Park Life: A dog-hater relents

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The Independent Culture
SOMEHOW - WITHOUT having properly discussed the matter, let alone consciously making the big decision - it seems we are going to get a dog. The whole family will troop along to Battersea Dog's Home one quiet morning and pick some irresistible puppy to save from long-term incarceration. The only uncertainty left is the timing, although my eight-year-old son Darcy informs me it will be "this summer, probably May".

This may not be a world-shattering event, but to me it is nothing short of the most humiliating U-turn, an absolute surrender of principle. For years I have regaled anyone who will listen with my opinion that the canine species has no place in cities, and that urban dog-owners should be locked up. Pavements are for people, I insist, and city parks are our shared gardens - how would they like it if we dumped raw sewage in their back yard?

Some years ago, when Darcy was still crawling, we got home from a walk on a murky winter Sunday to find dog shit smeared across his chest - how his fingers and mouth missed the foul mess I just don't know. No wonder most park football teams keep a small spade in their kit-bag alongside the spray and magic sponge, in order to clear the pitch before each game.

You may think it is unfair of me to blame all dog-owners for the sins of the few who, in contravention of the local bylaws, fail to clear up after their mutts. If only this were the case. As it is, I am still happily shocked and surprised when I witness someone doing the right thing. The vast majority of dog-owners - otherwise solid citizens for the most part - seem to regard it as part of their birthright to allow their animals to defecate wherever the urge takes them. I'm all for zero tolerance on this issue; when I lived in New York almost 20 years ago you could buy drugs on any street corner, but if your dog squatted in the street a hundred pairs of eyes would ensure that you cleared away the results.

Recently I considered taking the law into my own hands by impounding any dogs I saw fouling the grass - a sort of canine citizen's arrest. When I phoned the borough parks department to inquire about the legal niceties, I was advised against this course of action on the grounds that "dog owners are a bit mad".

So why is it, I ask myself, that I am now prepared to throw in my lot with this group I so despise? Why is it that I have held out, year after year, against television on weekdays and sweets every day, but I have caved in after only a few months of Darcy's nagging about a dog?

The explanation, I suppose, is that I do somehow believe that keeping animals is part of family life; that it is good for children. I grew up with cats and dogs around the home, and find it hard to justify why my children shouldn't. Left to myself, this conviction would probably have remained dormant, but Darcy was not prepared to drop the subject. So far, we have tried to fill the gap with a hamster, but you can't walk a hamster in the park, teach it tricks, or even cuddle it without risking its life.

For his part, Darcy has assembled a collection of toy animals, and has started buying a children's pet magazine full of pull-out posters of puppies and kittens. Unfortunately, the magazine is subtitled "for girls", which Darcy rejects as sexist rubbish. Nonetheless, he sends me into the newsagent to buy his copy while he skulks outside, and we fold it carefully to hide the title as we walk home, which makes me feel like a teenager buying porn from the top shelf.

I've found myself looking forward to the pleasures of dog ownership - the knowledge that there will always be someone to welcome me at the door when I arrive home from work, unlike the children who barely glance up from their homework to grunt, and the excuse to run several miles a day in the park to keep city-dog fit.

I have also resolved that no one will be able to call me a hypocrite, so I'll set off for every walk with a couple of plastic bags in my pocket (although I try not to dwell on the mechanics of this). It may be expecting too much to hope that other dog-owners will be inspired by my poop-scooping example, but the shift in attitudes has got to start somewhere.

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