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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

In Patrick McDonnell's strip "Mutts," there's a character I can barely stand to look at. McDonnell intends this; he's picturing the untenable. The animal is just called Guard Dog. No name, of course. He strains at the end of a short chain, and only when he dreams is he ever free. This is his life. And this is the life of countless dogs. Solitary confinement, for no crime. No exercise or mental stimulation, no communication, no pleasure. What possesses us?

The organization Dogs Deserve Better (No Chains!) has a brochure that is equally painful to look at. On the front is an ill-kempt beast with a forlorn look in his eyes. And then you read: "You see me with your eyes . . . Now see me with your heart." By this point you're on the floor. I must leave it to the psychologists to explain the disconnect that permits us to do things like this.

Like, cage anything. Guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, or (as Blake contended put "heaven in a rage") birds. Every one of them is actively suffering under the unseeing gaze of their captors. Some of these captors, too, are otherwise good people; some of them are my friends. (And you should know that I do not exclude myself from the ranks of the hypocrite or the unheeding; I am, oh, I am. Just ask my shrink. Or my friends. Or the cows whose dairy products I eat even though they suffer for it. I'm a wicked hypocrite.) But I avert my eyes when I go to their homes, because seeing an animal in a cage--alone, lonely, bored--actually makes me hyperventilate. I can't look or I'm going to have a panic attack. Nor do I feel I can say anything: Who am I to judge? That is not an entirely rhetorical question, as I've just mentioned. And even if I were to say something, I already know the response: Oh, don't worry. He's very happy.

This answer veers from ignorance of animal behavior, I believe, into the precincts of denial. Or at least the convenience of wishful thinking. Plantation owners went a long way on the Happy Slaves myth, remember. We see what we want to see. We do not like to consider ourselves jailers, so we say they are not imprisoned. A simple solution.

I'm not sure if it's more generous to allow that willful ignorance is at play. The kind that permits a dog owner to aver, as his dog stands stiffly with hackles raised, tail erect and vibrating, and a hard stare--beyond any doubt the canine way of saying "Make my day"--"Oh, my dog's friendly. He's just playing."

A lot of dogs have gotten hurt because their people didn't intervene before it was too late with these types of "friendly" dogs.

Yet it is the dog on a chain who is probably the saddest creature on earth. And I am sorry to bring up this depressing subject, when all we want is to be happy and forget about sadness and banish people who harp on "negative" things. But I wonder, Whatever is the point? Imagine locking a child in a room for years. No playmates, no hugs. Food pushed past the doorway three times a day. How is it possible such a social creature could be happy, or even not entirely ruined in the mind as well as spirit? Not possible. So why is it legal for people to keep solitary dogs penned or chained for their entire lives? Why? Is it because we have no morals? I may note that the AKC takes no formal stand against this practice. Now you know what to think of them.

Of course, I'm enough of a nutcase to think we might consider legally requiring off-leash activity for our dogs as well. A dog who never gets off-leash is a little like a child who, yes, gets out of the room, but has to hold Mommy's hand while he does so.

Instead, at the moment, seemingly every community is facing ever more legislation toward keeping dogs leashed at all times. It's even happening in hippie (okay, "hippie-ish") Woodstock. If it can happen here, man, it can happen anywhere. I lay this at the feet of our stupidly expanding population--there are simply too many people, and thus too many eyes. You can't just slip under the radar anymore, do as you please so long as it doesn't hurt anyone. Now there is always someone to see you, and one of those someones is likely to be secretly afraid of dogs. So they get on the horn to the town council, and then the end is near for the mental and physical well-being of lots of dogs. And the owners who love them.

Now where am I going to go to give Nelly a run, listen to the burbling creek, and have some of those serendipitous meetings that begin in the parking lot in mutual admiration of corgis and setters, Aussies and mutts? Dog people really are more interesting than the usual run of human, you know that? What an opportunity lost. For everyone. But especially for a woman at, um, liberty.

I guess I'll have to go back to Prospect Park. Ironic, to have to go back to a city of eight million people in order to let my dog run free. But next week. A few days of irony never hurt anyone.