My, your lawn is lush and green…especially where the dogs were!

Record temperatures in Chicago have meant green lawns ahead of schedule. This is not usually considered a bad thing: the brown or dormant grass of winter has given way to verdant lawns that wouldn’t look out of place in the many lawn commercials one can see at this time of year. However, in walking around, I noticed that these lawns are often punctuated by more lush spots, presumably from the work of dogs. Here is one picture from an adjacent neighborhood:

Some thoughts about this:

1. The typical “perfect lawn” doesn’t include such spots. So if someone has pets and wants a great-looking lawn, how do you balance these two interests? Cut the lawn a lot? I haven’t noticed any products talking about this kind of fertilization.

2. Perhaps this is a bigger problem in townhome/condo/apartment neighborhoods where there are common lawns. To curb their dog, people walk about the neighborhood and use the common areas. Why use spaces close to your home when you can take advantage of other areas? (Additionally: you are paying for those other areas so why not?)

3. Some patterns emerge: I would estimate at least 80% of the spots were within four feet of the sidewalk. This likely says more about the dog owners than the dogs: the owners want to stay on the sidewalk so the dogs have to stay close by. Also, taller objects, signs, mailboxes, trees, etc. tended to have lusher grass around them. Here is another shot that also shows the first pattern:

Does anyone get upset about this desecration of the lawns? If the battle is between dogs and a perfect lawn, it looks like the dogs win at this time of year.

Argument: class concerns behind zoning laws

One commentator suggests that activities commonly banned by zoning laws are banned because they don’t meet middle-class or upper-class standards:

1. Clotheslines instead of dryers. Reason: Looks poor. Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer. Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own. This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, They ignore, however, that carnivore manures are almost certainly more dangerous than any other livestock manure, and health issues are at least as prevalent from pets. The same is true of considerations of size, noise, etc… – barking dogs the size of ponies are permitted while three quiet hens are not. The real reason is that pets are broadly a sign of affluence, since they cost us money, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.

3. No front yard gardens. Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence – you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce anything.. It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguous but basically sterile, often chemically toxic and seeming “public” greenspace that is actually privatized and not very green. Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford it – even if you can’t.

4. No rainwater collection. Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them, and who would like to have gardens anyway. A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks. Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining. While western riparian water rights are an issue, research has shown over and over again that rainbarrels increase net water access and that lost water in storm surge that could have been collected in rainbarrels is a net gain. Fortunately, many cities are finally getting over this one.

5. No commerce that isn’t white collar. Reason – Class. Telecommuters who can make money out of their homes all they want, or upscale white collar professionals with home offices are generally permitted in residential zoning.. This means people who want to sell food, do hair, fix things, cannot hang a discrete sign selling their biscuits or offering their services. This is deemed ugly and bad – and it is a visible reminder that people might not have enough money to keep warm burning it, and might need to earn some.

This seems to get at one of the basic principles of suburban life in recent decades, particularly in places with homeowners associations: legislate against certain behaviors in order to protect your own property values. Voluntarily give up some of your property rights in order to protect yourself from neighbors who don’t care about their property as much as you do. Theoretically, everyone then wins because the neighborhood is protected.

This reminds me of accounts of some early suburbs in the United States where people built their own homes and frequently kept animals. Building your house yourself these days would likely run into all sorts of code concerns (unless you were a proficient plumber, electrician, etc.). Additionally, I imagine the home might look less “perfect” than mass produced housing and these accounts told about how people frequently were adding on to their homes or leaving certain parts in various states of repair.

Many suburbs and communities have faced the question in recent years about residents keeping animals. Some have allowed it, some have not. I assume this is not as much of a concern in wealthier suburbs but it would be interesting to see if there are patterns in which communities allowed animals and which did not.

Overall, zoning is often black and white in its approach and residential zones are meant to be only for residences.

Sociology can contribute to the new field of animal studies

The New York Times highlights a new interdisciplinary field: animal studies.

