Last year, a guy named Ben Joergens made it his project to answer some questions that were obviously nagging at him in a fairly granular way. First, “What was the profile of NYC’s canine population before COVID-19?” he wrote on Medium, where he published the results of his research. Second, “How has Covid-19 affected interest in adopting dogs in NYC, especially compared to other types of pets?”
To do this, he pored over information provided in the Department of Health’s dog approval system; scraped data from Animal Care Centers of NYC, a major animal shelter and adoption service; and examined Google Trends searches from local IP addresses for “dog”, “cat”, “guinea pig” and “rabbit”. He then created visualization modules that showed, for example, that there were many dogs named Lola in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but no Lolas in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island. Bellas (and mutts) were well represented throughout. There were other surprising conclusions.
To the casual observer of pet life in the city, it seemed like the pandemic had turned almost everyone into a dog owner. Was this a product of our selection bias? Mr. Joergens’ research suggested that this might be the case. His data showed that adoptions for both dogs and cats were higher in 2020 before the January pandemic. But while cat adoptions more or less climbed during the first phase of the pandemic, dog adoptions steadily declined and then more or less stagnated from May to December 2020.
There are caveats, of course: In affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, which are already densely populated with dogs, some people have acquired their new pets from breeders or pet stores rather than rescue organizations. Additionally, dogs are expensive to care for, a particular challenge to keep in New York, and the pandemic is complicating life for everyone — all of which certainly lend context to Mr. Joergens’ counterintuitive findings.
Was it possible that Covid hadn’t increased our canine sentimentality, but instead softened it? This seems to be the case at Chelsea. Earlier this year, Erik Bottcher, the newly elected councilor to represent the neighborhood, had a vision for a strip of hardscape running through Penn South, the 60-year-old middle-income co-op complex that stretches six blocks in the West 20s between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. For years he was annoyed every time he walked down the aisle. “There was never any life in it,” he told me recently. “It was an unused patch of asphalt in the middle of Manhattan.” At times, it became a hub for drug use.
Although the land runs through Penn South’s campus, it is owned by the city’s Parks Authority. Mr Bottcher thought it would be an excellent spot for a temporary dog walk while the area’s main site, Chelsea Waterside Park, further west, was closed for renovations. A petition circulated to stop this before the project even materialized. Working with the Parks Department, Mr. Bottcher was able to achieve his ambition and the dog walk opened in the spring.
Dissent mounted, however. Noise complaints were directed to 311; The dogs were too loud. Still, on the other hand, there were hundreds of supporters who worked to make the dog run permanent. Funds had already been raised for these efforts. To counter complaints about barking, the pro-dog-led faction had volunteers approach owners and ask them to “politely” turn down their pets’ volume; They put up signs and “modeled” how to self-discipline barking dogs. Volunteers swept up leaves. “We’ve put up dog poop container bags every 10 feet,” one supporter pointed out before a local council special committee a few weeks ago. He insisted they change the “culture” of the dog park.
However, this was hardly a consensus view. “The frequent uncontrolled and piercing barking that occurs every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” as one speaker at the meeting put it, put residents of buildings adjacent to the park at risk of stress-related incidents, including “high blood pressure,” she said , speech disorders, hearing loss, sleep disorders and loss of productivity.” There were nuns in a nearby convent. Had someone asked them if they wanted a dog run?
Additionally, there was disagreement over how dog walking affected older residents of Penn South, considered a “naturally occurring aging community.” One view was that the dog walk was “too messy with big dogs running around” and that elderly people were afraid of being knocked over, while the other claimed the dog walk was necessary because the round-trip ride was too crowded for elderly or disabled pet owners different dog parks was too long and cumbersome. There was discrepancy as to what those distances actually were. One mother mentioned that her 13-year-old daughter often walked the family dog; Going anywhere else would take them halfway past houses, and that wasn’t “great”.
Some suggested that barking with the windows closed wasn’t disruptive – so much of this was prone to exaggeration. In essence, the position of the dog-led antagonists boiled down to what one resident speaking at the community meeting described as “a common law right as shareholders and people to enjoy the peaceful possession of our homes.” The fact was that more and more people were working from home and seeking a kind of rest that urban life was not designed for.
Social isolation and psychological fallout have caused some of the pandemic’s worst collateral damage. Weren’t dogs and active public spaces antidotes to that? The strongest argument the park’s proponents have made is that it delivered a happy interaction, damn it. “When I walk past, I see neighbors talking and laughing together,” Mr Bottcher said. “You don’t see that very often these days. It is a place where neighbors can meet. We need more spaces for people to connect and create community.” In the midst of the community board discussion, which was held on Zoom, a young man in a plaid shirt with his husky appeared next to him to shed light on the case to make it more emphatic: “If there’s a world where this one shuts down completely — no.”