One of my friends has been known to duck into the bushes at Fresh Pond if she sees the park ranger coming. Before you begin to wonder what kind of company I keep, let me say that this longtime Cantabrigian is a fine upstanding citizen, a nature lover and a doting mother. She just has a mental block about licensing her dog, a minor act of civil disobedience that she readily admits is pointless. Hence, her furtive behavior whenever she spots Ranger Jean on the path ahead; my friend knows full well that she risks a fine for bringing an unlicensed dog to Fresh Pond, but something is holding her back, a little self-defeating demon like Edgar Allan Poe described in his short story, “The Imp of the Perverse.”
“Ugh, I’ve got to find that form and send it in,” my friend groans, but as spring turns to summer and into fall, she still hasn’t gotten around to it.
It’s not about the money. At $8, Cambridge’s annual dog license fee is a bargain relative to the myriad expenses associated with owning a dog. For comparison, Arlington and Somerville both charge $15; Belmont $12; and Watertown $10. (Boston’s $6 presents one of the few ways to save money by moving across the Charles.) Belmont and Watertown discount their fees for owners over 60 years of age (how about it, Cambridge?). In the interest of canine planned parenthood, all towns charge a premium if your dog is not spayed or neutered; in Cambridge it’s $25.
Licensing your dog every year is one of life’s small chores that are just enough of a hassle that they almost beg us to put them off and to invent reasons why the rules and the deadlines apply to other people, but not us. (Speaking of deadlines, the licensing year runs from April 1 through the following March 31 in Cambridge. So if you missed the 2011 deadline, there’s still plenty of time to get your act together….)
First, you’ll have to find your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate, which can entail digging into the dark recesses of desk drawers and pawing through over-stuffed file folders to produce, unless you’re one of those annoyingly meticulous people who color-code and alphabetize everything. (Please zip it if you are!) Make sure to make a copy of the rabies certificate, because you’ll need to submit it again next year. The first time you license a newly adopted dog or puppy (once he’s 6 months old), you’ll also have to enclose a certificate from a vet showing the dog has been neutered. Then you’ll have to write a check, fill out a short form, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope, and put it all in the mail. Just writing about this process gives me a headache.
Given most people’s natural tendency to procrastinate on tasks we’d rather not bother with, I suspect my friend is not alone. (Though can you rightly call it “procrastination” if you never actually get around to taking action?) I began to wonder about the overall rate of compliance with the city’s dog licensing law. (It’s actually a state law that’s left to each town to administer and enforce.)
With a bit of Googling, I unearthed an Excel spreadsheet with the names and addresses of all the Cambridge residents who had licensed a dog in 2010. (Scary, huh? Don’t worry, I won’t be sending out a mass mailing to all my fellow dog owners. And, yes, I looked for and found my name on the list.) The availability of this list online is courtesy of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted and made public via a local investigative journalism site called MuckRock.
From this serendipitous bit of data mining, I learned that 2,963 households registered at least one dog in the 2010 licensing year, a number that seems low based on the city’s population (~101,000 people; ~42,600 households in 2006) and the percentage if households owning dogs (37% nationally in 2007; 1.7 dogs per HH on average). If the national dog ownership statistics apply, there should be about 25,000 dogs in Cambridge. Maybe the city’s urban density (6 square miles) and the large number of students contribute to below-average dog ownership, but could it be that only about one in ten Cambridge households include a dog?
Cantabrigians are widely known to be exceptional in many respects (not all of them enviable if you happen to reside in a Red State or have an Ivy allergy), but I wouldn’t have guessed we are exceptionally inhospitable to dogs (with the possible exception of bull dogs). So, maybe my friend’s dogged non-compliance with the licensing law is not the exception, but rather the rule? Do we have an undocumented dog problem in our fair city?
As a side note, the FOIA request also asked for the names and breeds of all licensed dogs, but the Cambridge Animal Commission replied that their database only includes the names of the owners, not those of their dogs. The licensing form does collect each dog’s name, breed, age and color, but those details aren’t entered into the CAC’s computerized database. A pity, because the inquisitive journalist had hoped to write a story on the most popular dog names in Cambridge, and that would have been fun to find out! I wonder how far we stray from the list of the 100 “most popular” names I found on a site called “Puppy Names HQ,” where Max and Molly rank #1? My puppy’s name (Eddie) does not make the top 100, but his predecessor’s name (Teddy) is #23. Caveat lectorem: I have no clue what research these ranking are based on!
Next up: An interview with Mark McCabe, the longtime director of the Cambridge Animal Commission, on why licensing your dog matters.