Friday, October 23, 2009

Snug as a Bug in a Rug

My dog has a very rough life.

(taken by Running With Dogs while I was at work)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stewardship, Futility, Enforcement, Education

"Nature Noir," the book I finished last night or this morning, I've already forgotten, has really made me think about animal control, as a profession in general, and in my case specifically. I think a lot of my preconceived notions of park rangers are probably pretty similar in hue to those people have of animal control officers. And I imagine that I probably had some of the same illusions as Smith did when he joined the Park Services. These misconceptions are not quite the same ones as the general public has, because Smith and I both knew what we were getting into, for the most part (I had scooped plenty of shit before I became an officer almost 2 years ago, for example; I was no animal welfare rookie), but it really takes putting on the boots to get it.

I have been to a lot of national parks, and a lot of state parks, and I've met a couple rangers. I've met people in green and khaki that I assume are rangers. Some of them take money at parking kiosks and hand out little maps. I met some cool rangers in Yosemite that explained that they're basically federal police, and carry guns, and have to be able to do everything, including all kinds of first aid. But I have no idea what they do. I wanted to be a ranger once- how cool would it be to sit somewhere bucolic or picturesque and write books like John Muir? See how naive I am? Smith writes about how the work is seasonal, and you're constantly moving from park to park for work. In order to get job security, you have to go places where ranger work is year round, like Auburn. Which is a pretty sheisty placement. And you start over there. "Now, as a junior permanent, you're back at the bottom of the heap. So you gladly take what you can get. Then, to get back to the places that were the whole point of rangering in the first place, you begin to make calculated moves instead of moves of the heart. That's when the trouble begins." Here's how Smith cynically (or realistically) sums up his career trouble: "For most of us, our career prospects ended when we went there. The Auburn Dam site wasn't the kind of place that looked good on a resume. The department preferred to think of its rangers chatting with families in neat little picnic grounds or giving wildflower walks. Most of us were never promoted again. What we did there mattered only to us, and to the river."

I'm pretty sure lots of people have met animal control officers, or seen people they thought were animal control officers. What do they think we do? I've summed up some of the things I actually do, and some of the things I think people think we do, but I know there's a lot of misconceptions out there. There's the old stereotype of the bumbling dog catcher (sort of like my view of the toll taking kiosk ranger) and the glorified rescuer of "Animal Cops" (As Seen On TV). I think a lot of people think we love animals so much, and that we pretty much do cool animal stuff all day long, sort of like my childish dream of sitting by a bubbling brook and writing nature poems. In my case, like for Smith, animal control was a sort of career move (though I hate thinking in those terms- life plans stress me out): I did lots of "smaller" animal welfare jobs and wanted to do something a little more permanent, and with more impact. But every day I feel more like what I do matters only to me, and maybe to an individual animal.

The park that Smith worked in for the majority of his career was slated to be under water "sometime in the future" for the entire time that he worked the land. Though rangers are supposed to protect the land, there is an amazing sense of underlying futility in Smith's writing: how can you protect land that the government you work for is going to destroy? Stewardship becomes a moot point when the land being tended is about to be at the bottom of an artificial lake. This is a feeling I grapple with daily. My jurisdiction is not going to be under water in any literal sense, but some days I feel like it already is under water. Who am I protecting? The animals? From whom? Their owners? With what laws? If I enforce the laws, or seize the animals, who will prosecute the offenders and make sure that history is not repeated? I am also supposed to be protecting people, in my public safety role. But if people are going to continue to manage their animals irresponsibly (or not at all), how can I help steward a safe community? And if what is in existence is already broken, is it stewardship or plugging a dyke with a pinky finger? I often feel like my job is a juggling act, to keep the situation at bay, and the bar that has been set is very low. Futility.

Smith writes about one of his first postings that "I had learned a couple of things about human nature that wouldn't startle you much if you took a moment to think about them: When regular people leave the city limits, their behavior doesn't change much, and habitual criminals are seldom rehabilitated by pretty scenery." I'm not sure I've ever read truer words. When regular people have pets, their behavior doesn't change much, and regular criminals are usually regular criminals in all walks of life. A friend of mine who works in another jurisdiction once put it to me this way: "Where there's one felony offense there's usually another." Like the time I showed up at a cock fight and found a gun under a couch cushion. I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but human nature continues to amaze me. Although I chose to look the other way about non-animal-related-offenses on my calls, they're there, all day, every day (not the guns, I don't see those, and I wouldn't look the other way, but I'm there about the animals. Not the pot, not the expired (or stolen) license plate, not the fake ID). Smith continues: "Still, I believed there was one big distinction between me and your run-of-the-mill cop. I wasn't just slowing the inevitable decline of western civilization by arresting the guilty and carting off the wounded. I had been given a sacred charge: America's crown jewels, those special places legislatures had agreed were too good to ruin." Well, I'm glad he and the other rangers are there, and I'm glad that they're not "just" cops (although I'm glad "just" cops are there, too). These are cops with a mandate, and a special interest in stewardship and protection. I feel the same way about my job. I'm not "just" a wannabe cop (or a dog catcher). I have a special mandate, to protect and serve animals. It's not some cheesy "voice for the voiceless" thing, but there's something to the Mahatma Ghandi quote "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." When we're not on duty and the cops are handling our calls, they're handled. They're not handled with care.

