After all the acrimony over the federal budget and debt, Mike Canning offers an issue that conservatives and liberals alike could debate with love and affection: Why can't Amtrak passengers travel with their pets?
Canning is the CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, whose leadership is "comprised of representatives from all segments of the pet industry," according to the PIJAC website.
"We stand for anything that furthers the human-animal bond," Canning said. "We believe that society is better off when humans interact with animals."
An unsuccessful candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1994, Canning went on to build a career with advocacy groups that landed him at PIJAC three years ago.
"I've always been a pet owner myself, and I've realized how kids respond to pets, are teaching them a sense of, well, love of pets and responsibility," said the 52-year-old resident of Annapolis, Md. "When I got the chance to join an industry that is really all about that, I jumped at the chance."
The pets-on-trains issue is one Canning couldn't resist. Unlike traveling by plane, if you make a trip on Amtrak you have to leave your pet at home. The Pets on Trains Act sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., would require Amtrak to change its policy to allow, with some restrictions, domesticated cats and dogs on its trains. The federally subsidized passenger-rail system currently bans all animals except service dogs. Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said officials are reviewing the proposed legislation.
"My dog, Lily, is part of our family and travels with us to and from California all the time. If I can take her on a plane, why can't I travel with her on Amtrak, too?" Denham said when he introduced the bill in May.
Since then, the bill has been sitting idle in a House subcommittee, although it has been slowly gathering bipartisan support from 21 cosponsors.
"I am worried about it," Canning said. "I think that anybody that has legislation in Congress right now is worried about the government shutdown and debt-ceiling arguments in January and February.… While not as important to the country as those, people would still be able to spend more time with their pets."
PIJAC hopes the legislation can get rolling after the fiscal problems are resolved. In the meantime, the organization is working on hosting a rally at Union Station next month with Denham and others who back his bill. The event was supposed to be held earlier this month, but was postponed because of the government shutdown.
Canning grew up in Bowie, Md., graduated from the St. Thomas University School of Law in Florida, and then returned to Maryland with his sights focused on running for political office. "I gave everything I had for seven years of my life to do that," he said. "But it was such a major ordeal that I didn't really want to do it again."
The unsuccessful foray into politics had its payoff, though. "I really fell in love with public issues," Canning said. "And, you know, trying to work on issues that would make things better for people."
Initially Canning had his own grassroots organizing firm that dealt with issues ranging from a national retail sales tax to standards of care in nursing homes. He was also on the board of directors of the Americans for Consumer Education and Competition, and was executive director for the Association of Corporate Credit Unions. "Not a lot of people know how money works," Canning said, adding that his goal was to increase financial literacy.
But he switched gears, leaving finances behind when he joined PIJAC in September 2010. The group's mission, according to its website, is threefold: promoting responsible pet ownership and animal welfare, fostering environmental stewardship, and ensuring the availability of pets.
This article appears in the October 24, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.