Saturday, February 23, 2008

Animal City

Dick Cavett once said that his friend Woody Allen was "at two with nature" and, with their similar urban sensibilites, Buenos Aires residents are also often wary of exotic fauna they perceive to be dangerous (as this photograph taken in Palermo might suggest). Still, Porteños love their dogs and cats.

As office workers and apartment dwellers, though, many Porteños have to hire paseaperros to exercise their dogs or even take them on longer excursions or beach holidays, as I wrote a couple years ago in Latin Trade magazine. Few of them neuter their dogs, though for apartment-bound canines that may be a lesser issue than it is in provincial towns (yesterday, when I visited the riverside suburb of Tigre, the number of street dogs was disheartening).

Both residents and visitors constantly complain of dog droppings in the streets. In today's Buenos Aires Herald, for instance, a Canadian visitor deplores "the stench of faeces and urine," and it's true that many--if not most--dog owners are irresponsible about cleaning up after their pets. Though I'm a dog lover (I wish our Alaskan malamute Malbec could accompany us to Buenos Aires), I resent the quantities of soretes that often speckle the sidewalks in our middle- to upper-middle class neighborhood here.

That said, I notice changes. It's now more common, though far from universal, to see dog owners using plastic bags to clean up after their animals. When walking around town, I myself carry a couple extra bags to hand to people who feign unawareness that their dog is dumping on the sidewalk, but when presented with a way to pick it up they find it hard to refuse. In reality, I think such a simple solution probably never occurred to them, and they often thank me even if they're taken aback at first.

Twenty years ago, frankly, it would never have occurred to me in California, even though I was a dog owner then as well. At some point there, we reached a critical mass where it became unacceptable to allow dogs to do their business on the sidewalk, and now it's the exception when they do so. I think this is happening in Buenos Aires as well, even if it takes some time to become the rule.

The same is not true with cats, however, in public spaces such as the Botanical Gardens. Only blocks from our apartment, the gardens are infested with scrawny, sickly, feral felines that leave an overpowering odor; because of their presence, the gardens are an almost bird-free zone. At night the cats often invade a nearby children's playground to use its sandy surface as kitty litter. Many people abandon cats in fenced schoolyards, where they may get fed--but not vaccinated or neutered--by well-meaning but misguided people. It's something that needs urgent attention, but will be far harder to solve than cleaner sidewalks.

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