Josh Shaffer

A 12-year-old dog lover takes on ‘Mallard Fillmore’ – and it’s not about politics

For her breakfast table reading, 12-year-old Zoe Pohlman regularly scans the comics from “Zits” down to “Bizarro.” But last Saturday, she stumbled over “Mallard Fillmore” – the musings of a conservative journalist duck.

In the strip, Mallard goes shopping for a dog online, and at the sight of a sad-eyed mutt, he casts a suspicious eye at his readers. “How stupid does the shelter think I am?” he asks. “Like I can’t tell when they Photoshop the dogs for cuteness?”

With this joke, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley drew the wrath of a seventh-grader. Not only does Pohlman have a rescue dog – Berkshire, a mutt who can open doors with his nose – but her family fosters a host of other unfortunate pooches, including Bonnie the retriever, who got dumped from a car on the side of a highway. She saw no humor in Mallard’s trademark cynicism, and she fired of a letter of protest.

“I’m 12 years old,” she wrote to The News & Observer. “Animal Shelters are not something to joke about. And Mr. Tinsley took it way too far. Dogs will be put down if not adopted.”

Pohlman, a student at Exploris Middle School, went on to tell Tinsley that dogs waiting for adoption need no Photoshopping to look pitiful. “My own dog was found under an abandoned house in a snowstorm,” she explained.

To close, she provided links to eight different shelters and asked the N&O’s editor to “please either remove Mallard Fillmore or make sure Mr. Tinsley learns from this huge mistake.”

Few things carry more power than a child’s letter to the editor, a truth that has held since 1897, when 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon famously asked The New York Sun whether Santa Claus exists. I’m happy to report that Pohlman and her plea for compassion broke through the doors of power.

Less than a day after I sent an email to King Features, enclosing Pohlman’s letter, Tinsley called.

“Tell her I’m really glad she’s reading the newspaper,” said the Louisville native, a former editorial cartoonist.

As to the strip, he asked for a bit of patience. Mallard’s dog adoption storyline is the longest series he’s ever written, and he predicted a more positive response by the time it ends. He didn’t expect readers to read his joke literally, or to come away thinking he really believes in a rescue-dog Photoshop conspiracy.

“Mallard is kind of a grumpy curmudgeon,” he said. “He can’t really do anything nice without making a snide remark about it.”

He offered to send Pohlman a sketch.

“Or just say I hate dogs and children,” he joked. “All my readers would believe you.”

To me, there is much to like about this episode: a child taking action, a cartoonist’s humble response.

“Mallard Fillmore” has always enjoyed a reputation as a strip – loathed or loved but rarely ignored. I’m more of a “Scary Gary” reader, but I salute Tinsley for giving a critic a quick and calm response. But if dog lovers aren’t satisfied, Pohlman offers this advice:

Read “Mutts.”