One of the issues guaranteed to send otherwise sane (by Gloucester standards) citizens to depart from the 9 ¾ platform onto the train to Nuttwarts Castle is dogs and the attendant bounty of poop they yield. For fun sometime mention “leash laws” to old timers who’ve been involved in Gloucester politics for the long haul and watch their eyes twitch. This is an issue that, for little understood anthropological reasons, comes up every few years and burns through the populace as an infectious bout of rabid pointlessness, like a witch-hunt or an Aerosmith comeback tour. When it’s over nothing has advanced except a fresh revelation of our own shamefulness.
DISCLAMMER (a term we just made up and plan to milk heavily). We here at The Clam love dogs. We are also immensely clear that everyone who goes to the beach has a fundamental right to a safe, clean experience to the extent this is possible in an integrated society like ours. But the facts matter, so here they are:
Important Fact One: Human beings and dogs have been together for literally tens of thousands of years. It’s an interspecies partnership deeper than just having a pug you can dress in amusing costumes for holidays. Canines and humans are literally co-evolved. We fed them; they did important jobs for us like warn of and fight foes, hunting, herding and have served as loyal companions. Half of the population has dogs. As Baby Boomers age many more will get dogs to help the nest feel less empty. Dogs are not going away, we have to deal with dogs, sorry cat people.
Important Fact Two: Dogs are not just going to be kept in houses and yards. The argument that people should keep them exclusively on their own property is not workable. We have ‘common lands’ and always have. And things like the dog park are nice, but in general one of the reasons people get dogs is to motivate themselves to take longer walks so just letting the dog run around in a fenced-in area, public or private, isn’t going to cut it. During the winter, on an otherwise empty beach there is no good reason to completely ban well-behaved dogs even if it were possible to do so.
To this some people object- they seen to imply a right to an entirely dog-free existence. They don’t have one. There is no identified basic human right to be dog free. That may be a preference, maybe even one that can be accommodated to the extent that is reasonable, but it’s not a fundamental right. For instance, we are cyclists. We don’t have a reasonable expectation of car-free public roads. Accommodations are made (bike lanes, bike trails), but no one sane is demanding the wholesale banning cars because they present a threat to the safety and enjoyment of a particular segment (This is why we are bitter, btw). People have a right to be in public without being threatened or hassled, but they don’t have a right to a public world without well-behaved dogs. And everyone will have a story about how they once got scared or knocked over by a dog who was infringing on fundamental rights. Again, talk to cyclists. We got stories, lemmetellya.
Important Fact Three: The city is not going to divert more enforcement to leash laws, current or new. There are four cops on call at any given time for this city of 20 square miles. They are not going to be enforcing leash laws (and it’s in their contracts that they don’t have to. Seriously). There is one animal control officer and he is up to his badge in calls about injured seagulls, coyotes (Typical call: “Dear sweet merciful God! I just saw a coyote in my yard!”) turkeys standing on cars crapping and scratching the finish and raccoons in chimneys (we enjoy picturing them wearing comical little tophats). Literally all his on-duty time is spent responding to calls. There is no time for him to patrol the beaches on alternate Sundays and hand out tickets to otherwise chill people. That will never be a regular thing. Ever. Not going to happen.
Important Fact Four: The city will never adopt less restrictive leash laws than those currently on the books because it would open them up for liability. Their lawyers will not let them; anyone who’s ever worked with a legal department knows this. We once worked with a pharma company where the legal team finally Okayed the use of Twitter and told us that after vetting and checking they could guarantee us the approval of a thrilling one tweet per month. That is how legal works. Their job is to reduce risk and generally they don’t really give a toss if things like “fun” or “business effectiveness” suffer.
So what have we learned? Simply that nothing will change by modifying or creating new leash laws. Not a single thing. Because there will be no parallel enforcement change. You can make all the laws you want but without it there will be no substantive behavior modification. Remember that many states literally have laws that make blowjobs illegal. Are these laws enforced? Do non religious-lunatics care? Did you even know that Massachusetts is one of these states? We profoundly hope this lends a certain air of risqué eroticism to your next sexual escapade. You’re welcome.
