It’s Not About Dogs…

January 10, 2009 at 3:47 am 6 comments

I’ve had a nagging suspicion that an increasing number of dog-related laws were being passed across the country.  Apparently (and unfortunately), I’m not crazy.  Last month the HSUS reported that a record number of animal “protection” laws were passed in 2008.  Their website brags that; “The nation’s largest animal protection organization ushered in a whole new era of policies for animals by helping to pass 91 new animal protection laws this year, surpassing the previous record number of 86 new laws enacted in 2007.”

But do we really need more laws?  A post on “The Tyranny of Relativism” I read today at Never Yet Melted got me thinking, once again, on the function of culture in society (it’s an excellent piece BTW – go read it).  As I commented there:

It’s that constellation of fixed values otherwise known as culture that gives us the security and cohesiveness that allows us to recognize and accept those whose values are different from ours.

What the relativists seem to have forgotten (or prefer to overlook) is that the unwritten rules and sanctions of culture are fluid and mutable. Allowances are made. Slights are remembered and often forgiven. But in a governmental or relativist system we are forced to endure rigid, compulsory laws and regulations. We can’t make allowances (that wouldn’t be fair, now – would it?) and transgressions are always punished but then supposed to be forgotten.

Though they may seem to be more rigid and restrictive at first glance; culture and ethics are much more fluid and adaptable than relativism and regulation.

Because they are fluid, mutable and forgiving, cultural mores are a much healthier way to guide general group behavior (i.e. things like excess barking, picking up poop and pet limits) than laws and regulations are.  But if we don’t need  more of them, why are increasing numbers of laws and regulations controlling life with our four-legged friends being promulgated?  A thought-provoking answer comes from a piece written by Michael Brandow in today’s New York Yimes about the city’s poop-scooping law:

I believe that many dog “problems” are symptoms of other concerns that have little or nothing to do with dogs. Like rabies paranoia, these fears tend to be culturally based. Why did a large number of cities suddenly decide to get tough on dog owners after 2001? Just as anti-dog sentiment in the 1970s was a way to express anger over the urban crisis, believe it or not, the new wave of canine waste laws seems to be inspired by the threat of global terrorism. New attitudes on how far we have the right to go in dictating personal behavior, and to monitor compliance with laws, are leading to cleaner surfaces — but at what price? People are taking age-old grudges and dressing them as public safety issues. Suddenly the whole world is on orange alert for sidewalk bombs.

We’ve got all this unresolved stress related to abstract, diffuse, on-going pressures like “is there anything left in my 401K?”  “did they really put melamine in Oreos?” and “will Al Queda bomb shopping malls?”  Add in the fact that we have an enemy that is, for the most part, nameless and faceless — and even the Department of Homeland Securityadmits that the potential health risks of unresolved fear and stress may outweigh the benefits of government terrorist threat alerts.  So, we cope by bitching about what a jerk our neighbor is and vote to pass a law that will make the ignorant b***ard get rid of his stoopid barking, crapping dog.

But do these laws regulating general group behavior really accomplish anything?  Referring specifically to New York’s dog poop law Brandow writes:

You are never going to catch one in a thousand people, not even if you live in a police state. Believing otherwise is only going to give you high blood pressure. Worse, every time you dial 311 and complain, you are giving government yet another opportunity to point a finger at those terrible dog owners. This serves a political purpose, just as it did in the ’70s. It distracts from matters weightier than a few stray piles, and gets government off the hook on the real problems that seem beyond its grasp.

Breed specific legislation, limit laws, mandatory spay-neuter and similar regulations don’t really accomplish much — but, compared to important things like campaign finance reform or balanced budgets these kinds of laws are really easy to write, enact and then — conveniently — forget about.  The legislators and lobbyists who “championed” the laws get their sound-bites. The wack-jobs at HSUS get another notch in their Naugahyde belts and life goes on.  Well, that is, except for dogs and dog owners who are now forced to endure yet another set of rigid, compulsory (and often non-sensical) laws and regulations that complicate our lives without solving any problems.

In the current state of things, dog-related legislation mostly affects law-abiding citizens who license their pets, give them regular veterinary care and engage in other activities that put them in the system’s database.  The irresponsible morons whose untrained, uninnoculated, unrestrained, unlicensed, unsocialized animals bark incessantly, have unwanted litters and attack the mailman fly under the radar until after they’ve committed the offenses these laws are designed to prevent.

Increased respect for and adherence to (gasp!) mainstream cultural mores would greatly reduce problems caused by things like noise and dog poop.  The very un-sexy options of education and increased enforcement of existing laws could significantly mitigate issues related to animal suffering, but these kinds of actions don’t generally lead to newspaper and TV interviews.  Unfortunately, increased enforcement results in media reports that arrests have gone up — which will, of course, be spun by the press to say that problems have gotten worse.  And no politician wants to be associated with that kind of publicity.

So instead of dealing with our pet-related problems within a flexible, forgiving system of common-sense cultural mores – we regulate them in a completely rigid legal system.  The politicians win. The lobbyists win.  And dogs lose.

Entry filed under: animal rights, behavior science, cynicism, dogs. Tags: , , , , .

More Killing in the Name of “Rescue” A Treat to Share With Your Dog

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. selwyn marock  |  January 10, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Well written article to which I agree with most of the points.
    But I beleive the real issue is sudenly little nothing councils have a right to make laws over a life and death issue,as we are aware
    that most politicians are ineffective and useless and are not
    really capable of handling real issues like real crime.Hitler’s
    BSL law that is spreading like a cancer,even in cities and towns that have never had a dog attack,it becomes a convienant law
    because you can throw the book at the law-abiding citizens and
    ignore real criminality,and as you have stated much of the
    legislation today is aimed at the law-abiding
    To fight this Evil and Heinous law created by hitler there
    is far too much “converting the converted” and far too much
    begging and pleading councils to reconsider,they must be

  • 2. Caveat  |  January 10, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I’ve said for years that dogs, and particularly ‘pit bulls’, are just a red herring.

