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Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 12:06 pm

Endangered repose

Dogs love to talk. Pity they have nothing to say.

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Ever notice that there is only two letters’ difference between dog and blog? The dog and blogger are kin to the extent that too many of each are noisily eager to share their ignorance with everyone else.  I have had dog owners patiently explain to me that their animals’ incessant shouting is really “talking.” Jeff on “Lassie” thought that his dog could talk because his brain was rotted by a diet of cookies and milk, but then many Americans believe that candidates speaking at a moderated press conference are “debating.” The problem is not that dogs can’t talk, anymore than candidates can debate. The problem is that both have nothing to say. When it comes to judging dogs, I adhere to the doctrine of original intent; if the creator intended that dogs should be close companions of humans, she would have made them better conversationalists.

I first columnized about dogs in this paper in 1978. It would be fair to describe my attitude as disapproving. I wish I could report that in the intervening 34 years dogs or I have changed for the better, but I cannot. They insist on barking and I insist on being annoyed by it. One of my neighbors has a dog, a terrier. It’s the kind that some people call ratters but that I call yappers. The animal yaps when its master comes in the door and it yaps when he goes out. It yaps at strangers and it yaps (if anything, more furiously) at friends. It yaps when squirrels move, it yaps when the sun moves, it yaps when the stock market moves. Its owner is raising it to be a good liberal dog; it pays no taxes, and creates no jobs, unless you count the extra work my dentist has to do because I grind my teeth so much. However, if my neighbor ever teaches that dog to read Charles Krauthammer, my life won’t be worth living.

Municipal ordinances hereabouts seek to limit only that barking which is unreasonably loud or long-lasting or occurs in the wee hours, as codified in general noise nuisance rules. Champaign, which has long been my idea of a civilized metropolis in spite of the presence of the U of I, bans “noise discernable [sic] by a person of average sensibility within any dwelling between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. when the noise is of an intensity, tone, characteristic, frequency of occurrence or duration as not to be customarily associated with uses permitted in the zoning district in which such dwelling is located, including, keeping any domestic animal.”  

The more specific the ordinance the easier it is to defend in court, and the harder it is to enforce. Up in Chicago, the standard is volume – “louder than two people talking at a distance of 100 feet or more” in the judgment of the officer called to the scene. But which two people? There are neighborhoods in Chicago where two people conversing in their normal voice downstairs on the sidewalk would keep an alderman awake during a city council meeting.     

Springfield sets duration as the criterion, proscribing barking by dogs that lasts more than 15 minutes. That rule tangles animal control officers in all manner of absurdities. As Ald. Kris Theilen pointed out in 2008, an animal that howls for 14 minutes, goes to his bowl briefly for a refreshing sip of water then resumes barking for another 14 minutes, cannot be ticketed.

Bloomington proscribes noise of any volume or duration (including that caused by animals) that “endangers the health, safety, welfare, prosperity, comfort or repose of reasonable persons of ordinary sensitivities.” Since even a single outburst of barking is enough to endanger one’s nap, or book reading, or conversation, or music-listening, the barking dog would seem to be officially bestia non grata in Bloomington. But while I interpret the ordinance to mean that anyone who owns a barking dog thus demonstrates that he is not a reasonable person of ordinary sensitivities, most Bloomingtonians would probably find me unreasonably sensitive to noise.

Good neighbors can work things out, but nothing turns people into bad neighbors quicker than nuisance noise. I used to believe that the market would someday offer a solution in the form of no-pets developments, much as one can move into no-kids retirement villages, but the cultural trends are against me. Two of every five residents in the Historic Core district of Los Angeles own dogs, thanks to landlords of newly converted loft buildings who have peopled their buildings through pet-friendly policies such as forgoing pet deposits. The result is what The Atlantic Monthly describes as a “livelier, more vibrant downtown,” as it would be, what with pedestrians tripping over leashes and skipping around turds on the sidewalk.

No wonder all the muggers left.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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