So, this proves that the laws don’t matter, really. Because people don’t look to rulebooks for how to behave, they look to each other. Think about the highway. You don’t drive at the posted speed on 128. You drive based on what the traffic is doing. How often do you actually travel at the posted speed limit? And how often is that actual number, not some egregious violation of it, enforced? This goes for all kinds of things. It’s the group that enforces the vast majority of social norms, not the cops or the dog officer.
For instance, we are writing this very missive on a packed commuter train into Boston and just a few minutes ago someone began watching a show on their iPhone without headphones and the volume turned up. Something like three separate people yelled a version of, “Shut that shit off!” because we morning commuters know this is simply Not Done. But in the middle of the day when the majority of the train riders are heading to Salem for arraignments or to Lynn to buy drugs for which they will eventually be arrested and arraigned, everyone listens to their iPhones without headphones and the group does not enforce. The social norms change depending on who is in the group, even on the exact same train on the exact same route.
Yes there are always outliers. The whole gag of the Borat character was that he didn’t understand American customs and constantly broke them in egregious fashion. Watching him violate social norms and the subsequent crowd reaction and attempts to correct was the whole premise of the joke. As a culture we find this endlessly amusing because we are social animals. It’s that simple.
So if laws won’t work, how do we modify unwanted behavior?
Ignore the government. Well, don’t ignore them, but don’t bother to look to them for solutions because they both can’t and won’t even if they could. What the situation requires is dedicated volunteers to organize and go to the beach or the park or wherever and reward people adhering to the desired norms (“You guys are great! Have a cookie!”) and likewise admonish those breaking them. How much more effective would a nice, smiling person in a reflective vest be walking up and handing a clean-up bag to someone studiously ignoring the beadloaf-sized dookie their golden retriever just cranked out? “Did you forget bags? Here, I have extra.” Think of that person walking up to the owner of an out of control dog and saying, “I think she needs to be on a leash” and having a spare length of rope she could hand out if necessary.
If people are obstinate and tell her to go eat a bag of dicks (Illegal in MA, see above), then she can call the cops or animal control or even more volunteers or effing SEAL Team Six or whomever. But most everybody will tow the line because people want to adhere to social norms. This is why khaki slacks exist.
Lots of places have an “Ambassador Program” and it’s used by any organization trying to get a large group of people to adhere to social norms in a group setting where the population vastly outnumbers the enforcement. You will see them at the ballgame, helping people find their correct seats, reminding folks to pick up trash, taking photos and having fun but also nudging those just-over-the-line party people to keep it under control. And if they don’t, a radio call goes out and three large dudes named “Sully” waltz over and drag your sorry beer-soaked ass out to Lansdowne. But most people adhere.
The point is that these are not enforcers. Primarily they are friendly, outgoing, smiley people who want to help. And most people breaking the rules need it. Maybe they need a referral to a dog trainer, maybe they need a leash or just a hand with their dog for a minute while they figure out what they are doing (dog handling is a skill). And seeing ambassadors means that those being bothered have someone to go to, creating a sense of accountability. And it’s not a full-time job, it’s a semi-volunteer position. The community is supporting them, not the city.
Ski areas use this approach. Concert venues use them. Gloucester does not. But our fair city would be well served to have a few on the beaches for all kinds of things: dog issues, trash pick-up at the end of the beach day in summer (“You guys need a garbage bag?”), for the ever-present unshoveled walks (“Do you need to borrow a shovel? We have some right here!”).
But this is not the way most people approach problems. A loud set demands the cops ticket and arrest everyone breaking a particular law being ignored (but not the ones they, themselves are ignoring, of course). Sure we all want to see people doing things we don’t like punished. We, for instance, would like to George Lucas sent to the Supermax prison in Colorado for the horror that was The Phantom Menace. But that’s not how the world works. Encouragement is always going to be more effective than enforcement. And getting people together to solve a problem- the dog people and the bothered-by-dogs people is a far better approach than expecting the city to solve our minor problems. Even if they had the resources, which they don’t, that’s not the kind of thing we want the government to do.
And, for the record, we will not be approving any comments nominating particular individuals as “Blowjob Ambassador”. Consider yourselves warned, pervs.