But Watch Your Step : In France, a Dog's Life Is Just Great

Times Staff Writer

On a typical Sunday afternoon at the elegant restaurant Chez les Anges, well-groomed guests sit at beautifully arranged tables savoring the house specialty, poached eggs in wine sauce. At the same time, crouching under the furniture, other visitors pant and scratch, eagerly awaiting their turn.

Doggy bags are out of the question in this respected establishment on the Left Bank of the Seine.

"There is no reason to have them," said maitre d' Jean Planchenault as he surveyed the crowded dining room. "Dogs are welcomed in our restaurant. In fact, when they arrive, we automatically ask the chef to prepare a special pate of rice or meat for them, free of charge.

"They're a fact of life here. If we refused to serve them, we would lose a substantial following."

A Dog For Every 3 Humans

There are almost 700,000 dogs in Paris, one for about every three humans, and nearly everyone here caters to them--in brasseries , bars, boutiques, restaurants, hotels and offices.

And if dogs seem to be everywhere, so do the messes they make. According to people who have studied the problem, a careless Parisian is likely to sully his shoes an average of once every 262 feet.

Back in 1856, Paris became so crowded with dogs that a special tax was levied in an effort to discourage the people from acquiring more. The law had little effect then--and would probably have little effect today. Any talk of taxing dog-owners today would be regarded as heresy, especially in light of a recent poll showing that 85% of all Parisians like dogs.

"The right to own a dog, to take it shopping and to pollute the streets is sacred here," a French businessman who dislikes animals said the other day. "Americans have their Second Amendment safeguarding the right to bear arms. In France, we have an unwritten right to keep dogs. It's taken for granted, and no one would dare challenge it."

48 Million Dogs in U.S.

With more than 9 million dogs, one for every six people, France is out in front of the rest of Western Europe. In the United States, there are about 48 million dogs, one for every five people, but the problems are not as noticeable, thanks to city sanitation ordinances and plenty of public parks.

About 34% of all French households have at least one dog, and 52% at least one pet of some kind. There are 6.7 million cats, 8.4 million birds and 12.7 million fish, hamsters and reptiles.

"The French have an almost biological need for dogs and pets," said Jean-Pierre Hutin, a dog lover who produces a well-known weekly television broadcast about pets, "30 Million Friends."

"It's in our blood and our history," he went on. "Dogs have always served important actual and psychological needs, and, in the future, their role will grow."

As he talked, Hutin stroked his German shepherd, Mabrouk Jr., a household hero in France because of the television show.

Each year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, French animal lovers spend about $3 billion on their pets, with more than half of the total going to dogs--often in the form of gourmet dog food.

In a city where fashion is important, many dogs are dressed to the hilt. On rainy days, they appear on the streets in colorful slickers and ponchos. In cold weather, they are bundled up in chic leather and fur. And on weekends, in restaurants and at parties, they may appear in plaid.

Because dogs are welcome in restaurants and at home in boutiques, laws aimed at curbing them have proven nearly impossible to enforce.

About four years ago, Paris undertook a cleanliness campaign. Its slogan: "Teach him where the gutter is." Today, posters can still be seen featuring a picture of an Airedale terrier saying, "Me, I do it where I'm told to." Embedded in most sidewalks is the white silhouette of a dachshund with an arrow pointing to the gutter.

The advice is not always followed. Nor are laws that require animals to use the streets, parks and gardens.

Green parks make up only 7% of the city of Paris, a figure less than half that for London or New York. And since the streets here are always crowded with motor vehicles, the sidewalk seems not only more convenient but safer.

A seven-year-old order from the Police Prefecture provides for fining dog owners whose animals use the sidewalk instead of the gutter, but the order is ignored.

"It's very difficult to treat this problem," said Michel Dury, an official in the mayor's office of environment. "It's not the dog that is dirty. It's the master."

In restaurants and hotels, proprietors are left to make the decision about whether to admit animals. Only food stores are prohibited from admitting animals, but the rule is often broken.

Given the size of the Parisian canine population, no politician dares to tread on the rights of animal owners. There are estimates that at election time, 30% of all mail addressed to politicians deals in some way with animals.

"To pass strict regulations on dog owners would not go over well," Dury said. "It's electorally infeasible."

