“What kind of life a dog … acquires. I have sometimes tried to imagine by kneeling or lying full length on the ground and looking up. The world then becomes strangely incomplete; one sees little but legs.” - E.V. Lucas
Dog licensing began in England in 1796. Ostensibly enacted to prevent the spread of rabies, the practice it represented, to the English government, an additional measure of revenue. It also emerged from an interest in limiting the custom of petkeeping to the privileged classes.2
The cause of rabies eluded the scientific minds of the day, but as licensing provided some measure of control over the dog population, it also gave the appearance of controlling the disease.3 In addition to being vaguely associated with disease, dogs who lived among the lower economic class were considered dangerous, ill-bred, undisciplined, and conniving.4 Sometimes roaming the streets in search of food, these dogs were subject to pulling carts in return for being fed. And they were exploited for entertainment value, in dogfights. 5
The animal welfare and protection movement emerged in the early 19th century, as an outgrowth of humanitarianism. Although it sought to protect animals from wanton cruelty, it accepted — indeed promoted — human domination over all other animals.6 An elite form of philanthropy, it was lax in condemning maltreatment of animals when it perpetrated by the same people who donated to the cause. Some of the most esteemed members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were fox hunters.7 The RSPCA turned a blind eye to the customs of the well-heeled, including the docking of tails and the cropping of ears of show dogs.8 The group supports only minimal regulation of vivisection. 9
Yet the RSPCA actively prosecuted animal cruelty when it was committed by the economically disadvantaged, and rewarded police officers who arrested or reported offenders. 10 RSPCA records include many cases of offenders who were sentenced to jail because they could not pay a fine. 11 Whenever a case of rabies caused alarm, unlicensed dogs could be tracked down and killed. 12
In the 20th century, the rabies vaccine became widely available. Once people from all walks of life could have their dogs vaccinated, whether or not they were licensed, canine rabies ceased to be a serious threat to human populations.13
By then, dog breeding had become a common custom and a profitable industry. And as the pet population soared, the cost of monitoring millions of dogs surpassed the licensing revenue. Enforcement waned, and the rules were largely disregarded.14 Citing non-compliance and the exorbitant cost of enforcement, the British Parliament abolished dog licensing in 1987.15
But other jurisdictions reacted in the opposite way. In New York State, for example — where only ten percent of dogs are licensed16 — animal welfare groups have prompted lawmakers to increase the licensing fee, enforce the rules, and designate some of the revenue to animal care and control.
My Day in Court
Late one night in 2001, I walked with my dogs along a quiet side street of New York City. Suddenly I was stopped by police in a patrol car, who wanted to know if my dogs were licensed. Startled, I said no. The officers asked for my identification, and began writing citations.
I expected two tickets — one for each dog. I got three tickets for each dog. One because I admitted that my dogs weren’t licensed; one because they assumed that my dogs were not wearing vaccination tags; and one because I wasn’t carrying licensing papers.
Sensing my distress, no doubt, the dogs tried to pull me away from the patrol car. The police could see that the dogs were nearly knocking me down; yet, duly fulfilling their role to save animals from my criminal irresponsibility, they kept writing. I sent for the licensing tags and papers on the following day.
But before the papers arrived, the dogs and I were stopped one morning by another group of police. I explained that I had submitted my paperwork, that I already received six tickets, and that my dogs were spayed, neutered, and vaccinated, as mandated through the licensing. The police wrote out three new tickets. Licensing violations are covered by the Health Code of New York City, and each violation currently incurs a fine ranging from $100 to $2,000.17
When the dogs’ papers arrived, I copied them and sent them to the court. I carried them with me on walks. I was not absolved. Within a few weeks, the police came to my door. I should go with them to court, they commanded, because “if we picked you up on the street, you’d be taken to the ‘Tombs.’” Intimidated by the threat of jail, I went with them.
I sat up front to see and hear the proceedings. And as I waited for my turn before the judge, it occurred to me that every person charged with a dog licensing violation was either African American or Latino.18
The judge looked up from my paperwork, and dismissed the charges. One of the officers who took me to court handed me a card, telling me to show it to anyone who stopped me with the dogs. I put the card in my pocket, and took the subway home.
The police came to my apartment on three more occasions, each time unannounced. They must have told the lobby guard not to alert me. On their most recent visit, at four-thirty in the morning, they showed me a Warrant of Arrest printed in brown archaic letters, a half-circle at the top of the page. Mysteriously, they listed a tenth misdemeanor. I scrambled for the card I had put in my pocket, and gathered the papers to show them. They left.
Enforcement as Social Control
In early 2001, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) spearheaded the promotion of the Dog Enumeration Bill,19 which augmented licensing fees and enforcement. Already, New York City laws subject residents to substantial fines, and as I found out, law enforcement officers can cite multiple provisions when they make a stop.
Also notable are the state law provisions; state law would subject a second-time offender to 15 days in jail.20 If the enforcement officers seize a dog for licensing infraction pursuant to the state laws of New York, and the owner doesn’t pay a fee to get the dog back, the owner’s title is forfeited, and the dog can be adopted out, or turned over to the police for training as a guard dog, or killed.21
While the Dog Enumeration Bill was vaunted as a means to increase the availability of low-cost neutering, little was said about its harsher effects. The animal welfare community’s support for the bill became a media event, with an appearance by Mary Tyler Moore and “celebrity dog ‘Rags’ from ABC’s Spin City.”22
Legislative priorities changed drastically in late 2001, and by 2002 the Dog Enumeration Bill was out of the spotlight. Whenever such bills are promoted, however, they raise questions that an educated and nuanced animal rights movement would take seriously. When activists press for more punishment, are we really asking for more control over certain segments of society?
That we might be doing so in this context was evident in the 19th century, and it remains in evidence today. Historically, animal protection and control has villainized people of relatively low income and the dogs who lived among them. And, at least in the courtrooms of New York, low income is closely related to perceived racial or ethnic categories.