The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.

The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.

Some scholars now ask: Why stop there? Why honor the uncertain boundary that separates one species from all others? Is it time for a Shakespearean stage direction: Exit the humanities, pursued by a bear? Not quite yet, although some scholars have suggested it is time to move on to the post-humanities.

The Animals and Society Institute, itself only six years old, lists more than 100 courses in American colleges and universities that fit under the broad banner of animal studies. Institutes, book series and conferences have proliferated. Formal academic programs have appeared.

As I’ve said to my introduction to sociology students, if humans are involved, sociologists can study anything.

I wish the article discussed further this talk about a move to the post-humanities – this sounds like it could be quite interesting and I’m sure it would get a lot of people up in arms.

The American Sociological Association has an Animals and Society section. Helpfully, the section has a page explaining why the section exists:

The establishment of this section reflects the increasing popular and scholarly attention being devoted to the relationship between humans and other animals for well over two decades.  Philosophers, feminists, anthropologists, psychologists — and, increasingly, sociologists – are examining the complex, profound and entangled relationships of humans and other animals…

While several existing ASA sections may touch upon aspects of the interactions of humans and other animals occasionally and tangentially, none are adequate vehicles for serious investigation and development of the issues and question in this area.  Nor do they provide a specific space in which a theoretical sociological framework on other animals can be collaboratively developed.  The ASA section on Animals and Society will facilitate improved sociological inquiry into these issues.

As of 2011, this section has 172 members. This still seems like a rather low-visibility section whose numbers have not increased since its founding.

How social class might affect a family’s view of its pet

Some sociologists have examined the relationship between people and their pets. Indeed, there is even an American Sociological Association section titled  “Animals and Society” (read their rationale here).  Here are the thoughts of two sociologists on this dynamic between pets and their owners:

Sociologist Elizabeth Terrien discovered in a study of dog owners that people from rural backgrounds view dogs more as guardians that should be kept outside. More affluent people tend to see their pets more as children and describe them in terms such as “child,” “companion” or “partner in crime.”

Terrien found that those with Latino backgrounds were more likely to use the term “protector” or “toy” to describe their pet’s role.

Carey also refers to sociologist David Blouin’s three main categories of pet owners:

Dominionists,” who view pets as useful but replaceable helpers. Many of the people in this category in Blouin’s study were immigrants from rural areas.

Humanists,” who pamper their pet much like a human child, let their pets sleep in their beds or leave money in their will.

Protectionists,” who have strong opinions about how animals should be treated and decide what they think is “best” for an animal (untying a dog tethered to a tree, for instance, or determining when a dog should be put down).

I wonder if we could map these ideas on top of Annette Lareau’s ideas about class and parenting styles in Unequal Childhoods. Lareau suggests that lower-class parents practice the accomplishment of natural growth, a more independent view of children and not encouraging children to challenge external authorities, where middle- and upper-class parents practice concerted cultivation where children are encouraged to speak up and parents give children the activities and cultural tools to get ahead. These categories seem to line up with the idea of these two sociologists: pets are more replaceable and functional for lower-class people (“dominionists”) while pets take are much closer to family members in more wealthy families (“humanists” and “protectionists”).

I also wonder if there is work comparing the treatment of children in families to treatment of pets. What might the impact of this be on children?

Additionally, it sounds like there could be some value judgment regarding which of the three approaches is most appropriate. How do “humanists” and “protectionists” view “dominionists”?

Quick Review: The Cove

On the surface, The Cove is not a typical film that I would watch: a documentary about nature. But I found The Cove to be engaging. A few thoughts about this award-winning 2008 documentary:

1. The story follows the actions of Richard O’Barry as he tries to expose the slaughter of dolphins in a protected cove in Taiji, Japan. O’Barry’s backstory is very interesting: he was the trainer for Flipper but immediately switched sides to protect dolphins after one of the show’s dolphins died (he says she committed suicide) in his arms. O’Barry assembles a team of people to help expose what is going on in Taiji as some in that community attempt to stop him. To me, O’Barry is the heart of this film – his decision and actions to try to save dolphins shows remarkable dedication and stubbornness in the face of difficult odds.

