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This post was originally published in The Wild 1 (2009), 87-96, a short -lived journal on human-animal relations published in New York (Timmy and I were invited to the launch party but were unable to make it). A few things have changed since then; my girlfriend is now my wife, I no longer live in Bristol, and Timmy has died. But hopefully the article is still of some interest.

Dogs, like other pets, inhabit the cities in which many of us live and work. As I walk through Paris on research trips I see them everywhere, in cafes and shops and on the street and the metro. Their activity varies. Some are being walked, others sit in restaurants with their owners, others lie next to their homeless human companions. I’ve even seen one dog stand on his hind legs to take an authorized sip from his owner’s beer in a neighbourhood bar. Paris is a city that accommodates its canine population, especially if they have well-heeled owners.  Mon Bon Chien pet bakery in the 15th arrondissement caters for canine tastes with its ‘all-natural, healthy, hand-made gourmet treats’ and one company offers to walk bored, solitary dogs in nearby woods whilst their owners are at work.[1] I also notice multiple images of dogs as I move through the French capital. An advertisement in the 16th arrondissement shows a chiselled man in a grey cardigan hugging an equally chiselled grey dog, tempting me to visit a department store (to buy the cardigan, not the dog). Near the Pompidou centre I see edgy graffiti depicting edgy dogs and at the Château de Vincennes metro station a reproduction of a painting depicts how dogs played an essential role in the hunting parties of medieval Paris.

Yet human-canine cohabitation does always not always run smoothly. High population densities in Paris’s centre partly explain the dog shit that lies splattered across the streets. Tourists and Parisians alike lament the situation and signs erected by local authorities inform dog-owners that if they love their city they will clear up after their dogs. At the same time, British bloggers use the profusion of ‘merde’ as a means to mock the French and the state of their society.[2]  What is clear is that the discourse on dog shit is closely related to ideas about dirt, disease, and civic and national identities. And nor is this restricted to modern-day Paris. A century ago, foreign commentators in Istanbul lamented the number of stray and supposedly dangerous dogs in the city (even if some acknowledged the close emotional bonds between dogs and local human residents [particularly in Muslim areas]). The linking of dogs, dirt, and disease took a dramatic turn in 1910 when the Young Turk regime took the decision to remove dogs from the streets and abandon them on a deserted island, with the aim of modernizing and cleaning up the city.[3]

Inspired by Paris’s contemporary canine geography and the growing literature on urban environmental histories and the place of animals in the city, I am currently developing a book project on the human-canine history of Paris.[4] My main interest is the overlapping and mutually constitutive histories and geographies of these species. The questions I pose include: How has this cohabitation changed over time? How have humans and dogs lived and worked together? How have writers, painters, and others portrayed and represented dogs? How have local authorities tried to regulate and control canine populations? What does the human-canine relationship tell us about past urban societies?

Addressing such questions requires close attention to how animals are written into historical accounts.[5] One approach is to examine how attitudes, legislation, and representations of animals create, expose, and maintain human constructions of class, gender, sexuality, and race. Class tensions and anxieties, for instance, form the focus of Kathleen Kete’s study of pet-keep practices in nineteenth-century Paris.[6] Such an approach is important and valid, yet in the way in which it portrays dogs as objects of human desires and manipulation it downplays another part of the story, namely the role of dogs as lively agents with a material, as well as symbolic, presence in urban history.

Dogs and humans share centuries of histories but, to the best of our knowledge, it is fair to say that each species experiences the world in different ways. Dogs are part of history and can be treated as historical subjects and agents but a serious methodological question remains; in the absence of canine documentary and other sources, can we ever know how dogs experienced the past?[7] This essay is an attempt to grapple with this question. With the (unwitting) help of Timmy, a border collie of my close acquaintance, it considers the possibility for companion species research within history.[8] It asks how dogs experience city environments and how this can inform the research and writing of human-animal histories. Observing and interacting with dogs is a vital part of research in other disciplines, such as Barbara Smuts’s work on bio-psychology.[9] What are the possibilities for “real/actual” dogs to enliven and become partners in historical research?

