The Magazine

Crime and (Doggie) Punishment

A tale (or tail) of lost freedom.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ANDREW B. WILSON
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On a beautiful day in late October, Gus and I were enjoying a rare moment when our only companions in the large and hilly park in front of St. Louis’s Concordia Seminary were nut-gathering squirrels and the birds in the trees.

Dave Clegg

Dave Clegg

I was sitting on a Coleman camping chair reading a book and Gus, a beautiful black-and-tan Gordon setter, was doing his favorite thing—chasing birds. This is something Gus does at high speed, in narrowly zig-zagging and broadly circling patterns. The chases go on for as long as eight or nine seconds. I have never seen him pluck a bird out of the air, but he is right on their tails the whole time—forcing many a low-flying wren or robin to go into a steep climb.

It is a sight to behold. People stop and stare in disbelief. The birds seem to enjoy the game as much as Gus. Why else would they be so willing to come out of the trees and play catch-me-if-you-can? Sometimes, Gus begs them to do it—in short, staccato steps under a tree. Nose down, he dances to the sight of moving shadows signaling movement above. On a good day, Gus has dozens of bird chases.

On this particular day, my sense of perfect contentment was broken when I looked up and saw Gus at the far end of the park in the company, but not the grasp, of a policeman. It looked as if my grand-dog thought he had found something rather interesting and was happily escorting the policeman into my presence. Gus was off leash, as, too, of course, was the policeman.

As Gus pranced about the policeman, I grew increasingly annoyed thinking about what was about to happen. Wherever you go in today’s America, the nanny state, in its all-encompassing wisdom, has declared there shall be no dogs off leash—anywhere and everywhere, with the possible exception of your own basement.

If people who were alive a hundred years ago were to return today to our parks and open spaces .  .  . and find that no one is allowed to let a dog run free because of a widespread horror of dog poo, and fears that house pets might turn into killers .  .  . they would be appalled at our conformity, timidity, and stupidity. They would feel sorry for the dogs and wonder why we as a people weren’t already extinct.

As my mood turned sour, I also wondered—as a legal point, and I am no lawyer—what gave the policeman the right to come marching up to me on a private college campus.

So I did not politely get out of my chair to greet the officer, or even look up from my book, until he was hovering over me.

“Do you know there’s a leash law?” he asked. I answered his question with one of my own:

“Do you know this is private property?”

“Is it your property?” he countered.

I know my dog and I are welcome here,” I answered. “My wife and I have been here many times. We have come to know several of the faculty members. No one has ever asked us to put this dog on a leash. In fact, our dog has played off leash with their dogs.”

At this point, the policeman claimed the school administration had asked the Clayton police department (Clayton being a close-in St. Louis suburb) to enforce Clayton’s leash law. He pulled out a pad and started to write a ticket—asking for particulars not just about me (my name and address) but also the dog (name, breed, and weight).

The policeman was not unpleasant. An older cop (55 or 60), he was probably assigned to the easiest duty, and what could be easier than sitting in a parking lot on a super-safe college campus and getting out of his car to write a ticket on a dog that befriended everyone, himself included? He sympathized with the fact that my wife and I had been keeping this very sporty dog, now three-and-a-half years old, for our daughter and her family ever since he had been a puppy, and this was a dog, as he could see, that should not be cooped up in an empty house for 10 hours a day while its parents were working. We keep Gus on weekdays and he goes back to Elizabeth’s house on weekends.

So the policeman and I talked a bit about what to do with a dog that really needs at least an hour of hard exercise a day to be fit and happy.

There were several dog parks in the area, he volunteered.

“And they’re all like prison yards,” I told him—places where the more aggressive dogs are forever preying on less aggressive. It’s hump-o-mania all the time in crowded dog parks. Gus could stand up to the aggressive dogs, and would often, good-heartedly, come to the protection of weaker ones, but he didn’t like dog parks. Birds don’t much like dog parks either.

Maybe you could buy a farm, the policeman weakly suggested. He left me with a ticket and summons to appear in court on December 4.

Beth Ann, my wife, wanted to be there—with Gus. She is planning to write a children’s book about our several encounters with the law on this issue—and also our more numerous encounters with other dog-owners who scrupulously obey the leash laws and shout out enviously to outliers like us: Don’t you know there’s a leash law? For the purposes of the book, she wanted Gus to have his day in court.

I didn’t think Beth Ann had a chance of getting through security with a dog—even with such a beautiful and noble-looking dog as Gus. But I am never surprised by my wife’s inventiveness.

I had been sitting in the Clayton municipal courthouse for about an hour—along with about 100 other miscreants waiting their turn before the judge—when she and Gus (on a leash) came sweeping down the aisle. Beth Ann stopped to talk to a lawyer friend who was just leaving the court. Then, just as suddenly, she and Gus were gone.

To skip ahead to what would seem to be the end, when I was called to go before the judge, he told me that I had two options: I could plead not guilty and face a quick trial with the possibility of a fine of $300 or more; or I could talk to the person on the same dais seated to his left, who was the prosecutor and who had the discretion to negotiate a settlement. Naturally, I took the second option.

In a brief conference that took less than a minute, I told the prosecutor that Gus was not my dog, but my grand-dog, and that I had not known that I was violating any leash law at Concordia Seminary. He seemed faintly amused. Here was the deal, which I quickly accepted: If I agreed to pay court costs ($26.50), there would be no fine and, as the prosecutor put it, both Gus and I would be on six-month probation.

I won’t tell you what Gus and I might or might not do between now and next May. But I will tell you how Beth Ann and Gus got into the Clayton municipal courtroom.

As Beth Ann tells the story—

In her first approach to the courtroom door with Gus in tow, she was stopped and told she had to sign in first. Patrolman Karl pointed to an open ledger along the wall on the other side of the anteroom. She signed the ledger. When she returned to the big courtroom door, Patrolman Karl stopped her a second time.

“Dogs aren’t allowed in the courtroom,” he said.

“But he’s the perpetrator. He’s asked to appear in court.”

“I don’t think he has to be present in court.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll go ask the judge.”

With that, Patrolman Karl went through the door and Beth Ann and Gus followed a moment or two later. Having determined in private discussion with the judge or prosecutor that Gus’s presence in court was not an absolute requirement, Patrolman Karl duly shushed Beth Ann and Gus out of the courtroom.

So Gus really did have his day in court.

I wish the moral to this story was that you can’t keep a good dog down. But I fear the reality is that the nanny state and its obedient servants will keep any number of good dogs down for a long time to come. We are witnessing the death of common sense as a substitute for rules and regulations.

Life is less fun, with less freedom.

Andrew B. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank in St. Louis.

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