Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"I Have a Dog . . . and I Vote"

Not so long ago, I heard Fresh Air host Terri Gross interview author Michael Schaffer about his new book One Nation Under Dog. The book's subtitle is Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food. Hmm. I was wary at first, thinking that Schaffer was simply going to crack wise about dog-centric owners and the lengths they will go to provide for their animals. But in the interview, and to a lesser degree in the introduction of the book, Schaffer speaks as a recent convert, as a clueless, middle-class (and at first childless) American guy who adopted a dog and wanted to do right by him (a desire that eventually led to medicating Murphy, a St. Bernard mix, with anti-anxiety drugs). 

The book, which starts as a personal narrative of the writer's own quest for a dog and his initiation into the world of pet care, veers off almost immediately into the standard nonfiction formula—chapters on different relevant areas of pet care, each filled with recent statistics supported by cherry-picked anecdotes from his own  research in the form of field trips to the dog parks of San Francisco, animal hospitals and shelters, doggie spas, breeders and dog shows, and pet cemeteries. 

Of course, what I was most interested in was the discussion of dog parks. In the radio interview, Schaffer talked about his own experiences taking his dog to different parks in Philadelphia. He talked about the subtle politics of each park; how the rules of the park were unspoken, passed down from veterans to newbies, rather than posted on signs. He recalled how certain behaviors were tolerated in some parks but not in others. For example, as I recall, the folks at a park near the university would not put up with dogs that humped, while the neighborhood parkers did not seem to care. 

The book, however, limits its discussion of dog-park politics to the situation in San Francisco, which Schaffer compares to the passionate partisan politics of gun-ownership or gay marriage. It's a classic conflict between non-dog owners and wildlife lovers who feel unsafe or unhappy visiting parks overrun by unleashed pets versus dog lovers who use the limited resource of open green spaces to give pets much needed exercise and freedom from cramped apartments. And, of course, poop is a major issue. The book attributes these words to  S.F. mayor Gavin Newsom: "[W]e'll probably solve the issue of homelessness before we're able to solve the dog issue."

So I guess we can take some solace in that our problems with Park neighbors and state agency workers are not unique, that one of the most liberal and dog-friendly cities in the country is grappling with many of the same. Plus, our community is small and intimate (and mostly reasonable) enough that we can tell offenders to shape up or ship out. (Thanks, Doug! Elvis's owner is now the sheepish user of poop-pick-up bags.) 

Do I recommend the book? It already feels a bit dated since the downturn in the economy, although it suggests that most dog owners are pinching pennies in other areas of life so that their pet's care is not affected (true for me!). And it does raise the question  of whether a newfound sense of economic sobriety will curb the more flamboyant excesses of pet care, such as doggie spas and funerals. I must admit that I did not find the book a compelling read, but it certainly covers all the basics of doggie ownership and provides loads of statistics and quotable factoids. It's available at your local library. 

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