2. It is hard not to like dolphins: they are intelligent and are graceful. But O’Barry suggests one part of their appearance that may work against them: they appear to humans to always be smiling and this masks the times when they are in pain or are suffering.

3. Why do whales and dolphins get all of this attention, both in this film and from zoo or aquarium attendees? There are plenty of animals that are mistreated and locked up. There has to be an interesting social history here.

4. One of the side plots in this film is Japan’s role in the International Whaling Commission. This international body has difficulty stopping Japan from doing anything. Again, this could be a whole story or film in itself: how Japan skirts international law and advisories to conduct whaling activities.

5. One strong point of this documentary is that O’Barry’s team actually attempts to do something (and it is set up like the plot of some action film) as opposed to documentaries where people talk the whole time and viewers are shown statistics.

Overall, I enjoyed this film: the fight against what happens in Taiji, Japan makes for an interesting tale.

(This film was highly rated by critics: it is 96% fresh at with 116 fresh reviews out of 121 total.)

The presence of coyotes in cities and suburbs

Residents of cities across the United States have reported seeing coyotes in recent years. This has been an issue around Wheaton, Illinois: earlier this year, I even had the opportunity to be about 100 feet behind a car that hit a coyote walking across a busy road.

Among other discussions, such as the exact background of coyotes, researchers suggest coyotes are long-term residents in urban areas:

Even in their new habitat of the great metropolises, with nary a sheep in sight, the coyote finds itself, at best, a nervously tolerated visitor. In recent years, urbanites have been simultaneously charmed and disturbed by coyotes strolling in Central Park, trotting into a Quiznos restaurant in downtown Chicago and taking a dash around a federal courthouse in Detroit. Such news is, more often than not, soon followed by the news that the coyote has been rounded up and removed. It doesn’t seem to matter that coyotes are relatively harmless, as researchers point out, as any person or pet is much more likely to be injured or even killed by a domestic dog.

Neither does it seem to matter that the removal of a single showy coyote is unlikely to leave a city clear of these animals, or even give any sense of just how many coyotes a given city harbors. Dr. Gehrt said that when he began his research he would have guessed there were some 50 to 100 coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area. After a decade of radio tracking and genetic analyses, he knows better. Dr. Gehrt said he conservatively estimates the number of these rarely seen creatures at more than 2,000.

The coyote is out there, and it is here to stay.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion in this article about why coyotes have returned to urban areas in such large numbers.

Seeing a coyote is also a reminder than even our most urbanized areas, like Manhattan or built-up suburbs, are closer to nature than we often think.

Planning animal-shaped communities

The government of Southern Sudan has plans to create new cities in the shape of animals. The picture at the top of the news story of a city planned in the shape of a rhino is fascinating.

But there are some problems with this plan:

The $10.1 billion multi-decade project to re-create Southern Sudan’s 10 state capitals into elaborately-shaped dream towns may sound Dubai-esque — only Southern Sudan is no Dubai.

Actually, it is one of the poorest places on earth.

The undeveloped region — which lacks any paved roads outside its three main cities — is part of Africa’s largest nation, Sudan, which is ruled by the Khartoum government South Sudanese fought against for most of the past half century in two long civil wars.

But Southern Sudan expects to achieve independence next year through a January secession referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that granted the war-torn region self-rule until the vote.

Even without the unique city designs, the multi-billion dollar price tag alone was sure to turn heads. Southern Sudan’s total budget for 2010 is less than $2 billion, 98 percent of which comes from the oil revenues it hopes will fund its postwar re-construction.

If Dubai can construct islands in the shape of palms, can a currently non-existent government build cities in the shape of giraffes? It sounds like there are a lot of hurdles to clear before these development plans become reality.