And that's where education comes in. There's enforcement, and there's education. Smith cited and arrested more people than his fellow officers. He probably solved more serious crimes than his partners, too. There is a place for that, and maybe his park was safer for it, too. (The Auburn area sounds kind of sketchy, actually- I'm glad he was out there!) But he also was educated about the environmental issues about that dam- it wasn't just that he was going to be out of a job, he knew his park, and what it would cause. I'm also an enforcer, though probably not to the extent of Smith. I will write citations, and I will seize animals. But I prefer to educate, to speak to people, to appeal to reason. To talk about where we're coming from, to hear where we're coming from, to try and get to a point of mutual understanding. To explain the law, to teach, to listen.

At the end of all this is an overwhelming sense of futility. My life is not a reality show. It's not As Seen On TV. My town is screwed up, in many of the same ways that Auburn as described in Smith's book is (though maybe with less meth and less desert). There's also an amazing sense of doing the best I can, providing little bits of stewardship every day.
"For me, the bedrock of reality is my affection for wild nature, and I take exception to the idea that nature is nothing more than a cultural construction... Sentiment-call it love-for the wild is ultimately why Will and I became rangers. Sentiment is why any of us bother to raise children, who sometimes don't appreciate what we do; why we care tenderly for elderly parents after age has deprived them of the memory of our names. It is why we try to salvage the juvenile delinquent, the alcoholic, the drug addict. Without it, we are not human."

Jordan Fisher Smith: Nature Noir

This wasn't the book I was expecting to read, and I don't think it was the book Jordan Fisher Smith thought he would write when he joined the State Park services as a ranger. The cover of the book depicts some snow covered mountains, and the subtitle is "A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." Doesn't that evoke visions of a modern "Monkey Wrench Gang" or maybe a John Muir? Yeah, no. Smith was stationed in Auburn, and it was no easy, remote, read books, sip from a canteen, isolated from modern urban life kind of career. Rather, he was law enforcement, only off of the beaten path. I found myself really identifying with Smith- he's alone out there, dealing with some serious characters. Just because he's in a pastoral park setting doesn't mean there isn't shady stuff going on. (Animal control is the same way: just because we enforce animal related ordinances doesn't mean we aren't dealing with the same people.) Smith has recreational areas to contend with, riverbeds where squatters take up residence, and rivers with day vacationers. The anecdotes he tells are real, and sometimes brutal. Behind all of this is the lurking fear of a park service that may soon be under water- the whole time Smith was a ranger, the Auburn dam was a real possibility, and his whole area was slated to be a man made lake. The futility he feels is palpable (boy, do I know that feeling!).

This is a strange, choppy book written in a way that dispels myths without necessarily intending to. The narrative is out of sequence and often lacks transitions. Near the end of the book, Smith recounts his battle with Lyme disease, a struggle directly resulting from the changes humans have caused the ecosystem and his time in the park that is a microcosm of the changes in California. The book hit home for me- his career is full of possibilities of danger, and isn't quite what he thought what he was getting into. But it's public service, and he seems fulfilled.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Things Mac Taught Me About Respect

While on our walk today.

There are multiple ways to earn respect. Here are some ways that Mac has helped me identify:

#1: Lead by example. Mac respects his uncle Mole, although Uncle Mole is approximately 1/8th his size and weight. (Mole is the bigger small dog, the one not totally obscured by Mac's head. I estimate he's smaller than said noggin.)

Running With Dogs have discussed the family dynamics in our house (I hesitate to call them pack dynamics because I question the "pack" thing and also because our dogs don't really run together except when we're on walks or other occasions like in the car) at length. Basically, Uncle Mole is the captain of the ship, while weighing in at a mighty 9 pounds or so. And it's always been that way, from the moment Mac and Mole met. Although Mac and Mole both like to do doggy things like pee on stuff, Mole always gets to pee first. In fact, if they go to sniff the same things, Mac backs off. The humans don't do anything to encourage this, it just is. Although I appreciate this behavior- Mac's head is awfully big to be engaging in any other behavior with Mole- it's just how it is. Mole is Uncle Mole. He walks around like he knows he is Uncle Mole and Mac walks around like the doofy nephew, respecting the Man of The House.

