The pandemic saw a seismic jump in dog ownership, especially among those who took the lockdown to pathological levels and hid themselves away from family and friends.
Dogs became the solution for self-imposed isolation. Suddenly dogs of all sizes and shapes began popping up all over the city, even dogs the size of small cattle were observed being led back to 400 square foot efficiency apartments. (Most canine authorities, of course, would categorize this as animal cruelty.)
“Americans adopted millions of dogs during the pandemic, now what do we do with them?” The Washington Post asked last year.
The Atlantic chimed in with a similar question, asking in 2021 why so many millennials seem to be obsessed with dogs. The answer had to do with replacing children with pet ownership.
Millennials, of course, took to the new dog culture like centipedes take to dark, damp spaces. The endless production line of young couples walking dogs in every part of the city was and continues to be a common enough image, one that cultural critics attribute to something called “trial parental runs,” or using the dog as a pretend human baby to prepare the couple for the real thing later on. But then something happened. That “later on” became a permanent institution. The pet dog actually became a baby, a fur baby, as the owners became, by default, Mom and Dad.
So much for the sperm-meets-egg-equals-human embryo goalpost of trial parenthood!
Post-pandemic, dogs quickly became a thriving industry. Pet stores as large as super markets began springing up all over. In my own Riverwards neighborhood there are three or four mega Petco Pet Supplies stores within a five-mile radius. The price of pet food in these places is practically on a par with Whole Foods. But who’s counting dollars, or complaining? Raising a dog is still cheaper than raising a child.
Today, city sidewalks have become the dog version of bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95. Dog walkers rule. For the dog-less pedestrian, passing a dog on the sidewalk raises the question: will the dog lunge, bark or growl? Dog walkers have their own predicaments: will another dog attack my dog? Will there be a dog pile up à la I-95? Should I carry canine tear gas?
The dog explosion has created campaigns to have every park become a partial dog park. In my neighborhood dog owners worked to convert a small stretch of land by the local Rite Aid into a mini dog-only space. Here, Frisbee-throwing millennials chase after Fido as if they were making “Sound of Music” videos. Walk around my neighborhood, however, and you’ll see multiple “Clean up after your dog” signs. Most dog walkers are respectful but there’s a careless minority that allow their dogs to poop and urinate anywhere, even in outdoor flower planters.
The occasional tensions in Rittenhouse Square, where some dog walkers want to create a mini dog park section, will only increase as the dog population continues to expand.
Schuylkill River Park has its own dog park situated near tennis courts that have been there for decades. Some dog walkers there have turned militant. One online post about the park reads: “Tennis balls need to be banned from here.” Another person issued a warning about the eating of tennis balls: “If your dog tears a tennis ball please make sure to pick up the pieces left on the ground.” Another person commented: “This place is like a big shit slick sometimes.” Meaning dog poop, of course….
In 2018, the website Greater Greater Washington asked: “Are dogs urbanist? Do they belong in cities?” The same year a millennial writer, going against her peers, wrote in Axios: “There are way too many dogs in public places.”
Last year, the Washington Post reported that “Americans spent $21.4 billion on nonmedical pet products through November , plus another $28.4 billion on dog food.”
The dog boom has also allowed dogs in places from which they were once excluded.
A 2022 Wall Street Journal article, “Malls Welcome Dogs, The Results have been Ruff,” went on to explain how malls have adopted pet-friendly ‘pawlcies’ when it comes to dealing with puppy accidents (more poop) and “greyhounds running up and down the escalators.”
The dog madness has even extended to beer gardens and ice cream parlors.
In Rittenhouse Square, an ice cream parlor for dogs, Salty Paws, offers fresh fruits and vegetables blended with coconut water. An online ad for Salty Paws proclaims: “The staff pays extra attention to remove all seeds and rinds for an ultimately dog-safe and friendly drink. The flavors include blueberry, pineapple, watermelon, and a veggie smoothie made with carrots, green beans, spinach, and cucumber.”
The idea of vegans forcing food orthodoxy on dogs is right up there with housing a Great Dane in a small Center City efficiency apartment.
When we put pitbulls into the city dog-explosion equation, that’s when things can really get ugly.
In an incident that made international news, when a local Philadelphia FBI agent walked her dog near 16th and Spruce Streets and encountered someone walking a pitbull, she had to make a split-second decision when she witnessed the pitbull attack her pet and then begin to attack her. Fortunately, the agent had the good sense to defend her pet. She shot the pit bull and killed it.
The classic pitbull jaw is powerful and lethal. Once a pit digs its teeth into the neck of its victim — a smaller dog, a child, or even an adult — you can count on immeasurable physical damage or even death.
The most extensive coverage of the incident didn’t come from the Philadelphia media but from the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror. For the most part, details about the shooting were sketchy in the local press. Certain details about the attack did not surface in the local press until later.
The Mirror got it all in one story. Revolution Philadelphia, a local animal rights organization, released a statement condemning the incident and demanding that the agent be held accountable for her actions — despite the fact that according to DogBite.org, pit bulls account for 65.6 percent of all the fatal dog attacks in the nation. Between 2005 and 2019, pit bulls killed 346 Americans.
The animal rights group, of course, doesn’t dare say what the poor agent should have done to protect her dog, but it’s my guess that their philosophy is that she should have behaved like Gandhi, and accepted the fact that since all life must eventually come to an end, she should just stoically permitted nature to take its course, bloody mauling death screams (and whimpering) from her beloved pet notwithstanding.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest“ will be released in May 2023.