I am not claiming that historians (or any other researchers) can ever gain unmediated access to the canine experience of the city. Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet warns us against the fantasy of crawling inside another creature’s head (canine, human or otherwise) with the hope of knowing how they experience and organise the world.[10] And just as individual humans experience different cities in different ways, so too is it likely that individual dogs experience different cities in different ways. There is arguably no unified, universal human or canine experience of the city. But Haraway’s relational companion species philosophy reassures me that some cross-species communication and understanding is possible and that dogs and other critters can change how we see and live in the world. Moreover, deprived of dog documentary and visual sources and canine oral history, walking with and observing dogs in urban environments are perhaps the most direct way of considering how dogs experience the city.

Walking in the Park

As far as I can tell, epistemological and methodological problems rarely trouble Timmy, my girlfriend’s family dog. He is, however, always keen to go leave the house and go for, what humans describe as, “a walk” (dogs may experience it more as “a sniff”). With the aim of exploring the possibilities of companion species historical research, I took Timmy to Mina Road Park my local green space in city I live in, Bristol. Mina Road Park was opened on 30 June 1886 and is managed by Bristol City Council. It is a relatively small park surrounded by residential houses in the St Werburghs area of Bristol. As well as a grassed area, it has a children’s playground, basketball court, and a couple of bridges crossing the stream that runs through it.

Before we even enter the park, Timmy’s presence has already helped me think about dog as individuals and their place in the city. Timmy is a country-dog. Raised on a farm in Anglesey, he has since lived in a small town on the North Wales coast that borders Snowdonia national park. Timmy is an individual with his own past and is habituated to a specific milieu, in this case rural Wales. Having previously experienced his apparent unease of being in a busy city centre (Edinburgh during the festival season), I chose to take him to a quiet park free of traffic and hoards of people. Timmy’s individuality highlights the impossibility of incorporating more than a tiny minority of Paris’s (or any other city’s) past and present canine inhabitants into a narrative. In a similar vein, it would be arrogant and an extreme over-estimation of my abilities as a historian to claim to “speak” for every Parisian in history.[11]

The relationship between Timmy and I, as well as the history of the border collie breed, influences the shape of the walk. It is the particular, personal bond between Timmy and I, formed over several years, that has enabled this research to take place; the first time I took him for a walk he ran back home to join his familial companions as soon as he was off the lead. The relationship between particular humans and particular dogs matters.

So too do questions of breeding. As a border collie from working “stock,” Timmy has a genetic heritage that is the result of centuries of breeding designed to create dogs with particular abilities and characteristics in accordance with human desires and objectives. Timmy is simultaneously an individual and representative of a breed. This becomes apparent in the park. Unlike, say, a springer spaniel, Timmy does not tear off to jump into the park’s stream. He stays close to me, watching me, waiting, it seems, for my cue on what we are to do and where we are to walk (figure 1). From past experience I know that if I started to run, Timmy’s sheepdog instincts would kick in and he would try to herd me, perhaps by giving me a nip on the ankles.

Figure 1: Timmy waiting for a cue

On this occasion, I don’t run because I want to observe what Timmy does. I want him to lead the walk to see what he finds of interest. However, this strategy does not prove effective. When I stand still, Timmy stands still. In the end, I start to stroll and Timmy follows me. I notice how my desire for the research to be a particular way rubs up against the reality of Timmy and the characteristics of his breed. I also make a mental note to think about how different breeds inhabit the city and how humans use different breeds in different ways within the urban environment (as guide dogs, police dogs, etc).

Once I begin walking, Timmy seems more certain that we are on a walk and he adopts his normal routine of staying close to me while stopping frequently to sniff. He seems fascinated by litter bins and gives them all a long hard sniff (figure 2).

