Not a Dog Person
(I wrote this piece for Streetsblog, but they turned it down, so I’m putting it here. I hope to resume a more regular blogging life here now that the latest book is at the publisher’s, and the other big project, Ecology Emerges, is starting this coming Thursday. There are a lot of topics rattling around in my head that I plan to address in the coming weeks and months.)
I have some very dear friends in San Francisco and other parts of the world who are serious dog lovers. My landlady’s dogs are her biggest reason to stay alive. I know a lot of people whose dogs are family members, and whose emotional lives are completely wrapped up with their dogs. I don’t want to denigrate those relationships. I appreciate the many dog owners who are responsible, who pick up their dog’s shit, who keep their dogs on leashes or have close voice control.
That said, I am not a fan of dogs in public space. I was bit in the face by one when I was about four years old and for most of my life, I had bad allergies to dogs. I really don’t like encountering dogs wherever I go. I resent it when dog owners bring their pets into public establishments, whether restaurants, food stores, or performing arts venues. I resent it doubly when THEY are resentful that their pets are not welcome in those locations. I resent it triply when they think their pet has equal rights to other HUMANS.
Lately, I’ve been taking regular walks up Bernal Heights, which is close to my home. On the ring road around Bernal, hundreds of local residents walk their dogs every day. Recently there seems to have been a marked increase in professional dogwalkers making use of the Bernal open space as their workspace, essentially privatizing a public resource for their personal profit. I object! I don’t know why I should have to dodge packs of dogs when I’m out trying to enjoy a public open space. It’s bad enough dodging all my neighbors’ dogs, but these packs of 10-15 are too much. I wish the professional dogwalkers, a group of perfectly nice, responsible people (who are mostly pretty good about picking up the dogshit), would take the Doggie Shuttle Services to a facility that the companies who are providing the dog walking services would pay for, a place that I, as a non-dog-loving citizen, could avoid.
This is not a new problem of course, but I wonder if it’s getting worse? Are there more dogs in San Francisco now than a decade ago or 25 years ago? Hard to tell. There do seem to be more dog owners who think the rest of us should see their dogs as having equal rights to public spaces. And given the rise of professional dogwalking services, it seems there are more people who have dogs than can take care of them properly. Why have a dog in San Francisco if you don’t even have time to take it out for a walk every day, and you have to hire someone to do it for you? Is it a fashion statement? An accessory?
In San Francisco, local animal shelters are being deluged with dogs, especially Chihuahuas.
“Shelters like ours are seeing a big upswing in owner-surrendered animals because of the bad economy,” said Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco animal care and control department. “It’s interesting and alarming that so many of our dogs are Chihuahuas…Â All the shelters in California are seeing an upswing in Chihuahua impounds,” she said in an interview. “It’s been a slow and steady climb. . . . We call it the Paris Hilton syndrome.” A third of the dogs held at San Francisco’s city shelter are all or part Chihuahua. New ones have come in every day for the last year. If the trend continues, officials said, the shelter would become 50% Chihuahua within months.
And how much of our economy is taken up with pet stuff, not to mention the agricultural resources dedicated to pet food (can there really be 44 different commercial weight-control dog foods as mentioned in the latest issue of “Bay Woof”?!?)… According to the American Pet Products Association, over $45 billion was spent on pet products in 2009, a little less than half that on food! The connection with nature implied by owning a loving pet is belied by the ecological footprint. The New Scientist had a piece last October called “How Green is your Pet? Cute, Fluffy, and Horribly Greedy.”
SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices – and the critters do not fare well. As well as guzzling resources, cats and dogs devastate wildlife populations, spread disease and add to pollution. It is time to take eco-stock of our pets.
To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals. It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year – far more for beef and lamb – and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares. For a big dog such as a German shepherd, the figure is 1.1 hectares. Meanwhile, an SUV – the Vales used a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser in their comparison – driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser’s eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares – less than half that of a medium-sized dog. The Vales are not alone in reaching this conclusion. When New Scientist asked John Barrett at the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, UK, to calculate eco-pawprints based on his own data, his figures tallied almost exactly. “Owning a dog really is quite an extravagance, mainly because of the carbon footprint of meat,” he says.
