The City is More Than Human
photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives and Rainier Valley Historical Society

Chapter 4:
Dogs and Cats:
Loving Pets in Urban Homes


Cats and especially dogs have long been creatures with whom humans have formed especially close bonds. Yet the role of these animals in urban life shifted markedly in the twentieth century. Most cats and dogs had some working role in the nineteenth century, as mousers, as guardians or as hunting dogs. Through the twentieth century, their role shifted increasingly toward companionship. City people, especially the middle class, went from viewing domestic animals as servants to seeing them as children and as consumers. Restrictive covenants in new whites-only neighborhoods defined these animals as the only creatures that fit into respectable homes. Building on the domestic ethic of kindness dating back to the nineteenth century, many parents came to feel pets were an ideal way for children to learn empathy and compassion. In families without children, cats and dogs often took on the role of surrogate children. Not all city-dwellers, however, felt there was a place for these animals in the city. Some felt the logical next step after the elimination of cattle, horses, and chickens would be to send dogs to the country as well. A debate roiled the city from the 1930s to the 1950s on whether dogs should have the freedom to roam the city. At the time, a system we might call the "dog commons" exists wherein dogs were allowed to wander the streets, as long as they had a license. The opponents of dog freedom were motivated primarily by a desire to protect property -- lawns, flowers, and shrubs -- but also trotted out arguments about public health. Ultimately, voters approved a leash law in 1958. Since then, dogs' and cats' role in city has become quite secure, as small animal veterinarians, pet shops, dog parks, and doggie daycare have become essential elements of urban pet-keeping for many city people. Relations with cats and dogs are, for most city people, their most intense connection with nonhuman animals. Yet as they celebrate these loving relationships, they generally ignore the distant animals that shape urban life as well.

(A story from Chapter Four). In 1941, a large German Shepherd named Caesar lived in the Seward Park neighborhood of southern Seattle. While he had a home with the Redfield family, his daily wanderings took him far beyond the confines of his humans' yard. In the dark of the evening, he regularly traveled unescorted the three blocks from the house to meet Mrs. Redfield and her daughter as they got off the bus and to accompany them down a treacherous trail back home. More than once, he journeyed to the thickly wooded Seward Park at night and discovered lost children whom he safely brought back to their parents. The dog likely had many other haunts well known to his owners and others in the neighborhood, and many other habits that endeared him to his owners, who were sufficiently moved by his death to place a note in a Seattle pet magazine about his remarkable life. In addition to the laudable activities that dogs like Caesar engaged in, they did things that led many to call for restrictions. They urinated and defecated on and dug up lawns, flowers, and shrubs, they frightened and bit people, they chased cars and copulated in public view. While many praised their role as they wandered neighborhoods, many also condemned it. Seattleites engaged in a lengthy debate from the 1930s to the 1950s about how (or whether) to fit dogs into the changing city.