    I suspect darker motives, though. I am convinced that these laws are enacted in order to erode civil rights, using dogs as a distraction. It is, indeed, a nascent police state.

    While media handmaidens joyfully (and fatuously) play pass the word, unfit government officials and manipulative animal liberation organizations cash in, big-time.

    To say that pet, and especially dog, owners are overregulated is to grossly understate how many pointless laws have been enacted. Someone in a time machine visiting from 50 years ago (when I was a kid) would be appalled to see the Big Brother world we now inhabit and shocked to discover that dogs are somehow a big deal these days.

    I fully agree that there is no substitute for peer pressure. That’s why BSL doesn’t work – it takes seasoned owners of more substantial breeds off the street, keeps them out of dog parks and basically renders them invisible. Breed-related muzzling laws reinforce the opinion of John Q that all dogs of ‘x’ breed are dangerous. Even I sometimes wonder if a dog is muzzled because of our noxious provincial legislation or because he is, in fact, an uncontrollably aggressive dog.

    What bothers me the most about all this is that these officials have exactly the same information we have and possibly more (I’m talking about the big guys here, not the little one-mutt towns who think they are keeping up with fashion). So they, too know it’s a crock. Yet they don’t care. That violates the basic principles of our society.

    Democracy is messy. It’s much more efficient – easier – to just regulate the hell out of everything, since most people are law-abiding. In Ontario we have warrantless entry, restrictions on mobility, reverse onus, unreasonable search and seizure and more – all based on owning a dog, any dog, not just the imaginary and elusive ‘pit bull’.

  • 3. Dorene  |  January 11, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Having been to way too many Council meetings in the last 6 years, it’s not just about dogs. It’s about those in charge (and those they listen to) feeling a need to control and NOT trusting in social mores to clean things up.

    In community gardening, we’re taught to create a community and eventually, mores will be set up and things hang much as Janeen said much more eloquently.

    However, when I started having to deal with government, these were people who genuinely felt that people COULDN’T either given the tools or ever trusted to work things out as a community — there had to be rules or anarchy was just around the corner.

    I will say that compared to the community gardening/ag world, I’ve found far more of the “must control because people are stupid” attitudes in the dog world. When I first started on the local dog park, I was quite shocked at how many dog people told me it was a horrible idea because ‘people are stupid” and you couldn’t teach them otherwise.

    Coming from community gardening, where we figure stuff is going to happen, but we plan for it and educate, educate, educate and eventually, it’s all going to work out (not that “eventually” won’t be a long, long time in some instances and backsliding is always a possibility) it was quite the wake-up call. But, getting that wake-up call has certainly helped me in dealing with the local politicians, who are even worse, and I would say, go for the regulation because they don’t believe there actually is a culture and social mores that will regulate behavoir.

    Add to the mix that it’s always easier to look like you’re handling a problem that to actually deal with it and it’s no wonder that dogs, public parks, outdoor recreation, etc gets it on the chin.

  • 4. EmilyS  |  January 11, 2009 at 5:19 am

    I agree it’s not about the dogs.

    But in regard to enforcing poop (and other nuisance related) laws: there is a theory that enforcing minor crimes contributes to an atmosphere in which major crimes are supressed. ( I THINK I have the “no graffitti/no turnstile jumping” theory correctly). And supposedly, if law enforcement started ticketing people for poop violations, the word would spread and people would pick up their own poop and parks would become cleaner. I think it’s pretty true that clean parks tend to stay clean and dirty parks get dirtier.

    I do think the atmosphere of fear, intolerance and mistrust that has grown so much in the past 8 years is being displaced onto our dogs.

    Maybe we’re in for better times…

  • 5. Dorene  |  January 11, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    EmilyS —

    If you want to do searches, it’s the “broken windows” theory — it’s one of the buttresses on “why you want a community garden” argument to local officials, so it gets linked a lot on community garden lists.

    When researching dog park designs/rationale, I found lots of verbage on dog poop. Most of the researchers seemed to think that especially in an urban areas, if you provided dog parks, the amount of dog poop laying around the urban area went down considerably because urban dog owners felt that their needs were being taken care of and that their tax dollars were being spent in a way that benefited them. Since they felt “heard,” they tended to contribute to society by picking up the poop.

    It seems that the best way to handle dog poop is to do research to find out WHY people are letting it lie and then working out incentives. “Revenge” because of unmet social needs seems to be a huge one, as is “just plain forget a bag” — in some areas, having free dispensers seems to have really “cleaned up” ;-D the problem.

    Before I started reading up on dog parks, I thought ticketing was an answer, too, but after reading these studies, I think it’s less about laziness and more about actually talking to people (in a statistically reasonable manner) and then making change based on what one finds out, based on the needs in one’s community.

  • 6. bluntobject  |  January 12, 2009 at 8:26 am

    On the tangential topic of dogshit: my neighbourhood’s received more snow in the past week than it has in the previous five years. (West coast — they aren’t used to it.) I’ve discovered, as the snow on the sidewalks melts, that any number of dog walkers who’re fastidious about cleaning up after their pups on clear or shoveled sidewalks are happy to leave little gifts behind for the rest of us pedestrians if they think it’s going to get snowed over. Out of sight, out of mind — ’til it melts, at least.

    As for the rest of it… well, the more laws we have, the more “evidence” politicians have that we need more laws.

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