Figure 2: Sniffing the bin

On closer inspection, I see that (presumably dog) piss streaks the bins. I assume that Timmy is checking which dogs have passed through the park previously and learning about them through their scent. Every now and then he adds to the streaks. He also frequently stops to sniff patches of grass that to me are indistinguishable from the rest (figure 3).

 

Figure 3: Sniffing grass

It becomes apparent that dogs mainly know and experience the city through smell, even if Timmy is also constantly looking around with his ears alert. There must be uncountable canine messages and traces left all over urban spaces that human city dwellers are largely oblivious to.[12] Historical narratives on human-canine histories need to acknowledge that such canine cartographies exist even if it is a world that human can not access.

At one point, a small group of Terriers approach Timmy (figure 4). They surround him and exchange sniffs. Timmy seems largely indifferent to them and continues on his way.

 

Figure 4: Inter-dog encounters

Later, a women walking a dog of similar size to Timmy comes into view. She puts her dog on a lead. I follow suit and we all walk past each other without incident. These encounters remind me that relations exist between dogs and dogs (controlled, to an extent, by human anxieties and disciplinary devices such as leads and collars) as well as between dogs and humans. These former are part of any city’s canine cartography. Although we may have some insight into canine sociability, the inner workings of canine communities are another aspect of the urban environment that largely circumvents human experience.

            Towards the end of the walk we come to a fenced off children’s play area. A Bristol City Council sign on the gate states ‘No dogs in the play area.’ Although it does not say so explicitly, dogs and their shit are understandably considered too dangerous and dirty for the play area. Throughout the park the council has also installed bins in which to deposit bagged-up dog poo. The sign on one bin states that the park is a ‘designated area’ under the 1996 Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act and threatens a £1,000 fine for dog owners who fail to clean up after their pooch (on this occasion, Timmy does not perform so I do not need to deal with his excretions). The bins and signs point to the regulations and rules that seek to govern where dogs can go and how their waste should be disposed of (a source of considerable social tension in contemporary Britain[13]).Apart from observing their owners scooping their poop into plastic bags and depositing it in bins, dogs are presumably unaware of these regulations. It is up to humans to enforce municipal rules. Having Timmy with me brings me into contact with the regulations and makes me wonder when and why it was that authorities in Bristol and elsewhere ruled that dogs should be banned from play areas and that their shit had no place on urban streets and parks.

 Conclusion    

Walking with Timmy in the park did not provide me with unmeditated access to the canine experience of the city nor its canine history. The exercise was undoubtedly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric. I devised the research, recorded the findings, and wrote it up for human consumption. I was unable to leave my situated position as a human being observing, interpreting, and relating what I observed in my canine companion. But I have tried to be aware of my species-position and question my anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. I do not claim to have “spoken” for Timmy. This essay is my interpretation of the walk.

Yet the exercise does not sit neatly within researcher-subject/research-object divide. Timmy also observed me, smelt me, and walked with me. We explored the park together. Without me there, Timmy would probably have acted differently, and without him there I would have walked hurriedly through the park. Furthermore, the walk helped me to become aware of elements that will inform my research into the canine-human history of Paris. I will try to think about how the city smelt, the regulations concerning where dogs can go and what they can do, and inter-dog relations. I will also try to conceive of the dogs that I encounter in my research as individuals as well as “members” (or mixtures) of breeds and species. Perhaps most importantly I will pay attention to their material and fleshy presence as well as the desires, fears, and identities that humans project onto dogs.

In his account of his time spent living with his pet wolf Brenin, philosopher Mark Rowlands writes that the thoughts, ideas, and lessons contained in his book emerged ‘in the space between a wolf and a man.’[14] After my walk with Timmy in the park, I’ve developed a taste for trying to capture a sense of the ‘space between’ humans and animals. I won’t be allowed a dog in the archive or library, but I’ll certainly want to walk with one around the streets of Paris as I try to uncover its entwined human-canine past. Companion species research appears to offers fruitful possibilities in trying to capture the necessarily hybrid history that emerges between humans and dogs.