#2 Rule by Fear. Mac has quite serious prey drive. He would like to eat squirrels, pigeons, and most especially cats. His prey drive progressed pretty much in that order: as a young'un, he was very interested in squirrels, then moved on to pigeons, who jumped satisfyingly into the air when he lunged, and now he's pretty much a cat man. He'll give the occasional half-hearted leap at a pigeon if they do something really tempting like walk in his face, but the only thing that really sets him off is a cat. And they *really* set him off. The only thing that he absolutely positively respects, however, and will look at and look away from, is a Canada goose.


If Mac was faced with this picture, rather than lunging like an out of control freak on a leash, I think he might actually tuck tail or piss himself, or look to me for an answer (good boy!). Today, we were faced with about 10 geese. They didn't move at first. They honked, and hissed, as these nasty Canada geese do. I hate these creatures, by the way. My theory about Canada geese and their foul infestation of California can wait for another day. He looked at them and started to get "the look" that means trouble is coming. I barely even whispered "leave it." He seemed to shake it off, like "Oh, it's THOSE birds." He has never in his life looked twice at a Canada goose. We have walked by so close that they could be nose to nose, closer than we could with a strange dog, and Mac won't even look at them. I swear, he averts his eyes, and if he could talk would say "lalalala, I don't see that scary thing over there, it's not there, right? Is it gone? Oh, phew!" Rule by fear. Respect by fear. Wouldn't you fear a bird the size of you when you're normally the biggest living non-human thing on the block? That's willing to bite? And probably has teeth?

OK that's all the lessons for today. You didn't think Mac grew a brain, did you?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Roberto Bolano: 2666

I would like to blame part of my non-blogging of late on this book, which has been eating away at my time, and my brain. To get a grip on the size of "2666," you can think of it this way: Bolano, who died right before the book was published, left instructions that the book be published as 5 separate, serialized novels. His wishes were disobeyed by his children, who strung them together in this one, very long book. To give you another picture of the length, heft and perhaps even density of this book, I recently saw "2666" for sale at Green Apple in two formats: the weighty version I have, and another, boxed version, of 3, smaller books. This is a book that was not meant to be read all at once.

And yet I read it all at once (and now I'm starting to speak like Bolano writes. Forgive themacinator, please, as Bolano's writing, while not necessarily appealing or endearing, is insidious, if not by its virtuoisity or its charm, but its very presence, through 1000 pages). I read it and read it and read it some more. Bolano writes in long, complicated, never ending paragraphs and pages and thoughts and I think I lost track of how many characters there were at about 100- when thinking last night, I think there were probably between 300 and 500 people introduced in this book. So you can't just casually read the book and set it down and pick it up later. You could, but you would miss the point, or worry about missing the point, since the point is buried in those long meandering paragraphs. And have I mentioned that this book is translated from the Spanish?

Why did I pick this book up? Well, I picked it up because of the part on the back that talked about the disappearing women on the Mexico/US border. I read everything I can get my hands on about the border, so I bought this book. Otherwise, this book is about as far as I can get from what I normally read: magical, wordy, translated, and long long and longer. I struggled, because it turns out the part about the disappearances/murders was the 4th of 5th parts, and this isn't a book you can jump around in, even though Bolano thought the parts would stand alone. So by the time I was mid-way through part 2, I was hooked. There is a bit of a mystery that happens in this book, or maybe mysteries is more accurate, and really, it's intriguing. And so, SO frustrating. The part about Mexico was the most wonderful, maybe because Bolano was writing more in his element- his discussions of Latin America and Mexico were as humerous as they were heartbreaking- and maybe because that was the part I really cared about. But as I told myself this week that I would finish this book and finally move on to the next, the end wasn't so bad either. In fact, for all the 8103637 characters, Bolano knew what he was doing.

This was a new journey for me- I couldn't read "100 Years of Solitude"- magical realism (?) has never been my thing. Translation frustrates me. The long sentence/paragraphs remind me of Faulkner, who I've also never been able to read. But this book forced my concentration, and it worked my imagination. It was crude and beautiful, magical and very very real.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

City Life is Hard, Country Life is Not the Easy Answer

(blog note: my creativity has been hit a low lately. I'm working too much, I'm watching too much TV on my computer, and I'm reading the world's longest book that I've vowed to finish today. It seems I now blog once a week. Which bums me out. Hopefully there will be more soon. I have more to say. I've just been too apathetic to say it.)

