Muzzle is civilizing tool for London's dog society

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 01, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- She moves determinedly through Hyde Park with a stick in her hand, like that little old lady who chases dirt on the household cleanser can. Preceding her is a gigantic jaw -- a jaw set in an immense head supported by a small muscular body, stumpy legs, all the gray color of a rat.

As the little old lady and her pet pit bull advance, people and other dogs part before them like the waters of the Red Sea. As they draw near the fenced bird sanctuary dedicated to W. H. Hudson you might detect a stutter in the memorial fountain there, a slight disturbance of the still water in the pond, if you are imaginative enough.

And on the dog, hairs bristling behind the neck.

Hudson was a naturalist renowned for his observations of animals, especially in South America. He was more popularly known for his novel, "Green Mansions."

Hudson did not think highly of dogs. In this he was very un-English. (Actually, he was born in Argentina to American parents and later became a naturalized Briton.) He simply regarded them as none too bright, and no more loyal or affectionate toward human beings than, say, ducks could be, given the right training.

Were he alive today he might growl, "Madame, muzzle your dog. It's the law."

And it is. Since a little more than a year ago, after several grisly attacks on people, virtually all potentially dangerous breeds, especially the pit bulls, are supposed to be muzzled when they go out in public. But you can look for days without finding a muzzled dog. What's going on? Have the English become scofflaws?

Not exactly. Probably they are too fond of their dogs to inconvenience them. They would rather risk a citation. So what we have is not so much a massive passive resistance by those people Hudson used to refer to as "canophiles," as a kind of indifference to the law.

There is another more onerous law they seem to obey willingly enough. It is the one which forbids dog owners from allowing their pets to foul the public parks and streets. Every day you can see dog owners traipsing through Kensington Gardens behind their beasts, carrying plastic bags with which to remove the litter. There is one young woman, for instance, who has a Great Dane. She is small; she carries a large bag; she needs it.

This is not Britain's first muzzle law. In 1897, Hudson was in London just as the government brought one in to counter a rabies outbreak. The canophiles, Hudson observed, were outraged. But unlike today, they obeyed.

Hudson himself did not approve of the law. He believed fighting was natural sport to dogs and they should be left to it. After the muzzles went on he observed dogs running into each other, snarling, trying to snap, acting as truculent as ever, if ineffectively. After a while even the stupidest dog came to realize it was all useless and gave it up.

What, from the point of view of a dog, had first been seen as an tTC intolerable restraint, was soon evidently a boon, especially for the smaller dogs that were always being chewed up by the bigger dogs. But even the bigger dogs calmed down eventually.

Two and a half years later the law was rescinded. Rabies had been eradicated. Off came all the muzzles.

Hudson writes that he expected a canine holocaust once the dogs were re-armed, so to speak. But to his surprise they continued with their peaceable ways, sniffing and playing, and generally going about in a surprisingly civilized dog society.

Hudson was a great believer in what he called traditional learning among animals. Young animals learned what to fear and what to favor from older animals. Thus, Hudson concluded that the behavior of the recently de-muzzled dogs was simply learned, and that before long the old pleasures of snarling and brawling would eventually be resumed.

But he was wrong again; he admitted as much. Fifteen years later the dogs were still carrying on with the same kind of canine politeness that one can see today in Hyde Park and those other less sumptuous parks of London.

Thus, Hudson came to realize that muzzling had a value, not one of restraint but one of instruction. This, were he around, he would be ready to tell the lady accompanying The Jaw as it moves through Hyde Park.

But, of course, from a discreet distance, preferably from behind a fence.

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