Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dogs In Key West

I have been thinking more than usual about my relationship with Cheyenne, in the confusing days of our move from house to house. But living with Cheyenne has a broader impact on my life than simply watching her stress out, alongside my wife and I, as we upended our lives. Dogs are everywhere in the Keys and in Key West the fond belief is that the city is dog friendly.
There are plenty of people who leave their dogs on chains in the yard, Stock Island is full of them, and dogs abandoned outdoors all night plague neighborhoods everywhere. Barking is an incessant problem, and if you live on a speck of dirt not ringing to the sound of unloved and  undisciplined companion animals then you are lucky. Not every dog owner understands dogs are social animals anxious to live in the family and eager to get orders from the leader of the pack, consequently there are far too many yards occupied by dogs half forgotten serving life sentences behind bars barking desperately for attention. Cheyenne is not one of them, though she was in a previous life.
The SPCA does a great job of keeping unwanted animals and they are building a new hurricane resistant facility on College Road, but they still have to deal with peculiar attitudes toward the value of unwanted pets. I have posted this previously but it bears repeating...

During my young adult years I was even more restless than I am now, living on boats, traveling by motorcycle always unsure where I was going to be living next year so I never had a dog. Thus my first encounter with the world of coping with pets in Key West came after we sailed for a couple of years from California to Key West with two large dogs. Seen here ready to go ashore to greet coconut collectors in the Kuna Yala region of Panama's Caribbean coast:
That was a fun trip of course but it was tough traveling with dogs and many a day I wished I could see just a little less of all those countries twice a day every day on foot. But there we were,  with two hairy monsters who demanded to be walked and tired out every day. They were not natural sailors but they got to see more of Central America and the Caribbean than most humans you know.  The ease and simplicity of life ashore  in Key West with immediate access to places to walk was seductive. But I did wonder how we would cope with two energetic dogs in a place lacking the sort of forested trails we were used to hiking for hours on weekends in the cool, foggy Santa Cruz mountains, or the endless beaches and jungles of central America... we managed, as it happened, but the keys seemed too small to hold our hounds.
Even so for a dog walker like me who wants to offer my animal variety and stimulation it can be rather a chore trying to figure where to walk her every day. It has crossed my mind that housing a cat might be easier.
I like cats but my wife is allergic to them so we have never had a cat in our lives, which means about life with cats in the Keys I can't say much. I can say that I read lots of comments in the paper about cats versus wildlife, or chickens and the ever-fresh indoor/outdoor debate and all the usual neighborhood drama as found anywhere where people live cheek by jowl. Some people don't like cats, or prefer birds, and there are some who dislike dogs (inconceivable!) but usually it's the owners they don't much like, people whose dogs bark all the time and who walk their animals without plastic bags in their pockets. There's a lot to be said about the silence and dignity of native residents:
As odd as it may sound my biggest sacrifice for my dog is the requirement for me to drive a car much more than I otherwise would. Kind folk suggest a sidecar as a way to transport my dog but that would spoil my pleasure in two wheels and Cheyenne is not fond of open windows or open roofs in her cars. Besides often I leave Cheyenne in the car while I am busy so with a dog that shares my life car driving is for me, inevitable. And for one who would rather ride, and lives in the ideal climate that is a sacrifice.
As to whether or not Key West is unusually dog friendly I'm not sure. The State of Florida does allow dogs in outdoor public eating areas under certain complex rules but the old Key West where bars and restaurants winked and welcomed pets is long gone. On the other hand, compared to California where pets seem to be banned in every public space, Florida is very dog friendly. State parks welcome pets, except in buildings or on beaches (thank owners who can't pick up after their animals) so Fort Zachary is available and even though the Bahia Honda rangers will give you and your dog the stink eye at the gate you can walk your dog there too, just not on the beaches. If you have your own boat you can take your dog to Fort Jefferson National Park to run round the outside but not inside the fort. No dogs on the ferry.
I don't know if there is any correlation between the loneliness of emigration from a familiar place to a strange new town, but everyone seems to have pets in the Keys. And merchants recognize the potential so there are lots of events and parties and contests to keep pet owners happy, socialized and spending money.
As for walks...I see a lot of dog owners walking in the same place at the same time each day. My dog stands around and acts bored if she isn't in the mood to walk where I take her. Over the past five years I have come to understand that she does not find walks in the woods terribly interesting. It always seems to happen to me but my dogs prefer the smells and stimulation of the that's where Cheyenne goes when I have business in Key West. I prefer walking the back country, just as I prefer to live on a canal in the suburbs to life crowded on a city street. My Labrador would prefer city life, poor thing.
Finding somewhere to live is another issue. My own experience renting our new place in Cudjoe, 23 miles from Key West has illustrated the difficulty of succeeding when seeking a home in a  very tight renter's market. We had several advantages, inasmuch as we were already here and could meet landlords that same day; we had the five grand needed to move in and we did not need to ask for favors paying the first last and deposit...We have long track records in our jobs and I am sure my job with the police gave me added respectability in our search. Ten years as a teacher with tenure looks good on the spouse's resume too. Having a dog was not a problem for our landlord...we were lucky.
I have discovered the term "large dog" is a way of discriminating against breeds perceived to be aggressive. So if you have to find a place to live having a friendly breed can't hurt! I did notice a lot more insistence on "No Pets" in the city. It's not impossible to find pet friendly landlords but having a pet is decidedly one strike against you in Key Weśt particularly. Some people turn to boat living to control their environment and that could work. I am not a believer in the need for a large yard to exercise a dog. Dogs need social interaction to be happy and walks are our time to bond. Having a yard is nice but one benefit of dog ownership for lazy old me is having an excuse to be outdoors...
There must be lots of pets in the a Keys because there are tons of vets. Marathon has a 24 hour hospital and pet stores are everywhere. National name brand stores are in Miami but there is absolutely no need to drive that far for a pet. Sometimes people wonder out loud about the basics of Keys life so, as obvious as it sounds let me say out loud that all foods, facilities and amenities that are available elsewhere are found in the Keys. There are also lots of dog parks as these islands though apparently remote are entirely integrated with the mainland desire to spend billions on the comfort of companion animals. As for buying a pet, well, that is beyond my understanding as other people discard pets like they are used tissues. You can rescue any brand or model of dog you care to mention and they are hopelessly grateful for the chance to please you after a spell on death row.

Every day I am grateful for Cheyenne even though she has her quirks, God knows, and I am willing to ride less and walk more to keep her happy. It's just as well as undeniably dog ownership does make life more complicated as well as more rewarding. I am beyond reproach when spotted walking neighborhoods, like a suspicious person were it not for the presence of my lumbering dog. A man alone is odd; a dog walker is normal, laudable even.
So even though Cheyenne has a mind of her own, and frequently keeps me off the Bonneville, I spent a great deal of time reassuring her during the move that she was coming with us. She seems to have learned to relax in our new home, as spotted by my wife after I left for work:

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