Jacques Brenner, a manuscript reader in a Paris publishing house, wrote a book and changed his political affiliation to protest the Socialist government's decision in 1984 to ban dogs from the famous Tuileries gardens.

"For 25 years, I walked with my dog in those gardens," Brenner said in an interview, all the while petting Falco, his griffon. "And then the Socialists came along and kicked them out. Well, that did it for me. No more Socialists.

"If they ban dogs in gardens today, tomorrow they might ban them in big cities. The day after tomorrow, who knows? It could be canine genocide."

Brenner's 256-page book, published last month, is called "Une Humeur de Chien," which translates roughly into "The Mood of a Dog." It refers to an idiomatic expression that means "a foul, rotten mood."

Despite what seems a near-obsession for canine companionship, there is a vocal minority intent on ridding the city of at least some of its dogs. Fabien Gruhier, a 39-year-old journalist and unofficial spokesman for this movement, said:

"I like dogs in the absolute sense, but I don't like seeing them in cities. They're not well adapted to city life. They poo-poo everywhere and destroy the sanctity of the city. The dog has a need for space to run and express itself. It's an insufferable perversion to keep them pent up and to take them out only for a toilet fix."

Besides pollution, the anti-dog forces cite other evidence to prove that the dog is more pest than pet. Last year in France, at least four persons--a young girl, two elderly people and a postman--were killed by dogs. About 500,000 people are bitten by dogs in France every year. Of the victims, 3,500, or 10 a day, are postmen, according to Louis Mexandeau, the postal and telegraph minister.

No Plastic Bags Here

In some American cities, dog owners are required to clean up after their animals on public sidewalks. Paris, though, has taken another route.

Every morning, 80 helmeted men clad in bright green jumpsuits roll into the city on motorcycles equipped with mechanical sweepers. With orange lights flashing, the cyclists, looking more like space-age stormtroopers than sanitation workers, go about sweeping and spraying. They cover more than 1,000 miles of pavement every day, about a third of the city.

The "green men," as they are called, whisk away about 1.5 tons of waste matter every day, going over the same route six days a week. Thus only a third of the city's sidewalks are cleaned in this way. The service, which is run by a private company, Trottoirnet, costs the city $2.5 million a year.

Animal enthusiasts, explaining the reasons behind the French passion for dogs, emphasize that France has always been a nation of peasants. As people moved to the cities after World War II, they turned to animals as reminders of the countryside they had abandoned.

"We lead an urban life that is increasingly alienated from nature," Brenner, the author, said. "The dog is the ambassador of nature in the city. By petting a puppy, you're also petting the countryside."

Others cite French psychology. They say that the French, who are closed, even withdrawn, in public, especially the older people, rely on animals for the affection and friendship they sometimes cannot find elsewhere.

Hutin, the man with the television show, said: "The French have problems with tenderness and communication. People need to have amicable relationships, and often it's easier with an animal than with a person."

All that aside, the dog is a part of French history. Historian Robert Delort, who has written a book called "Animals Have a History," said that dog-breeding in France dates back to the 10th Century. Under the reign of Charles I of Lorraine, he said, 70 forests and about 800 royal parks were seized and used for raising and training royal dogs.

In the 18th Century, when hunting became the passion of French kings, large kennels were created to raise and train dogs, Delort said. Louis XVI so enjoyed the hunt that he organized all his activities around the chase: war in the summer and autumn, hunting in winter and spring.

Other royal dogs are legend in France. Louis XV owned a poodle named Filou that played with Fidelite, the lap dog of Madame Pompadour. And Fortune, the surly pug that slept on the bed of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine, is said to have frightened the emperor out of spending the night with his wife.

The love for dogs cuts across class lines. According to Delort, the French masses in the 17th and 18th centuries imitated the aristocrats, raising dogs and carefully following canine fashion.

Today, the passion is undiminished, but according to Hutin, "things could be worse."

"When I go to New York City," he said, "there are drug addicts everywhere, and I'm always fearful of being stabbed in the stomach. Dog pollution and dog bites are not as bad as a knife in the stomach. Thank goodness that instead of drugs, the French chose to be addicted to dogs."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
77°