This old town is going to the dogs
In Oak Park even dogs have agendas
July 29, 1992
I wish I’d done more of these pieces for Dan Haley’s Wednesday Journal in Oak Park, but he couldn’t pay anything and I was swamped with work as it was. By the way, the piece alludes to actual news items that Oak Parkers of the day did not need explained. Trust me, the dog turd in the senior canteen incident really happened.
Any town with dogs in it may be said to have a dog problem, I realize, but Oak Park's dog problem is made unique by the fact that the town is filled with Oak Park dogs. It is often said that owning a dog is therapeutic, and that must go double for Oak Parkers, whose attempts to live up to their own punishing standards of public probity have left them more prey to neurosis than less inhibited types. Dogs after all can do all those things that their owners secretly lust to do—dump on the neighbors' lawns, bite the ComEd man, fornicate in public, and in general carry on the way they used to in the old neighborhood.
When I moved next to the big city, I found that pets, like lifestyles, tend toward extremes. One's choice of dog in particular seems to reflect the owner's accommodation to one of the two things that distinguish life in greater Chicago from cities in my native Downstate—apartment living and paranoia about crime. The former is manifested in the trend toward "lite" pets—tiny dogs like the toy poodle, various terriers with thyroid problems, etc.
However space-efficient these animals may be, they fail the test of charm. Last summer I was walking in Oak Park when something darted out toward me from the front door of a house. It was gray and fuzzy, the size of a bedroom slipper. I thought at first it might have been a rat, but rats can't afford north Oak Park rents. It turned out to be a toy poodle, bent on protecting hearth and home.
Suburban dogs believe in the sanctity of real estate with a passion that makes discussion problematic. This one yipped and yapped and snapped at my shoelaces as if I was a tax assessor. A swift kick would have sent it to a better life, but the odds were good in that neighborhood that its owner was a lawyer. It was a performance both comical and heroic, and in its noise and futility it reminded me of letter-writing campaigns complaining about ComEd rates.
Paranoia about crime is behind a more ominous trend: the conversion of the junk yard dog into a backyard dog. I know someone in North Oak Park who keeps a Doberman, even though viciousness is as wasted in an Oak Park watchdog as wit is in an accountant. But as many a nation has learned to its horror, the most dangerous army in the world is one that has no war to fight. I was as shocked as anyone to read in a Wednesday Journal editorial last April that Oak Parkers visiting local parks were being "terrorized" by dogs.
As a former Downstater, the possibility struck me as absurd: if you've ever dealt with a farm dog, you'll know why pickup trucks and farm tractors sit so high off the ground. If anything, I regarded dogs running wild in the parks as a boon, to the extent that they scare off vacationing collegians, who learned their manners in frat houses.
But as has been confirmed by more recent news reports about what those of us who write for family newspapers must call the doo-doo problem, the lines between terrorism and political protest have become pretty blurred. Like guerilla movements everywhere, Oak Park dogs fight with whatever weapon they have at their disposal. "Disposal" is the word. The turd is the angry dog’s car bomb, its letter bomb, its punji stick. I have learned to dread walking through a freshly fallen snow the way an alderman dreads an audit, for fear that it will reveal something smelly. It was not until I'd tried sitting beneath the trees in local parks that I appreciated why bums always sleep on the benches. And while I do not dine at the Oak Park Center's senior canteens, I can understand why the people who do prefer not to have dog turds served as an hors d'oeuvre. It was bad enough when our nation's old people had to eat cat food.
Such pointed vandalism obviously constitutes a political statement, a form of canine graffiti. I do not know exactly what the dogs of suburban Chicago are trying to say with these contemptuous gestures toward human authority; perhaps they are angry about property taxes, like everybody else. Whatever their program is, they are willing to die for it. In June, four Hinsdale cops, confronted by two marauding Rotweilers that apparently already had suffered grave injuries of some sort, ran over the animals with their squad car and additionally shot one of them. According to press accounts, one of the dogs reportedly "charged into”—not at—a squad car.
That, of course, was not the first such incident. Last year a pit bull got loose from its fenced yard in Oak Park and tore into a neighbor's Great Dane, causing injuries to it and the neighbor and to the cause of dog-lovers everywhere and which resulted in the pit bull being sent into a sort of Betty Ford thing for dogs that just can't stop themselves.
It was news stories like these—what the Tribune called "several high profile attacks" by dogs in the Chicago area—that led to the passage of Illinois's new vicious dog law. Aroused state lawmakers in 1991 took action against canine terrorism in the only way they know how, by passing laws against it. Those laws required, among other things, that vicious dogs be confined to backyard kennels and that owners be held liable for up to three years in jail if a dog kills a human or other animal. The General Assembly also established formal procedures by which dogs can be officially deemed "vicious"—thus guaranteeing that life as a local public servant will stay lively for years to come.
I used to think that these differences can be dealt with if we just talk about them. My neighbor's dog taught me different. It debates ex tempore with strollers, delivery boys, and newspaper blowing by in the wind. It barks when squirrels descend from trees and when cold fronts descend from Canada, but nothing excites him like an airplane passing overhead. At first I interpreted this behavior as confirming the phrase, "dumb animal." Then I heard suburban mayors making the same noises during the foofarah over the Lake Calumet airport, and realized that what I had mistaken for mindless yelping was in fact the animal's impassioned plea for fairness.
There's not much point in trying to out-argue an Oak Park dog who believes in something. ●