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But Watch Your Step : In France, a Dog's Life Is Just Great

April 02, 1985|BEN SHERWOOD | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — On a typical Sunday afternoon at the elegant restaurant Chez les Anges, well-groomed guests sit at beautifully arranged tables savoring the house specialty, poached eggs in wine sauce. At the same time, crouching under the furniture, other visitors pant and scratch, eagerly awaiting their turn.

Doggy bags are out of the question in this respected establishment on the Left Bank of the Seine.

"There is no reason to have them," said maitre d' Jean Planchenault as he surveyed the crowded dining room. "Dogs are welcomed in our restaurant. In fact, when they arrive, we automatically ask the chef to prepare a special pate of rice or meat for them, free of charge.

"They're a fact of life here. If we refused to serve them, we would lose a substantial following."

A Dog For Every 3 Humans

There are almost 700,000 dogs in Paris, one for about every three humans, and nearly everyone here caters to them--in brasseries , bars, boutiques, restaurants, hotels and offices.

And if dogs seem to be everywhere, so do the messes they make. According to people who have studied the problem, a careless Parisian is likely to sully his shoes an average of once every 262 feet.

Back in 1856, Paris became so crowded with dogs that a special tax was levied in an effort to discourage the people from acquiring more. The law had little effect then--and would probably have little effect today. Any talk of taxing dog-owners today would be regarded as heresy, especially in light of a recent poll showing that 85% of all Parisians like dogs.

"The right to own a dog, to take it shopping and to pollute the streets is sacred here," a French businessman who dislikes animals said the other day. "Americans have their Second Amendment safeguarding the right to bear arms. In France, we have an unwritten right to keep dogs. It's taken for granted, and no one would dare challenge it."

48 Million Dogs in U.S.

With more than 9 million dogs, one for every six people, France is out in front of the rest of Western Europe. In the United States, there are about 48 million dogs, one for every five people, but the problems are not as noticeable, thanks to city sanitation ordinances and plenty of public parks.

About 34% of all French households have at least one dog, and 52% at least one pet of some kind. There are 6.7 million cats, 8.4 million birds and 12.7 million fish, hamsters and reptiles.

"The French have an almost biological need for dogs and pets," said Jean-Pierre Hutin, a dog lover who produces a well-known weekly television broadcast about pets, "30 Million Friends."

"It's in our blood and our history," he went on. "Dogs have always served important actual and psychological needs, and, in the future, their role will grow."

As he talked, Hutin stroked his German shepherd, Mabrouk Jr., a household hero in France because of the television show.

Each year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, French animal lovers spend about $3 billion on their pets, with more than half of the total going to dogs--often in the form of gourmet dog food.

In a city where fashion is important, many dogs are dressed to the hilt. On rainy days, they appear on the streets in colorful slickers and ponchos. In cold weather, they are bundled up in chic leather and fur. And on weekends, in restaurants and at parties, they may appear in plaid.

Because dogs are welcome in restaurants and at home in boutiques, laws aimed at curbing them have proven nearly impossible to enforce.

About four years ago, Paris undertook a cleanliness campaign. Its slogan: "Teach him where the gutter is." Today, posters can still be seen featuring a picture of an Airedale terrier saying, "Me, I do it where I'm told to." Embedded in most sidewalks is the white silhouette of a dachshund with an arrow pointing to the gutter.

The advice is not always followed. Nor are laws that require animals to use the streets, parks and gardens.

Green parks make up only 7% of the city of Paris, a figure less than half that for London or New York. And since the streets here are always crowded with motor vehicles, the sidewalk seems not only more convenient but safer.

A seven-year-old order from the Police Prefecture provides for fining dog owners whose animals use the sidewalk instead of the gutter, but the order is ignored.

"It's very difficult to treat this problem," said Michel Dury, an official in the mayor's office of environment. "It's not the dog that is dirty. It's the master."

In restaurants and hotels, proprietors are left to make the decision about whether to admit animals. Only food stores are prohibited from admitting animals, but the rule is often broken.

Given the size of the Parisian canine population, no politician dares to tread on the rights of animal owners. There are estimates that at election time, 30% of all mail addressed to politicians deals in some way with animals.

"To pass strict regulations on dog owners would not go over well," Dury said. "It's electorally infeasible."

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