Dog people, rescue people hear this all the time: "I can't keep this dog, he really needs a home in the country." It's a different version of "this dog needs a one person house, a house with no kids, a house with no other dogs or cats, and a dog-savvy owner." But really, what does a house in the country mean? And will this be a solution for the dog?

City life is hard for a dog. Those of us who live in the city ask a LOT from our dogs, and a lot of what we ask of our dogs isn't really fair. City dwellings are often small, cramped spaces. Dogs live inside these small cramped spaces, or in small, confined yards. We walk them on leashes if we follow the law and care about the safety of our dog and of others. We want to respect our neighbors, so we don't want them to bark very much, and we're probably pretty busy, so we don't take them on lots of walks, or we walk them around our concrete neighborhoods. We expect them to cohabitate at close range with other dogs, on leash and off, in our houses and in our neighborhoods, cats in the street and in our homes, and all kinds of people, who do all kinds of weird things. We want them to live with our new babies, and not to react if our new babies do weird things. We want them to guard our houses so that we'll feel safe from crime, but we don't want them to guard our houses with their teeth, just by barking. We want them to have what we have what we think are good manners: we don't want them to jump on people, we want a leash to be loose when they walk, we expect them to know what "sit" means. I could go on.

In the city, we expect all of these things, and we don't get it why our dogs fail us. We don't realize that we are actually failing our dogs by expecting so much and giving so little. We don't realize that our dogs are living in small spaces and not getting enough exercize. We don't realize that our small houses and yards aren't providing very much stimulus for our dogs: their eyes, ears and noses, especially their noses. We don't realize that our dogs are stressed by the sounds they hear at close range that we can't even hear, or don't notice because we know and understand what they are: the neighbors' keys jingling, the raccoon on the fence, the garbage man in the early morning, the cat in the apartment upstairs. We don't understand that our dogs need to run, and that by keeping them on leash, or even strolling around the block off leash, our dogs are walking all the time. Dogs move quickly even when they're walking. They need to get tired. And they don't do this on a walk around the block. And when we take them to the small dirt dog run and run and pee with the other dogs that they may or may not have met before, there is adrenaline, and maybe some exercize, but not necessarily the exercize they need. We expose our dogs to good things, but we don't pay attention to see if the exposure is in a positive manner. We have preconceived notions of what is "fun" for our dogs: the dog run is a "fun" thing. And when the police officer, or common knowledge tells us that dogs are protective, and a deterrent, we don't think about how this is a huge burden for a dog, and that they don't know what we think is a "real" vs "perceived" threat. We expect them, unrealistically, to make this determination appropriately.

When our dogs fail us, we decide they need a home in the country. Where they can run. Where they won't hurt anyone. Where life is less stimulating: no freeway noise, no loud banging, neighbors are far away, life is slower and less scary. Read craigslist, or petfinder, or talk to your friend who does rescue or works in a shelter and ask them how many times you've heard about the dog who "needs a quiet home outside of the city." The scared dog, the dog with a bite history, or at least a history of nipping. I've seen the other side of this: rural shelters seem to have less "messed up" dogs than their urban counterparts: dogs that are spooked, or overly wound up, showing anxiety behaviors or just plain rudeness. But is a house in the country the answer? How many scared dogs can we ship off to the country? How many dogs that have bitten people will actually do better in the country? Will they do any better because they don't have neighbors? Will scared dogs unlearn their fear? Will a dog who bites unlearn his triggers? I'm not convinced that this is how behavior works. We owe our dogs more than a train ticket to the Sierras or the Berkshires or some other scenic place. We need to understand how to set them up for success, and how to work with them, rather than to exile them. Or, if they're not safe to be in the city, we need to understand this and deal with it honestly, rather than passing the buck to our rural neighbors.

Addendum: I live with a dog who could easily have been one of those dogs looking for a home in the country. She's not mine, you'll have to read Running With Dogs for the full story, but Abby was a puppy mill rescue who came to her owner in a round about, accidental way, and was so scared of the world that she was basically feral. She was lost for 6 weeks, and still basically feral. Now she has friends of the human variety, and is working on running agility. She could have found a fabulous home in the country, I'm sure, where life is quieter than Oakland. But instead, her owner has worked with her, at her speed and comfort level, to make her a dog who is (almost) comfortable in her own skin. Abby has things she likes to do. She meets people when she wants to. She gets appropriate exercise. She lives with dogs that she likes, even if they don't like her. I think that living in the country would actually terrify her- here, she has a safety net, and a "person." Her person leads her around the world, and breaks up the world into small, manageable, city-sized chunks.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chris Rock, Pit Bulls and White People

*note: nowhere in this post am I excusing any kind of dog fighting or animal cruelty. I am merely trying to further the discussion of animal welfare into one that includes race and economics.*

Chris Rock is an asshole. Michael Vick, also an asshole. Chris Rock is allegedly a funny asshole, while Michael Vick is a strong, football something or other asshole. Chris Rock recently announced that
Jay Leno: “It’s amazing to me that you mistreat a dog and you lose your career and go to jail for two years.”

