Saturday, May 30, 2009

Watching the Animals

"Watching animals fills some larger, less purposeful appetite in much the way that reading poetry does, or listening to music."

Nature writer Richard Conniff had more to say about animals in a blog entry, "The Consolation of Animals," which he wrote for the New York Times on May 27, 2009
One day a few years ago, I was watching two male cheetahs prowl through the bush, somewhere in the Serengeti. A biologist named Sarah Durant pointed out that both of them were pushing 12 on her belly-fullness scale, where a 14 corresponds roughly to “swallowed a basketball.” And yet they continually stopped to gaze at distant antelopes and wildebeests. “I often think they watch prey the way we watch television,” said Durant, “because it’s comforting and mindless.” It struck me that she was onto something important: Animals are built to watch other animals, and for animals like us, otherwise separated from the natural world, there’s consolation in it. Television is in truth a poor substitute.

One of the pleasures of Dog Park is getting to watch the dogs do their thing—run, tussle, bark, roll around, chase, hunt, hump, fetch, whatever. My favorite time is at the end of the walk, when my dogs are sufficiently tired, and they flop down on the grass to join me in observing everybody else. Conniff is right; Roma and Muzzy don't need television. They've got their own version of  American Idol right in front of them.  They've got a stage filled with performers, and they serve as the judges. Roma is the cranky British one, of course—caustic and vaguely bored by the whole scene, waiting for something truly worth getting excited about. Muzzy is the new rocker girl judge. She's young and cute but has clear faves and not faves. (Teddy, unfortunately, is Muzzy's Bikini Girl. Sorry, Ted.) Don't ask which judge I am. I just keep the water bowls full. 

During the summer, when it's too hot to go to Dog Park before 7 or 7:30 p.m., Park time is prime time. Television is irrelevant when you've got a whole circus with different shows every night. And there's always opportunity for audience participation. As well as suspense. Will Animal Control or the cops or a gun-toting Crazy Guy or that creep with the harmonica show up tonight? How about some bicycle riders or kite flyers or remote control airplane enthusiasts? So put down your remotes, everyone, and head out to the Dog Park for some commercial-free fun. See you there.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"You Have to Want the Dog."

Roma and Muzzy in a rare, shared Kodak moment.

First Lady Michelle Obama, quoted in the New York Times on Thursday: 

“I got up at 5:15 a.m. in the morning to walk my puppy,” Mrs. Obama acknowledged ruefully to a group of Congressional spouses last month. “Even though the kids are supposed to do a lot of the work, I’m still up at 5:15 a.m. taking my dog out. So for everyone who has a child asking for a puppy, you have to want the dog.”

For years, I drove my boyfriend crazy for a dog. Every time I saw a dog, I would cry out like a toddler, "Adogadogadogadog!" Eventually the boyfriend got me the dog I wanted, and we called her Roma. A dozen years later, my best friend gave me a puppy named Muzzy. I wanted that dog, too.

I am not married to the boyfriend any more. Nor am I married to the leader of the free world. But I the first thing I do every morning is walk a couple of dogs. Then I walk them before lunch and again before dinner. Later, I take them to the Dog Park to run off-leash for a couple of hours. These walks are usually the happiest parts of my day. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Is That?

I spend so much time at Dog Park that I sometimes forget to actually look at my surroundings when I'm there. Then, when I do, it seems a foreign landscape. It's like when you stare a word or say it a few times fast, you don't even recognize it anymore. "Square, square, square, square. What is square?" So it was that weird sense of disorientation I felt the other day as I walked down the trail last week and saw this: 

First I thought to myself, "Has that always been there?" Then I wondered, "What the @#$% is it?" Answer: It's yet more metal junk in our space. Almost every day I pick up a handful of twisted, usually rusted, metal, former pieces of fences or electrical equipment. I pick it up so no one (else) trips or gets cut. But this thing? What is it? Who brought it there? Why? Something that big and awkward and dangerous-looking is now bound to stay here forever. So just ignore it. Pretend I never said anything about it. La, la, la. Look at that bird!

I think that there must be some coincidence that a big piece of  metal crap showed up around the time that it rained heavily, which always brings out kids (I assume) in trucks who do this:

Again, although it feels as though I live at Dog Park, I am only there two hours a day. God knows what atrocities are committed there during the other 22. State agency people and neighbors get bent out of shape over the dogs running free, but they have no problem with jerks in trucks who tear up the ground and trash the place? That strikes me as somewhat unfair. Oh, well. Just watch your head and step as you make your way through the rubble at Dog Park. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Things Surface and Things Fall at Dog Park

The other day I was walking along at Dog Park and tripped over something right in the middle of the path. I thought it was a root, but it was a few inches of rusted metal coil sticking up out of the earth, brought to light by recent heavy rain run-off that had eroded the dirt at the bottom of the trail. A few of us tried pulling out the wire, but it would not budge. So we covered up the exposed metal with a pile of rocks. We figured that people and dogs were less likely to injure themselves or contract tetanus from a pile of limestone than from rusty metal. A few days later, we asked Dean if he could use his bolt cutters to cut off the metal at ground level. He did better than that. Using a tool that looked suitable for a blacksmith or an ol' timey dentist, he extracted the offending wire from the path. Here is what he unearthed:

(Max's paw provides scale here.) It looks harmless enough, but it's about 36 inches of tetanus- inducing rusted steel. Bonus: When Dean pulled out the metal, he also dislodged about two pounds of broken glass (serious, old fashioned, heavy, pressed glass, like from light fixtures) and rusted metal cans (not aluminum beer cans, either, but tin cans with pull tab tops).  All of which leads me to give more credence to the theory that our Dog Park was long a dumping ground. (Other theories, some of which can be proven, a mental hospital, a race track, and a cemetery for African American Austinites. More on these theories another time.) 

Remember the old, dead pecan tree I featured here not too long ago? It was the home to a nest of starlings. Well, as of Monday, here is what is left of it:

There's a certain irony that the tree that reminded me of this Gettysburg monument to dead Civil War soldiers was removed on Memorial Day weekend. 

A fellow Parker asked me what I thought happened to the birds. I don't know how much time birds need before they are "weaned." It would be very sad if our little bird friends had to flee their home before they could fly. 

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. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

One of Those Days

In physics class, we learn that gravity works against us every second of our lives. Each step we take is really an act of preventing ourselves from falling. Some days, a girl wonders, "Why bother? Why not lie down and never get up?" Unemployment, middle age, bugs on the tomatoes, muddy pawprints on the carpet, a dirty house, unpaid bills, mosquito bites, and the collective idiocy of American Idol voters all take their toll. I wanted  just one day on which I did not have to worry about anything or talk to anyone.

So I spent the day yesterday lying in bed, alternately napping and staring uncomprehendingly at the New Yorker. Both my girls played it cool. "She's having one of those days" is how Roma explained it to Muzzy. One of those days. Dogs have those days all the time. Lying around except to scratch, eat, and poop is what dogs do best. My dogs are exceptionally good at it. Still, Muzzy felt compelled to take charge while I went mentally AWOL. It was her cold nose that I felt on the bottom of my foot that signaled it was time for a walk or for a meal. She was the one who worried about the thunder rumbling in the distance. And she was the one who looked concerned when the ringing phone went unanswered. I am back today, once again defying gravity while the dogs succumb to its power—Muzzy is stretched out on the floor behind my chair and Roma moves only to find a fresh cool spot on the tile. We'll see you at the Dog Park, as usual.