 


[1] ‘Mission Statement,’ Mon Bon Chien website, http://www.mon-bon-chien-paris.com/mission/, accessed 20 April 2009 ; ‘Une vie de chien,’ Promenons-nous dans les bois website, http://www.promenonsnousdanslesbois.fr/vie.html, accessed 3 December 2008.

[2] See the Filthy France blog, http://www.flithyfrance.com/2006/10about.html, accessed 2 April 2008.

[3] Catherine Pinguet, Les chiens d’Istanbul: Des rapports entre l’homme et l’animal de l’antiquité à nos jours (Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2008), 15-32.

[4] For a recent history of animals in the city, see Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). See also Caroline Hodak, ‘Les animaux dans la cité: Pour une histoire urbaine de la nature,’ Genèses 37 (December 1999): 156-69. On animals in Paris, see Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth Century Paris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); and Louise E, Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). Less scholarly accounts include Hélène Hatte and Valérie Rialland-Haddach, Paris animal: Un inventaire insolite (Paris : Berg International, 2007) ; and Rodolphe Trouilleux, Histoires insolites: Des animaux de Paris (Paris: Bernard Giovanangeli/Durante, 2003). The Atlas de la nature à Paris (Paris: Atelier parisien d’urbanisme/Le Passage, 2006) maps the wilder aspects of Paris’s nature. See also Robert Delort, Les animaux ont une histoire (Paris: Seuil, 1984) on animals in French history. Canine history has been explored in other countries. See, for example, Lance van Sittert and Sandra Swart, eds,  Canis Africanis: A Dog History of Southern Africa (London: Brill, 2008).

[5] On the various approaches to animal history, see Erica Fudge, ‘A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals,’ in Representing Animals, ed. Nigel Rothfels (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002), 2-18.

[6] Kete, Beast in the Boudoir.

[7] On animals as historical agents, see Erica Fudge, ‘The History of Animals,’ H-Animal Discussion Network, Ruminations 1, 25 May 2006, http://h-net.org/~animal/ruminations_fudge.html.

[8] My use of the term ‘companion species’ is inspired by Donna Haraway’s writings in The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003) and in When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[9] Barbara Smuts, ‘Between Species: Science and Subjectivity,’ Configurations 1 (2006), 115-26. There is of course a wider history of scientific use (and depending on one’s viewpoint) abuse of animals in research. For one episode in this history, see Paul S. White, ‘The Experimental Animal in Victorian Britain,’ in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, ed. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman (New York: Colombia University Press, 2005), 59-81.

[10] Haraway, When Species Meet, 226.

[11] As Colin Jones writes, the number of people, streets, houses, and dogs in Paris means that ‘one can never write an exhaustive history of a city as ancient, diverse and complex as Paris.’ Paris: Biography of a City (London: Penguin, 2006).

[12] For a recent exploration of the history of smell, see Connie Y. Chiang, ‘The Nose Knows: The Sense of Smell in American History,’ The Journal of American History 95 (September 2008): 405-16.

[13] Jon Henley, ‘The Mess We’re In,’ The Guardian, 12 February 2009. In 2006,  Bristol City Councillor Gary Hopkins declared that ‘the council will take action against irresponsible dog owners who fail to [clean up after their dogs] – being unaware of the offence or not having a device to clear away the dog fouling is no excuse.’ Quoted in ‘City getting tough over dog mess,’ BBC website, 16 May 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/bristol/somerset/4985794.stm, accessed 2 April 2009. For a recent dispute between a local resident and Bristol council over dog poo fines, see Bristol dog owner: ‘I’m being victimised over mess row,’ This is Bristol website, 14 August 2008, http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/news/m-victimised-says-Barton-Hill-dog-walkerarticle-266762-details/article.html, accessed 2 April 2009.

[14] Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness (London: Granta, 2008), 11.