On many days, Linda Buesching, past president of the West Valley Bird Society, likes to take her hyacinth macaw, Maxine, out and about for a bit of socializing. She generally knows what she's in for.
"It happens all the time: People will come up to me and tell me it's terrible that I keep birds, they all should be flying free, that I should send her back where she came from," Buesching says.
Randall Gladstein gets comments from strangers as well about his German shepherd-boxer mix Tiger Lily. During one walk, he recalls, he came upon a woman with a small dog. "She says, 'Keep your pit bull away,' even though she's nothing like a pit bull," he says, laughing. "I say, 'I don't take it personally, but my dog does.'"
People, it seems, have no filter when it comes to other people's animals: how they should behave or how their owners should behave. Let's just call it petiquette.
Sometimes it's not the comment per se — "Oh, you didn't rescue?" — but the amount of acid dripping off each word. At other times, it's the great unspoken dis, perfectly communicated in other ways, like people deliberately crossing the street when they see a person walking a certain type of dog.
According to a formula developed by the American Veterinary Medical Assn. and reported by the Los Angeles Almanac, of the 3 million households in Los Angeles County, nearly 2 million own either a dog, cat, bird or multiples and combinations of the same.
More people, more pets and less space for all can create its own type of urban tension.
Dogs, possibly because they nearly always are physically attached to a human, tend to generate the most comments. Big-dog people see little dogs often as the problem. Little-dog people find fault with the big dogs.
There are verbal clashes between the leashed and the unleashed, and between those who refuse to spay or neuter their animals and just about everyone else. Valley and hillside people who let their dogs out in their yards can face criticism for possibly subjecting their animals to a coyote attack. "To date, I've resisted telling my neighbor that he'd make a much more filling meal," one notes.
There can be a great divide between those who find their pets in city shelters or through rescue groups and those who choose to purchase a purebred.
Cat people are not immune from criticism either, although owners are cut a bit of slack since cats, as everyone knows, will be cats. Kelly Sayce, who with husband Philip owns 17-year-old Granola and the feral Calliope, who will live only under the house, generally have a very good relationship with their neighbors on either side. However, Sayce relates, "They've commented that they can smell the pee from our cats. I always just apologize, and I've sprayed things and tried to make it smell better."
But, she adds, "I've gotten a little more protective and defensive about it. Certainly, in my mind, I am thinking, 'Why are you saying it's our cats? Like, prove it. How do you know?'"
(The big, and sometimes heated, debate for cat owners is whether cats should be allowed outside. Buesching, who owns a flock of birds and no cats, has a firm opinion about that one. "Cats belong indoors. They kill a lot of birds for play.")
For most of us, pet etiquette is largely a matter of common sense and thoughtfulness. "The No. 1 rule is clean up after your dog," notes Anne Singleton, who owns Sadie, a German short-haired pointer. Rule No. 2: "Pay attention to your dog."
When all goes right, in this town where many people are strangers, pets can serve a greater purpose. Rather than flashpoints, they can be bridges to building new relationships. "The first thing, you ask about a dog's name, how old a puppy is," says Nieder. "It is an icebreaker. It creates neighborliness."
"That never happens," she adds pointedly, "when you have cats."