The working title for my book about being an animal control officer in the Seventies is “Dog Catching in America.” The first part -- “dog catching” -- is inaccurate, of course, which is one of the points of the book, but the last part -- "in America" -- is meant to keep me reminded that animal issues are an excellent focus for learning about democracy. Most people with animal complaints are altogether too willing to just throw out orderly law enforcement in favor of summary and sometimes capital judgments by authority figures. It’s as if they wanted to go back to childhood when Mom or Dad would come to the yard and “settle things.” Hopefully, their way. Maybe this is one of the results of seeing animal control in terms of humane society illustrations of puppies and children.
One of the most vexed categories of complaints is that of noise, most usually dogs barking, though we had one complaint about a “Rocky Mountain Canary” (a donkey) that brayed constantly and loudly, giving the judge a chance to use a line he’d been saving since boyhood: “Mister, get your ass out of town by sundown!” Another was about guinea fowl (notoriously noisy and crotchety birds) released in a cemetary to be "watchbirds" by the caretaker who was tired of cleaning up after teenagers. The neighbors were soon claiming they preferred beer blasts to screaming guinea hens.
One old man kept complaining about a dog barking next door to him. Often owners will express surprise that their dog is noisy or will ask for advice about how to keep it quiet. This owner was a single woman who stoutly declared that the dog did NOT bark. Her neighbors agreed. The old man could not grasp the simple principle that makes the most trouble with barking complaints: there must be a witness. The officer can’t be a witness because the officer doesn’t live there and most dogs naturally bark when the officer comes around. Many complainants cannot get hold of the idea that they can order the officer to be a second-hand witness.
Another principle of democracy many complainants dodge is the right to be confronted by one’s accuser. They don’t want the dog owner to know who complained. In fact, if they had the social skills to manage neighborhood problems, they wouldn’t need the officer and our taxes would go down. So this old man balked at taking the dog owner next door to court. He just wanted me to “make” the dog stop. Finally I wore him down.
The woman who owned the dog was upset because she had to lose a day of work, but she came and brought neighbors with her who claimed they never heard the dog bark. She said it would be worth it to get the old man finally shut up.
Finally the old man took the stand. Instead of talking about the dog, he launched into a long and complex account of this woman’s life and how she had been abused by her ex-husband. The judge tried to interrupt, but the old man didn’t seem to hear him. It was a hot day with the windows open onto the street (Portland voters don’t like air-conditioning for public places.) and poisonous buses snorted past, just ten feet away on the street. The judge asked the old man how loud the dog’s barking was.
“Way too loud. Intolerable,” claimed the man.
“Louder than that bus?” asked the judge as another monster roared past.
“What bus?” innocently asked the deaf old man.
“Do you have a hearing problem?” demanded the judge, practically shouting.
“Oh, yes. I’m supposed to wear a hearing aid but I don’t like it.”
The judge dismissed the case. Later someone enlightened me that the long, complex tale he had told about the single woman was in fact the plot of a soap opera on television. Since it had subtitles for the deaf, it was one of the few worlds he could inhabit.
On another occasion a woman arrived in court to complain about a barking dog and seemed to dominate a little group of witnesses, all dressed as women used to dress after WWII, that is, with dresses and hats. Except her husband, of course. The dog owner was meek and apologized. The woman’s case seemed irrefutable, so the judge ordered the dog to be removed to a new home.
The woman leapt to her feet. “What? Only removed? I want that little devil killed!” She launched into a tirade that made it clear that she hated the dog and its owner as well and she intended to rid the world of them.
The judge sat amazed. Finally, he ordered her to sit down. “Madam, you are a vindictive and unreasonable person and a totally unreliable witness. I hereby rescind my order. Sir, you may keep your dog.” The woman began to object, but the judge added his own bit of personal testimony: “Madam, that is the ugliest hat I ever saw!” And with that taste of her own medicine, he left. The woman’s husband was grinning.
But our modern world doesn’t always lend itself to such simple verdicts. My mother moved into her little house in 1938 as a bride and lived there until her death in 1999. The neighborhood, which had been European immigrants who ran small shops and worked as craftsmen, drifted towards respectable black families and then down the economic scale as their children either succeeded and left or sank, pulling down the whole household. The conscientious family next door had a little girl when they moved in and my mother took care of her between school and the time her parents got home. But things went wrong. The little girl grew up to be alcoholic, an addict, a person always in trouble which she brought home, including a fetal alcohol syndrome daughter. The old folks passed away.
Down on my own economic luck in 1992, I spent eight months on my mother’s sofa. One day I heard terrible shrieking and rushed out to find the FAS little girl beating a puppy on her front porch. I tried to talk to her, but she grabbed the puppy and took it inside. My mother begged me not to make any complaints to authorities. She had had several go-rounds with the drunken mother in the past -- screaming terrible language, making awful threats. My mother was approaching ninety, suffering from blood cancer, and afraid of being burned out.
In a day or two, the mother next door threw the limp remains of the dead puppy out the back door so that it lay in the backyard, slowly decomposing over the winter. The family already had a social worker and a probation officer. Cruelty? Their lives were already as cruel as “bad choices” could make them. It was merciful that the pup died young.
Democracy and social networks fail us when trying to address chemically dehumanized people. Democracy assumes citizens who can make decisions. How they can make decisions about neighbors who seem less competent than their domestic animals is a major problem.