Dogs of Whittier

I wake at midnight to dogs barking. Barking in the night is the sound of urban ghetto or rural poverty, evokes the boney dogs of slum backyards and country farms. In film festival shorts we saw last fall, we heard barking as the camera slowly zoomed in on small huddled homes, villages in Nepal, Pine Ridge Reservation, Mexico.

Juan Rulfo’s tough story: No oyes ladrar los perros. Don’t you hear the dogs barking. It is how we know we’ve reached town in the pitch dark of rural night.

When we came here 33 years ago, the neighborhood was patchy, with poor, neglected sections of sagging porches, windows covered in plastic, cars on blocks in the backyard. And there were dogs, in filthy pens and on chains in backyards, or wandering the alleys collarless. My first winter here the dog across the alley stretched its staked rope as far as it could reach, wore a bare circular path, had no shelter, curled into a ball covered by snow. Next door two Dobermans lived in the weedy backyard, were fed intermittently, and abandoned when their owners decamped under cover of night.

When life is a struggle to meet basic needs, people often don’t adequately care for children or themselves, let alone animals. I was a member of such a family for a decade, participated in bad decisions, self-destructive behavior. Children and animals paid a price. Thirty years ago, moving here reminded me of that. Dogs barked neurotically, venting the misery of their exile. I snuck them water and food, took strays to shelters, adopted kittens out of the alley.

My neighbor Bartleby, being walked by one of his humans, the artist Jenn

Now that gentrification is upon us, things are different. The new people walk their dogs accompanied by baby strollers and cell phones, take dogs into the house. My neighbor dogs, Gideon and Bartleby, go everywhere with their owners. Today’s dogs are far from those starved animals that sometimes ran these streets in packs.

Yet I am awakened by the sound of dogs barking. Everyone has privacy fences now, so I cannot identify the source, but some white people leave their dogs in back yards. I say white people, because except for the apartments and one family, that’s all that lives on this block today. In 1984, everyone except for us was black, Mexican and Central American.

I’ve been visiting when people’s dogs start barking outside. My hosts seem oblivious or inured to it, keep talking, check the dog when it’s convenient. Perhaps I’m associating it with my troubled past, but barking rivets my attention like the sound of a baby crying. I cannot focus on conversation until it stops. To me, barking dogs are unhappy dogs. Someone at the Dumb Friend’s League told me that pets being given up bark and meow and whine. Homeless animals are silent. “They don’t expect anything,” she said.

The backyard dogs set each other off—there are four or five of them—hear a cat prowling the top of a fence, or maybe a raccoon. We’ve got raccoons in this city neighborhood, raccoons and foxes and coyotes. The more we encroach on their habitat, the more they must encroach on ours. It takes half an hour for the dogs to subside. Sometime before one a.m. I’m able to go back to sleep.

I kept a log for a while, thinking I might call Animal Control, but never did. The non-stop barking generally lasts no more than an hour. Dogs are not being left out all night. The dog owners I know are conscientious custodians. Still, when the barking erupts as I’m going to bed, I groan, because I won’t sleep until it stops.

Summer has barely begun and I catch myself yearning for winter, when people let dogs out less and the quiet I cherish this neighborhood for reasserts itself. Between the turmoil of our first decade here and this decade’s rush of new residents, we had slowly improving tranquil years. People called the neighborhood “The Whittier.” There was always a place to park in front of the house. Days were quiet and evening events ended by 10. With a few exceptions to prove the rule, even the Section 8 apartments were calm.

Whittier is changing as all urban neighborhoods are right now, because people with resources have decided to live in the city. I’m happy to see Victorian houses restored to their former glory, can’t complain about skyrocketing home values, and have terrific neighbors. We house sit for each other, and I can still coax new arrivals into taking my overgrown day lilies and irises when I thin them. But when it comes to dogs, sometimes it seems like nothing has changed.



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5 Responses to Dogs of Whittier

  1. Carol says:

    Love this. Feel this. Thanks!

  2. Renardo says:

    The grandson of a farmer (I hear him groan in my head occasionally) I’ve wondered about when and how animals became pets; it must have been an industrial revolution thing; people discovered in themselves a mysterious need to dote, a thirst for power and yen for adoration. When I lived on a hilltop in LA, I had to climb 50 steps skirting a neighbor’s yard. Hubby and wife had two shrill teenaged girls and two dark-coated German Shepards. These followed anyone on those steps all the way up or down, averaging one bark per step. The dogs were relentless and the people they ruled both hapless and indifferent. When the people quarreled the loser of the fight would come outside to hug and slobber and complain to both dogs. The other morning I dreamt I was back there and awoke to barking. Since Lucas and Paula moved and all the feral cats they used to feed got rounded up and neutered, there are bunnies and birds in the woods. And barking turkeys. My barking dogs are mangey turkeys and my pets are a pair of cardinals.

    • dubrava says:

      Thanks for this meditative response, Renardo. By the sounds of it, you’re in Pennsylvania for the summer. I’d love to have cardinals around again. Enjoy!

  3. springer says:

    We have 3 dogs, two labs, and a rescue. The chocolate is a barker, and we’ve tried a bark collar but she barks right through it. Luckily she doesn’t set the other two off, but the two instigate her to bark! Bad siblings! But at night the dogs sit on the couch and watch tv with us, so neighbors can sleep 🙂

    • dubrava says:

      And I know you are good dog owners! It’s the ones left in the backyard for long periods, all of them barking nonstop. But congrats again on your retirement. You’ll really feel it come August when you don’t have to go back.

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