The New York Times (pg. B-1)
July 15, 2003


An Exhibit on Animals New Yorkers Coddle

By Glenn Collins

Dear Tourist: Please be aware that the New Yorker standing before you,
seemingly so brusque and busy and unfriendly -- and so impatient with
your ambling ways -- may actually be Skippy's Mom. Or Ruff-Ruff's Dad.
And very possibly baby talks to them. In public.

The concrete jungle is home to 1.5 million dogs (though fewer than
100,000 are licensed, according to the Department of Health) and 1.8
million cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals. And many are animals of considerable means. They
have pet acupuncturists who make house calls. They have pet
chauffeurs. They have pet nannies.

"The city is also the world capital of canine and kitty couture --
indeed, of all pet fashion," said Kathleen Hulser, the public
historian of the New-York Historical Society.

The city's petocracy is hardly new, according to an exhibition at the
Historical Society that opens today. New Yorkers have gone gaga about
pets for centuries.

The show, "Petropolis: A Social History of Urban Animal Companions,"
examines the history of animals in New York and America's urban
centers, offering more than 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures,
photographs and objects that include the famed 1910 Spratts Company
dog food bowl (its corporate motto may sound familiar: "Every Dog Has
His Day").

Anthropomorphized artifacts in the exhibition's "pet obsession"
section include doggie sunglasses, Kitty Kaviar and Kitty CatBernet
for rare morsels in a cabernet bottle).

The exhibition -- its co-curators are Ms. Hulser and Roberta J. M.
Olson, a curator of drawings at the museum -- drew many of these
treats from Karens for People + Pets on Lexington Avenue near 82nd
Street. The 28-year-old store offers shoppertunities that include
faux-fur pet jackets ($150), alligator pet-carrying bags ($4,000,
possibly inadvisable for carrying alligators) and grooming sessions
from $77 to $140.

"People can drop a couple of thousand dollars in 10 minutes on their
pets here," said Cammy Cutler, the manager. "One woman bought the
sunglasses because she was taking pictures for her dog's bark-mitzvah,
and the dog was posed on a Harley-Davidson."

The exhibition demonstrates that animal affection has characterized
New York since its earliest Dutch days. Peter Stuyvesant himself
thought so much of his son's beloved bay that he paid an artist for a
1666 painting of young Nicholas William Stuyvesant in the saddle. And
a century later, James Beekman commissioned a painting of his daughter
Mary with her pet lamb.

Educated Colonial Americans generally thought hierarchically about
animals, Ms. Hulser said, and in the natural order beasts were
believed to be savage and dumb -- as in mute -- and in need of humans
to care for them. "There was a lot of noblesse oblige," she said.

But only when convenient. The "savage beast" attitude made it
possible, in the 19th century, for the city to hire "dog killers" to
roam the streets clubbing stray cats and dogs to rid the city of what
were considered to be disease-carrying pests, as the exhibition
horrifyingly illustrates. And a horde of free-range pigs scavenged for
garbage before the city had an effective sewer system. Only later did
the dog killers become "dog catchers."

It was the very public mistreatment of the city's several hundred
thousand horses that engendered the creation of humane societies. The
exhibition offers the April 10, 1866, charter of the American Society
for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, bearing the signature of its
founder, Henry Bergh, and those of such notables as Horace Greeley,
William Cullen Bryant, Hamilton Fish and John Jacob Astor Jr.

The document "is equivalent to the animals' declaration of
independence," said Valerie K. Angeli, a spokeswoman for the society,
which these days has a $41 million budget, employs 200 people and
treats more than 20,000 pets per year in its animal hospital.

But decades before the charter, animals had begun to come out of the
barn and into the parlor. As early as 1807, families were advertising
for lost pets in local newspapers, showing that, Ms. Hulser said, "by
then these animals were beloved enough to be missed."

By the Victorian era, family parlor paintings depicted the ubiquitous
dog and cat as attributes of refinement. And in 1877, New York began
to hold the Heisman Trophy of barkdom, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog

As Manhattan flourished as a port city, voyagers and immigrants
imported a menagerie of exotic new pets. Thus it was that canary
breeders from the Hartz Mountain region of Germany imported their
wares to dealerships on Fulton Street, and the Hartz Mountain pet-
supply company was born.

While the show is species-diverse, depicting rabbits, snakes, rats,
mice, chickens, geese, pigeons, ferrets, turtles and tropical fish,
dogs certainly do have their day.

"This is a lonely city, and dogs are a cohesive force," said Bern
Marcowitz, co-owner of Dog Lovers Bookshop, who was the adviser to the
historical society on the exhibition's rare books. "Cats and parrots
don't need to be walked, but dogs do," he said, "so dogs are the
nearest thing we have to a sense of community in New York City."

It is a cliche that the dog runs of New York have sparked their own
culture, their own networking and even their own marriages. But the
dog-run-as-social-club can also spark social activism. The exhibition
chronicles the renovation of a dog run at West 105th Street in
Riverside Park, spearheaded by Terry Fonville, a Manhattan physician
who led the Riverside Dog Owners Group in a two-year confrontation
with the Parks Department.

"In the end," Mr. Fonville recalled, "we wound up raising $80,000 to
create a wonderful dog run."

The exhibition reveals that there is a long history of big dogs in
little city apartments.

"The high-rise pet is simply the extension of a tradition launched
more than a century ago, and is just one measure of the blurring line
between pets and humans," said Ms. Hulser, who is herself owned by a
16-year-old golden retriever named Chuckie.

Those blurred lines are focused a bit in signs saying "Dogs are just
children with fur" commonly sold in pet stores. Ms. Cutler, the
manager of Karens for People + Pets, said that customers even "have
asked for tuxes."

"You know, for when two doggies are getting married?" she said. "Or
when the doggie is walking down the aisle with the owner? In a
marriage ceremony?" (Sorry: Karens is tuxless.)

Such antics can cause grumpiness among other pet-besotted New Yorkers,
however. "It turns my stomach," said Mr. Marcowitz, of Dog Lovers
Bookshop, a Web store ( that was formerly a Manhattan
bookseller. "A dog is a domesticated wolf, and it must be treated with
respect, as a dog, and not as a surrogate child."

If some seem barking mad in expressing affection for their pets, it is
at least a refreshing admission from thick-skinned New Yorkers that
they aren't above needing a little unqualified love after all.

Humane societies estimate that the number of New York City pets has
been increasing. "There is booming interest in companion animals right
now," Ms. Angeli of the A.S.P.C.A. said.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, our adoptions have gone up," she said. "People
are realizing that life is precious and short."

Copyright 2003 New York Times