Obviously, dogs are not simply anyone’s “best friend.” They also embody some dramatically twisted priorities, much akin to the extravagant consumption we see in other parts of our culture.
For several years I lived at 19th and Dolores and watched as the daily dog walkers gathered on the upslope of Dolores Park, gradually taking over more and more of the park for their beasts. A whole swath of the park became unusable for non-dog people, as there are always dozens of dogs cavorting about off leash. I used to go to Dolores Park to throw frisbee with friends, but after a while I didn’t like playing there anymore. One or several dogs would invariably think that the frisbee game was their’s to join. Their owners rudely assume that anyone playing frisbee would somehow delight in the dog joining in, even if it means a frisbee with teeth marks and a half gallon of saliva dripping off it when you finally retrieve it from the hyperactive hound. Bad enough. Then there’s the dog shit that all too many owners just don’t notice as it gets deposited some distance from where they’re standing in the park. The destroyed lawns are another artifact, spreading mud flats where once parkland beckoned. The recent remake of Duboce Park, with part of it sequestered for dogs and the other parts for humans starts to address the problem, but I still don’t like going to parks where I’m most likely going to have to fend off a sniffing dog (or ten) after carefully seeking out a patch of grass that doesn’t reek of dogshit.
Urban life includes pets, for better or worse. It may be that the relationships people establish with their pets are a bit neurotic on occasion. For most people it’s a loving and warm reciprocal connection to another living being. I admire that. But the problem comes when the boundaries between your personal choice to have such a relationship and my choice to avoid those kinds of relationships get systematically crossed in public spaces. I should not have to be around free-running dogs in public if I don’t want to (I’m not talking about someone walking by with a dog on a leash, taking care of its feces responsibly). And that doesn’t mean I should have to stay indoors. What I would like are well-delineated zones and times where offleash dogs are free to run, and the rest of the time, strict regulation by owners of their animals to keep them under control. And large blocks of time when I can be free of having to deal with the awkward and unpleasant dynamic of unwanted interaction with dogs and owners who don’t understand or respect that not everyone loves their furry beast or wants to get better acquainted with it.
Many years ago in Processed World #3 we published an uproarious piece “The Horrors of Pooperscooper U.” about working in a local pet hospital. I leave you with a short excerpt but recommend the whole piece, available here:
Pooperscooper U.–a pet hospital stuck like a hairball in the throat of one of San Francisco’s poshest enclaves. I got myself hired as a receptionist there in a moment of economic panic. Three months later, the obsessive cocker-suckers and poodle-diddlers that stump and stagger through P.U.’s piddle-varnished portals have me baring my teeth. The duties assigned to us, the under-underdogs, are varied and colorful”¦ Yes, P.U.’s receptionists must know their stuff, especially over the phone. Suppose a young interior decorator wants his cat declawed and dyed violet within three days. Never mind the cat’s feelings–will it be detrimental to the orange-focussed bedroom scheme? And telephone procedure is inflexible. When a pug plummets from a seventh-story window and the owner inquires: “Juno’s listless–do you think it’s due to the fall?”, you must go through the catechism with the demure calm of a nun on Valium: “Has he seen a doctor since the accident/Is he bleeding/Is his stool abnormal/Is he vomiting/Is he eating? (Amen).”
“Well he hasn’t really moved much–he just lies on his back and he’s sort of stiff when I pet him.” Then, and only then, you coo: “Sir–here is the number of Bubbling Wells Pet Cemetery, located in picturesque Sonoma.”
So goodbye to Pooperscooper U. Goodbye to the Puppy Paramedic Corps and its pissing and moaning, yapping and scratching clientele. Goodbye too to the Kat Kare Klub where tortoise shell curry-combs and French satin ribbons decorate lumps of hairy fat that can hardly waddle from bowl to box to bed. Goodbye to being ranked lower in the scheme of things than Persians and their fleas. Pit-bulls and their diarrhea. Goodbye to all the mental cases who hallucinate an intimate world of love and understanding around retarded mutant carnivores like Elmo the Basset Hound, known to his owner as “the only man in my life.”
My case is closed. But there will be many more to follow in my footsteps on this particular hamster-wheel. A world which mass-produces loneliness and boredom, always a little faster than it mass-produces the merchandise meant to make up for them, will see to that.