This is the time of year when cities and towns, counties and states send out shiny new tags proclaiming pets "street legal" for another year.
If you're like most people, the old tag goes in the trash or maybe in the junk drawer. Some of them stay on the pet, adding to the jingling mess of tags from years gone by. Few people ever give it another thought.
But you may be sure that Harry Baker thinks about it. In fact, the idea of all those tags thrown out, or of all the old ones rusting away in a million junk drawers, makes him a little sad. That's because Mr. Baker of Scottsdale, Ariz., collects license tags, and we're not talking about a few.
He says his 44,000-piece collection is the world's largest and there's little reason to doubt him, since by all accounts Mr. Baker was the first to collect them seriously -- although he has company today. The International Society of License Collectors, which he founded in 1976, now has more than 100 members, including a few in Canada and Europe.
"I was working as a security guard for a Phoenix coin show in the '70s," he said. "There were some of these tags and the boss said, 'Why don't you take these home?' That was the start."
Now retired, Mr. Baker, 77, works more or less full time at his hobby. At a recent animal-care trade show, he set up a display of the gems from his collection, put on his vest covered with hundreds of tags and relaxed in a lawn chair, ready to trade, promote or just explain the attraction.
The latter isn't all that difficult to see. Although many of today's tags are little more than a number stamped on a piece of cheap metal, those from yesterday were more ornate, even beautiful.
"They used to be intricate," sighed Mr. Baker.
"Phoenix is the worst," he said,pulling out a handful of the maligned tags from the basketful he brought for trading. "Cheap!"
"Some of the old ones are like little medals," said Henry Keyes of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a lawyer who serves as secretary-treasurer of the collectors' society. Mr. Keyes has been a member for four years; he specializes in Iowa tags.
"I've got 2,000 to 3,000 Iowa tags," he said. "And a total collection of maybe 8,000. For a serious collector, 10,000 tags is not uncommon."
Among Mr. Baker's collection are a handful of tags from Hawaii when it was a territory -- these are his favorites -- and a few highly decorated tags from turn-of-the-century Chicago, a city that once cared deeply about the quality of its tags. He has many prized pre-1900 tags and quite a few from Northern California, including a pair of 1919 tags from Roseville -- one for a female dog (No. 30), one for a male (No. 200). Winters (1931), Vacaville (1929) and Grass Valley (1909) are also represented.
Mr. Baker has many foreign tags, including an old one from Alsatia, issued to a dog that killed sheep. And he tells with regret the story of the tag from Cuba he didn't get.
"I had a friend sneak one out of Cuba -- she got it during a visit," he said. "Customs found it and took it from her. So I'm still hoping."
Not all collections are as wide-ranging as Mr. Baker's. Like Mr. Keyes, many hobbyists specialize in a particular kind of tag -- cat tags,tags from foreign countries, odd shapes and sizes. Some collect the paper work that goes along with the license, or even rabies certificates issued by veterinarians.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Keyes both stressed that one of the most appealing things about tag-collecting is that it's not very expensive.
"I don't want anyone to get the idea that this is an expensive hobby -- not yet, anyway," said Mr. Keyes. "Most of the time you can buy a tag for a quarter, certainly a dollar. A tag from the '80s will usually run 25 cents and a tag from 1920 might run $3 to $5. A tag from before 1900 -- $25 up.
"When you get serious like Harry, you're looking for rarity, and with rarity comes expense and value," he said. "But I consider it a good weekend if I can find 20 tags at flea markets that average $1.25 apiece."
Mr. Keyes said that although most of the society's members are in the 30 to 50 age range, there are a few active collectors as young as 12.
"We pick up a few members every year, so you can say it has become more popular," he said. "We don't advertise; the news of our group is strictly word-of-mouth. Every time I find someone at a flea market who's interested in tags, I tout the memberships."
The collectors are not necessarily animal lovers. Harry Baker himself isn't that much of a pet person, although he does have a 17-year-old Chihuahua he admits to adoring. And is she licensed?
"You bet she is," he said.
Membership to the International Society of Animal License Collectors is $8 per year and includes a quarterly newsletter that helps members trade tags. The society also has an annual conference. For more information, write to Henry Keyes, ISALC, 322 Second St. SW, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52404.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.