The evil that dogs doo

The more dogs I meet, the more dogs I hate.

By Steve Burgess
Published November 13, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Rusty ships full of desperate Chinese refugees began piling into Canada's West Coast this summer -- like Conestogas in an episode of "Wagon Train," but with sewage. As the filthy boats arrived -- four of them eventually, each with about 150 ill-fed, maltreated refugees -- Canadians were only too happy to shuck off their burdensome reputation for tolerance, clogging talk-show lines with howling demands to send all the nasty yellow intruders back.

Only one newcomer was spared the mob's wrath -- a passenger on ship No. 2, much better fed than the others (so well fed she was initially thought to be pregnant). For this particular visitor hearts and doors opened wide, adoption offers poured in. And why not? Of all the new arrivals, only Breeze the golden-Lab cross had enough personal pride to lick her genitals clean.

Even before my fellow Canadians rolled the red carpet right over a pathetic human crowd to welcome a fat mutt, I was beginning to hate dogs. The key moment may have arrived a few months back when I watched some yahoo pause on a busy street, wait while his dog took a big sidewalk dump, then saunter away. I screamed after him but he was on down the road, and who could blame him? The neighborhood was starting to stink.

And Vancouver is not a bad city for dog dung, based on my own unscientific comparison with San Francisco. There, it would seem, the brand of rugged individualism best expressed by accessorizing with a Rottweiler precludes one having enough social conscience to clean up after it. Sidewalk biscuits are everywhere.

Just as tobacco gradually insinuated itself into society, making an appalling habit seem commonplace, the daily presence of dogs on our streets has meant that, despite our near-obsession with the discreet disposal of human waste, we are inured to the little piles of dog shit planted in our path almost as regularly as street lights.

Unless you're a germ-obsessed scrub freak, however, the mounds of crap are only secondary. It is the dog worshipper's creed that truly grates. "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog," reads the popular bumper sticker. The more people who buy that bumper sticker, the more I'm inclined to agree. Loving, faithful dogs give their owners a handy peg on which to hang their misanthropy. Too many dog owners resemble the disillusioned grooms of mail-order brides -- men whose failed search for unquestioning adoration eventually requires them to move a couple of species down the evolutionary ladder. There's an easy transfer of affection from complicated humanity to simple, devoted Canis familiaris.

But surely, you protest, there's enough love to go around? Doesn't seem so. After those refugee ships arrived, I tested that proposition for Vancouver magazine. Setting up a table outside of a local drugstore, I put up a sign asking passersby to sign a petition in support of Chinese refugees. After 20 minutes, I replaced it with a sign soliciting signatures in support of Chinese dogs. (Whatever dangers the poor Sino-hounds might be facing were not spelled out. People were allowed to exercise their outraged imaginations.)

That the dogs garnered more support than the humans (8-to-1) was depressingly predictable. The surprising part was the starkness of the contrast. When I plumped for refugees, old ladies hissed at me. A bona fide white supremacist treated me to a finger-jabbing rant. Up went the dog sign, and suddenly it was a love-in. Best of all was the lady who entered the store while my refugee sign was up, and emerged only after I had switched over to the dog crusade. Evidently she had been stewing about my support for the boat people while she shopped, because upon leaving the store she immediately approached my table and began to berate me. "Oh no, look, ma'am," I protested, pointing to the sign. "We're working for dogs."

"Oh!" she said, taken aback. "It's dogs you care about! Oh well, I agree with that. Sure I'll sign."

(A quick note here -- the illegal migrant issue is not a simple one and some observers are legitimately concerned about a policy that might encourage human smugglers and discourage legitimate refugees. I didn't hear any of those well-reasoned arguments on the street, though.)

James Thurber said, "The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to his level of sagacity, but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his." Dog ownership is often presented as an ennobling thing, a sign that the owner is not merely associating with but actually shares the honest qualities of his furry companion. It's the same reason kids buy Air Jordans.

Anyone who doubts that the average dog is primarily a fashion accessory need only visit different parts of town and note the makeup of the local canine population. There's a new upscale supermarket in Vancouver's Yaletown district where they set up little dog-watering posts outside. The canine crowd that hangs around that water hole resembles nothing so much as the array of luxury autos you'll find valet parked in front of the hot restaurant du jour. Management probably keeps a couple of spare Bernese mountain dogs on hand for slow periods.

Meanwhile over on boho Commercial Drive, which may boast the highest per capita dog population in the city, anti-fashion rules. Big, unpretentious dogs here, the kind that go great with a hand-knit wool sweater and a canvas backpack with a flute in it.

Out in the blue-collar suburb of Surrey, after yet another vicious dog attack last winter, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer was quoted as saying, "If the city of Surrey ever decides to change its logo, maybe the pit bull should be put on the crest."

Said the attacking dog's owner: "They're good with kids."

In his 1994 book "The Intelligence of Dogs," Stanley Coren wrote, "Some people want an intelligent dog for the same reasons they want the biggest, most powerful computer in their office, or the fastest and flashiest sports car, or the stereo, VCR or camera with the largest number of dials and controls." And yes, some kind folks rescue a lovable mongrel from the pound and give it a good home. But that pound is full of other dogs whose presence testifies to the misplaced priorities of those charged with looking out for their welfare.

None of this is the dogs' fault, of course. With some exceptions, it's pretty hard to hate the dogs themselves. We had miniature dachshunds when I was young. Fritz used to guard your foot, and he wasn't kidding -- just wiggle it and see. His successor, Noah, was stone sly. On a summer evening as we sat on the step, he would amble lazily across the lawn, sniffing a dandelion here, snuffling at a beetle there, oh-so-casually glancing our way as he moved almost imperceptibly closer to the edge of the grass. We never let on that we knew his little game. Sure enough, when the sidewalk was gained, Noah would suddenly turn and bolt across the street -- to the yard of his forbidden love, the neighbor dachshund, Tammy.

Breeze the Refugee Dog sounds like a swell animal, too. Customs officials said she was friendly as hell. In her place, what dog wouldn't be? It was clear from the half-starved condition of the passengers that Breeze ate better than anybody stuck below decks. On a boat that arrived like a desperate telegram from the third world, fat old Breeze lived a first world life.

Newsweek magazine recently reported that in 1998, Americans spent close to $3 billion just on pet pharmaceuticals -- including drugs like Prozac.

Dogs foul the streets. They breed journalistic clichis like "It's a dog's life," and "Doggone funny." They ruin movies with their obnoxiously cute stunts. But no, I don't really think we should focus our efforts on restraining dogs. That would be inverting the leash.

Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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