Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Time for some funny stories.

My first spring as an animal control officer (1974) I was feelin’ pretty good. Along came the first really warm day and I actually managed to respond to all my complaints before 3PM, so there was time to patrol. The foreman of Laurelhurst Park, jewel of the SE side of Portland, had asked me to occasionally drive the truck through on the paved trail. The long slopes of grass and lovely reflecting pond were almost irresistible to the hippie kids and their dogs from the big once-luxurious homes now run as boarding houses. The kids floated -- no jobs, no permanent addresses, no family around -- so they were impossible to pin down with a citation and if their big dogs, their buddies, were impounded, they’d never have the money and transportation to go redeem them. So the idea was just to clear the park occasionally and remind them they weren’t supposed to be running their dogs loose.

This seemed the perfect thing to do late on a spring day with the back of the truck already full of dogs. In fact, I parked and walked, handing out dog license applications, still new and earnest enough to believe someone might actually use them. And still dumb and unaware enough that I didn’t realize these kids had been into the beer long enough to be riled up. In those days all outbursts of temper were aimed at “the man.” And I was “the man.” Soon I was surrounded by shouting young people and their barking dogs. I retreated to the truck, which now had four flat tires (not slashed -- they just let the air out) and a wrenched-off handle to the back where the dogs were. I ALWAYS kept it locked. The lock held.

In the cacaphony I radioed back to the shelter, asking for someone to bring a compressed air tank to pump my tires back up. A big fat shirtless guy with a tummy like a eight-months pregnant mother of twins leaned menacingly in the door of the truck. In Portland there was a well-known restaurant called the Ho-Ti, whose icon was a jolly big-bellied Asian figure. One rubbed his belly for good luck. I had a weird impulse to rub this guy’s sweating fat stomach.

Knowing help was on the way, I got out to talk some more. I really believed this was a loud discussion, not a riot. I scooped up a loose poodle for a hostage and petted it while I sat on the hood in English teacher mode. What I didn’t know was that one of the other animal control officers, a guy who occasionally forgot to lock the back of his truck and once lost an entire load of dogs when it was opened, had called in a “Code Zero.” That means “officer in trouble.” It means “go the limit and do it fast.”

Sirens wailed as the squad cars roared into the park. They were two-man cars, meaning that they’d been patrolling NE, a place where cops asked no questions and took action first. They began grabbing people and stuffing them into the backs of the squad cars. The crowd did not disperse. Now we were well on the way to a riot.

Then the sergeant arrived, a tall red-headed woman who eventually became the Chief of Police. All the officers dived to find their hats, which they were supposed to wear at all times but hated on hot days. In five minutes the hippies were pitched back out of the squad cars, the area was cleared, I gave the poodle back, and there I was -- four flat tires, all alone, feeling silly while my truck full of dogs howled.

It was quite a public blunder since everyone heard it on the radio, including all the citizens who monitored scanners at home. I felt much better later when I overheard Burgwin talking to someone who sneered, “What was she going to do? Walk all the dogs out to the shelter on leashes?” Burgwin said, “If she were asked to do it, she could.” I glowed. (When I thought seriously about what it would mean to put ten dogs on leashes and walk them fourteen miles, the main thing I was sure of was that the first mile would be the hardest.)

The other incident was quite private -- in fact, unofficial. I was an active member of the Unitarian church where I had gotten to know a man of considerable prestige. He was a vaguely European scientist with a connection to Reed College, a man of enormous dignity and accomplishment. One Sunday morning early he called me at home, apologetic but clearly distraught. “Something terrible is happening here. Please come at once! I don’t want officials involved.”

What was the matter? “A big police dog has killed another dog and eaten it. All that’s left now is the head and he’s out there eating THAT. It’s ghastly.”

When I got there, the “other dog” turned out to have been a deer. It was deer-hunting season and the dog had raided someone’s butchering leftovers. He was happily scarfing down neck venison. “But there are no horns!” protested the brilliant professor with no experience but urban. It was a doe. “You mean someone has killed a lady deer?” Major shock at the brutality of it.

So we set out to haze German shepherd home, driving along slowly behind it. I’d slung the head into the back of my van, but the dog was still reluctant to leave his breakfast spot. When we saw where the dog lived, I wrote up a complaint for the regular officer the next day, mostly because the scientist was terrified that if the person who owned such a meat-eating dog knew who he was, the person would somehow retaliate.

To distract him, I started a conversation about other matters and soon we were speculating on the artistic merit of Henry Moore, whose huge bronzes were abstractions, mostly of the reclining female form and mostly (to the untrained eye) big blobs with holes in them. Suddenly the scientist stopped, turned sideways to stare at me, and demanded, “How can I be having a conversation about abstract art with a ... a dog-catcher?”

Which all goes to show that people, from half-stoned hippie kids to esteemed scientists, have stubborn stereotypes about animal matters. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes a nuisance, and sometimes a real danger. Mostly people forget what is the map (the stereotype) and what is the reality of the territory so that there’s always a dissonance, always an inefficiency, in what needs to be done, because of reacting to the wrong signals.

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