The Department of Health wants to plant a microchip in your pet. Your pet may have other ideas.

Peggy Keller has had a rough week. As the chief of animal-disease control at the D.C. Department of Health, she’s been swamped by the task of responding to the newly detected presence of the deadly West Nile virus in the region. Though just three infected birds have been found in Maryland, concerned locals call her office practically every time a dead bird is spotted in the District. And in the wake of record-breaking summertime rainfalls and a booming District mosquito population, Keller’s job looks to get tougher.

So Keller, perhaps, is hoping for a rare moment of good press this Sunday morning. Her office, after all, is providing free rabies and distemper vaccines to dogs and cats owned by low-income city residents—the first free-vaccination clinics in 13 years, held in conjunction with Capital Animal Care and the D.C. Dog Coalition. Who could complain about that?

Plus, Keller has a hi-tech tool to show off: The health department is offering to implant identifying microchips into cats and dogs brought to the clinic. Animals with the so-called FriendChips can be scanned at shelters if they get lost. Visions of cyborg corgis dance in my head as I arrive to watch the chip implantations.

So it’s not exactly what either Keller or I am expecting when, about an hour into the program, I find myself placing a call to 911 on a borrowed, blood-splattered cell phone, while Keller slumps in pain on the steps of the H.D. Cooke Elementary School. Nearby, Barbara Cozzens of Capital Animal Care holds her gashed thumb aloft and grimaces, while volunteer Chris Rau rubs Keller’s back in an effort to keep her from passing out.

So much for using modern electronics to keep the family pet out of harm’s way. Despite the talk of hi-tech tracking systems, the team has wound up felled by brute animal instinct.

Keller, Cozzens, and a cat owner who declines to give her name were badly bitten while trying to remove a 4-year-old indoor cat named Pepsi from her cardboard box. As soon as the lid was lifted, Pepsi lunged for the street. Keller, Cozzens, and the cat’s owner grabbed at the animal to keep her from running off. Pepsi attacked. She sunk her teeth deep into a knuckle on Keller’s left hand. Keller screamed. Pepsi yowled. The cat bit through the nail and into the flesh of Cozzens’ thumb, scratching at her and the owner until the trio confined her back in the box.

“I’ve never been bitten so hard by a dog or a cat,” Cozzens later says, once the ambulance, fire engine, police car, and Animal Control van have come and gone. “It’s been so smooth all month. You’ve seen the worst of it.”

The day started innocently enough. Early in the morning, Eric Stromfors and Robert Weishapl arrived at the free-vaccination site, eager to talk about ways to keep track of Midnight, their black Labrador. “We were thinking of having her ear tattooed or her nose printed,” said Weishapl.

After the stocky 5-year-old took her booster shots—without so much as a flinch—Stromfors and Weishapl started talking about the chip, that most hi-tech way to make Midnight irrevocably theirs. “We’ve known about it for a while from watching Discovery and Animal Planet,” said Stromfors. “It’s so new a lot of people don’t know about it.”

The FriendChip was developed as a permanent animal-identification device in 1991, following a five-year research program by Norco, Calif.-based AVID Identification Systems Inc. The chips—and the scanners to detect them—are the only products the company makes. Each chip consists of a passive transponder that is programmed with an alphanumeric code, encased inside a glass capsule about the size of a large grain of rice. The company calls pets injected with its device “chipped pets,” an unfortunate term that conjures images of chipped beef—or scenes from the movie Fargo.

Unlike active transponders, such as the LoJack anti-theft device placed in cars, the chip has no energy source and emits no signal unless it is activated by a scanner. That means that chipped pets cannot be tracked or traced from a distance. They need to be scanned from within a few inches to 1 foot; the handheld identity-tag reader generates a low-energy radio signal that activates the microchip. The scanner then displays the ID on an LCD screen.

The chip, says AVID spokesperson Mike Tuttle, was sold initially to breeders of ostriches and emus—the market exists because “it’s very difficult to tell ostriches apart”—and the company gradually expanded from there. Today, the chip is used by breeders, humane societies, veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, and zoo facilities—including the Department of Reproduction at the National Zoo.

The U.S. Department of Defense uses the chip for service animals, such as drug-sniffing dogs, and soldiers’ pets on military bases. Some bases have made chipping pets mandatory, as have the cities of Albuquerque, N.M., and Orlando, Fla., according to Keller. Keiko, the whale from the Free Willy series, carries a chip, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sometimes uses chips instead of external tagging or tattooing to track threatened species, such as pallid sturgeon, desert tortoises, and California condors.

Owners of chipped pets register with the PETtrac database, which currently contains the records of about 300,000 chipped animals—mainly cats and dogs, but also horses, rabbits, and iguanas. More than 145,000 animals have been recovered since 1991, says Tuttle.

“The application for the chip is virtually unlimited,” says Tuttle. “We had a florist in Hawaii renting office plants who wanted to chip the plants.” After being leased for three months, he explains, a plant can grow or be so reshaped that it becomes hard to recognize. Adding a chip to its trunk will allow the florist “to go up and say, ‘Yes, I’m repossessing your ficus tree,’” says Tuttle.

There are some limits on chipping, however. “We don’t advocate chipping people,” says Tuttle. That doesn’t mean that people don’t call asking to get their relatives chipped. One man recently called wanting to chip his mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s disease and a tendency to wander off. Tuttle says the company also gets plenty of calls from mentally ill people who claim to have been chipped by the government, including one woman who claimed she was chipped in 1982—a full nine years before the technology was invented.

Stromfors and Weishapl turn out to be the only pet owners to buy chips all weekend. “I’m a total naive on this,” explains Cozzens. “I didn’t even know we were supposed to be doing this until Peggy told me this morning.”

Microchipping may have come to D.C., but it hasn’t penetrated the city deeply. Nor is a low-income vaccination event necessarily the best place to find those interested in expensive, hi-tech veterinary practices. Most of the pet owners at the clinic have never heard of microchipping; none interviewed know that the city is offering chipping at discount rates.

Sergio Luna says his shepherd-mix dog has gotten loose three times, but Xuxa knows enough to come and find him or his wife at work when that happens. Beulah Rivers arrives on her blue Rascal wheelchair/scooter with three tiny Australian chaus dogs at her feet. “I should have them chipped,” she says. “But I don’t have money to do it with now.”

Rodney Boulware says he wants to get Jesse May, a mix who looks as if she’s got chow, shepherd, and dachshund in her, chipped, but “I can’t afford it. I wish I could—I really do. I think that’s cool.”

The Health Department charges $20 for chipping, which includes PETtrac registration. At a veterinarian’s office, chipping can cost from $25 to $40, plus $15 for registration. As for the scanners, “We have them at our shelter,” says Keller. “Prince George’s County has gone to using microchips, too, and they have them at their shelters.”

The D.C. Animal Control Facility on New York Avenue NE has had scanners for the last year and a half, says Keller, but the Humane Society of Washington does not scan for chips. The Washington Animal Rescue League scans all incoming strays. Unfortunately, says Cozzens, D.C. Animal Control does not use its scanners regularly. “I’m 100 percent certain of that,” she says. “I’ve worked there.”

Later in the day, Midnight doesn’t even flinch when veterinarian Jennifer Au injects her with a chip between her shoulder blades. The dog is too busy trying to grab a piece of cranberry bagel to notice. But Midnight has always been a leader, says Stromfors. She was the first pet to walk in the annual AIDS Walk fundraiser—she raised $1,600—and got a citation from D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham.

Pepsi, though, is another story. All her owner wants is to take her home as quickly as possible. That means no chipping today—except, of course, for the chip she took out of Keller’s knuckle. CP