Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Off-leash Hounds

"Keep Your Mutts Off", appearing in today's (August 9, 2005) Los Angeles Times, is the latest in a long series of laments and castigations over off-leash dogs despoiling nature, stirring fear in the hearts of wild critters and terrifying "normal" hikers. Reporter Hugo Martin invokes John Muir and the little dog Stickeen with whom he shared an adventure on what is now Muir glacier in Alaska, in order to say that even Muir would be amazed at how many dogs are now backcountry. "Stickeen," Muir's account of the adventure, is one of the great dog stories.

Martin's primary focus is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Had Martin read more locally, say Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana's classic of his hide training along the California in the 1830s, he would have learned that dogs were a feature of the landscape, kept on the rancheros and at the missions to manage cattle, eat offal, hunt coyotes and other game, and guard. Sometimes dogs outnumbered people; indeed, when their numbers got so high they became pestiferous, they were culled. Dogs were woven into the fabric of life, as they had been in the Americas since the first people arrived. So how don't they belong?

I'm not going to defend people who refuse to control their dogs on or off leash, but, as I've said time and again, I'm a scofflaw from way back when it comes to leash laws, and I've walked my dogs in parks whenever I can. Various of them have tangled with skunks (a certain dandruff shampoo kills the odor), swum with a beaver, until I could fish them out, and gone ice skating with otters--about like me trying to swim with them. Yes, they chase squirrels. Of course, sometimes, people want dogs to chase deer, squirrels, rabbits, bears, and big cats, context being all.

To say that animals who evolved in the presence of predatory canids get agitated when one is around is basically to state the obvious in a way that reveals the ideological bias that many "wildlife biologists" have against domestic animals, even if they keep a few themselves. These biologists were inculcated with the notions that "wild nature and its plants and animals" are vastly superior--physically, mentally, genetically--to their degenerate domestic kin and that the wild must be kept pure from the corrupting influence of civilization. Their attitude is as rigid and as dangerous in the long run as that of the slash and burn developers. Both believe that nature and the humanmade world are fundamentally at odds.

To that I say that it's long past time that we in the West learned to live in the world without destroying it or sealing parts of it off, like some precious virgin. Were we to do so, we might have more land for parks, not less. A prime issue here is that there is not enough park land [period] Competing interests battle over what is, with each side claiming the moral high ground. Despite all the talk about the number of dogs in this country, generally politicians side with non-dog owners when it comes to leash laws and access to public land, in part, I suspect, because none of them wants to be accused of preferring animals to people and, in large part, for fear of lawsuits.

In many places I've been a sort of tolerable detente is established between the dog and the non-dog people. It's more a disequilibrium than an equilibrium, but given the general lack of imagination and intelligence shown by elected officials in this matter, it's about as good as can be expected. Trouble comes in the form of people who let their dogs run wild, bothering other people, dogs and animals; and in the guise of morally rigid rule enforcers (including politicians, rangers, cops, and certain deranged dog owners).

We need more parks so people and dogs can get more, not less exercse--off-leash.

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