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Turf War

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The least admitted, most antisocial motive for letting Rover off the leash is that you won’t “notice” when Rover takes a dump. The preferred M.O. is to maintain (a) a minimum 50-yard lead on Rover and (b) an air of intense distraction, as if you’re utterly swept away by the Symphonie Pathetique of your inner life. You will soon develop the uncanny ability to turn as soon as the turds have been deposited, and to whistle irritably for your pet, feigning ignorance of his whereabouts.

None of these nuisances are altogether new. In some form, they’ve always existed in a densely packed, vertically organized city. But the harshness of the discourse is alarmingly new. Among militant canophiles, Holocaust imagery is rampant and by no means confined to the West Side. PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol) officers are routinely heckled when enforcing the laws as “Gestapo,” “Nazis,” and “Brownshirts” (actually, their shirts are green, and they’re unarmed). Charles McKinney, the administrator of Riverside Park, is referred to in flyers as “a dictator.” One somewhat confused canophile, enraged by the “storm trooper” tactics of the PEP officers arresting her, gave her name as Eva Braun. Carolyn Dolgenos, who was arrested two years ago by PEP officers in Central Park during a celebrated fracas over her unleashed bichons frises, compared herself, according to the Times, to “Jews in the concentration camps.” She also likened her arrest to that of “blacks in the South,” an interesting take given that both the arresting officers were black and Ms. Dolgenos is a countess (which is to say she’s married to a count). Racism is sometimes quite overt: A West Side flyer giving tips on how to deal with PEP officers, a large number of whom are black or Hispanic, sneered, “Remember: it takes an average of 30 minutes to write a summons. Spelling is hard for them.”

Then there are the obscenities. Many letters received by Parks from people who have been harassed by unleashed dogs cite foul language on the part of their owners. Laura Meyer, dog lover and chair of the Parks Committee of Community Board No. 8, which serves the Upper East Side, says of Carl Schurz Park, “You ask people to pick up after their dog and they shout obscenities at you.” Big Dog and Tourette’s syndromes appear to be clinically linked. Passionate dog lovers like to think of themselves as gentle, genial, outdoorsy folks made even more gentle and genial by the love of a good dog. But let that love or its object be challenged and they adopt a snarling, bared-teeth defensive mode just this side of actual canine behavior. (Indeed, on several occasions, PEP officers have been bitten by dog lovers in the course of making arrests.) Call it Rover Rage.

To be fair, Rover Rage is more than just another wave of urban venting. It arises from a deeply felt conviction that great injustice is being done, that rights akin to, if not equal to, human rights are being trampled on. It’s here that the non-canophile enters territory entirely new and unfamiliar -- terra indognita. Unprecedented claims are being made for dogs that only a few years ago would have been regarded as preposterous, satirical, or the ravings of cranks but are now widely discussed, disseminated, and accepted. The cozy sentimentality of Lassie, Snoopy, and Toto, the cutesy-poo of Muffy and Fluffy in matching boleros, is dismissed as exploitative and/or condescending. We’re entering the Age of the Dog As Person, the Dog As Other, possibly even the Dog As Citizen. Jeffrey Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About Love, takes this to his own extreme: The Dog As Living Saint.

Extreme dog advocacy has spawned its own literary genre. Total immersion in it quickly reveals that while everyone pays lip service to scientifically “demonstrating” canine consciousness, a leap of faith in the Dog As Other has already been made. What is being formulated here is religion. “The dog is love,” writes Masson. “Dogs are all about love. . . . If any species on earth shares this miraculous ability to love the other for its own sake it is the dog, for the dog truly loves us beyond expectation, beyond measure, beyond what we deserve, more indeed than we love ourselves.” Substitute God for dog in this passage and the meaning doesn’t change one iota. (Fun fact: The slogan of The Berkeley Bark, a publication in Masson’s hometown, is “Dog is our co-pilot.”)

Modern canophiles are illuminati. There is no way into such a world if you have not made the crucial leap of faith, nor are the illuminati to be persuaded out of it. As Marjorie Garber notes in Dog Love -- the only book I’ve come across that approaches its subject with some wit and self-awareness -- canophilia’s obvious anthropomorphism is actually embraced by its advocates. “Why should science insist that there is a fixed boundary between human beings and dogs? . . . Why should we reserve humanness for humans?”

It doesn’t take a constitutionallawyer to move from this postulate to the next step. If dogs share our humanity, they also share our rights. In New York City, where everyone is a constitutional lawyer, that’s an explosive idea. And if you happen to be one of the estimated million or so constitutional lawyers who also own a dog, the result is -- Rover Rage.

There’s an unpleasant corollary here. If dogs are quasi-human, what conceivable right do full humans have to “own” them? Not addressed in the New York Dog Debate is the sadism of keeping a quasi-human in a confined space twenty floors up, with only half an hour’s exercise a day. Maximum-security lifers in Attica get better treatment, and they’re not -- currently -- being neutered.

But inconsistency never deterred an activist, and New York dog activists are the real thing. They’re overwhelmingly boomers, comfortable, settled people anywhere from early to late middle age. Their tactics -- confronting the PEP, scattering and regrouping when PEP vans hove into sight, ripping down fences, civil disobedience, graffiti, anonymous inflammatory leafleting, giving false names from their overeducated liberal-arts past like “Anna Karenina” or “Pagliacci” -- all echo the activism of their collective long-lost youth. “Parks belong to the people,” says Jeffrey Zahn of FLORAL (Friends & Lovers of Riverside Area Life), recalling the slogan chanted in Berkeley’s People’s Park almost 30 years ago. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the last gasp of activists who once expended their energies on liberating blacks, women, Vietnamese, gays, and Native Americans but became disillusioned when they discovered that such groups were just as capable of violence, corruption, and prejudice as the people from whom they were liberated. Now they’ve turned their attention to the one minority that won’t talk back, purchase firearms, or make embarrassing political demands -- dogs. It’s hard not to conclude that canine activists are people with far too little on their conscience.

I owned a dog once -- in the country, where dogs belong -- and I loved the old moron dearly. But make no mistake about it: Freckles was a lower life form. All dogs are. We’re talking science here. Dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, they can’t walk upright, the size of their neocortex is a fraction of ours, and not one of them can make a passable crème brûlée.


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