Chris Rock: “What the hell did Michael Vick do, man? A dog, a pit bull ain’t even a real dog. A pit bull, that’s the white stuff. Dogs are white mans best friend – dogs have never been good to black people.”
And you probably know that Michael Vick recently returned from prison, after being convicted of dog fighting.

I don't know much about either man. I stayed mostly uninformed on the Michael Vick case- although news to much of the General Public, I already knew that dog fighting was a real problem. And I hate standup comedy. This is the only video I've ever seen by Chris Rock:

It's a good one. It's funny, but it's also extremely challenging. Rock gives tips on how black people can stay out of trouble with the police, and then goes through some very common ways people might get in trouble with the police, and very common stereotypical ways that people of color get in trouble with the police. When the black men mess up, the police beat on them. The video is racist, sexist, anti-establishment, and downright offensive. But it's also effective: it makes you think.

Jay Leno led Chris Rock into making a disturbing comment about pit bulls, dog fighting, and animal cruelty. Pit bull aficionados have been up in arms about this. Some have called the remark not worth commenting on (thereby commenting on it without being forced to evaluate their own stance). Some pit bulls gurus are starting campaigns against Jay Leno, Chris Rock and their sponsors. Others are just saying it's par for the course. Rock, Vick, and apparently, Leno, are assholes.

But I think all of these are missing the point. Rock is a comedian, but he's also a comedian with an agenda, one who pokes fun at issues that are at the heart of our society. That video is hard to watch without thinking. And can you really read the dialogue between Leno and Rock and not think about *your* values? When the whole Vick thing went down, Whoopie Goldberg argued that dog fighting is a cultural thing and many people were up in arms about this. The treatment of animals *is* affected by culture. Cultural differences are NO EXCUSE for animal cruelty or dog fighting, which is an extreme form of animal cruelty, but there was a dialogue going on. With the recent Leno and Rock escapade, there is no dialogue, just a lot of huffing and puffing about these guys acting the fool. You know- we need to talk about this stuff.

I grew up in a culture where dogs sleep inside. A woman I talked to about the California anti-tethering penal and health and safety codes last week asked me what she was supposed to do, let the dog run loose in her fenced yard? "My momma always kept the dog tied up in the yard," she said. The woman was three years younger than I am, and also grew up in Oakland. The idea even of letting the dog sleep untethered in a yard was literally foreign to her: something "other people" did. I have met people who will only touch a dog if they are wearing rubber gloves. Dogs are literally dirty, carrying germs. It would be strange, and "other" to touch them. I know people who believe dogs are fundamentally unclean, as in religiously. Only people of "other" faiths would have dogs, let alone in their houses. These are all people who are still kind to animals, although they do not afford them the same place in their lives as I do. They are not racist, but they have beliefs about animals and the people who care for them that are based on the other-ing of others. I have them, too, although I have examined them more than most, due to the nature of my work.

Why does Rock say dogs aren't good to black people? Why does Rock say pit bulls aren't real dogs? Why does Rock say pit bulls are for white people? Perhaps Rock is pointing to the history of dogs being used to hunt slaves, or even to the modern use of K9s in law enforcement (I'm pretty sure that Rock has a lot to say about law enforcement based on the above video). Maybe Rock's a closet pit bull fan, and he's being ironic: most people DON'T consider pit bulls real dogs. They're vicious monsters, or the throw-away dogs at animal shelters, or something you only see at the ghetto. And what about white people being "best friends" with dogs? Is this a reference to racial or cultural differences between the treatment of their dogs? Is it a comment on the amount of white people in rescue? Because that would be an interesting discussion, wouldn't it?

You know, maybe Rock is just an asshole. Maybe he and Leno talked ahead of the show about what big Eagle's fans they are, and how they could give Vick, their fellow asshole a plug while simultaneously pissing off pit bull fans. I don't really care. What I do care about is a dialogue. There is a reason that pit bulls are everywhere. There is a reason they are so maligned, and so often associated by the "mainstream" with "the ghetto" and no one's talking about it. We need to start caring about these reasons, and maybe we need people like Chris Rock to break the ice, even if it hurts our feelings.