pets on the health of humans is probably a fitting tribute to a family known for caring for both animals and people.

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