It’s Saturday morning, and – in an urban expanse of grass and dog poo residue – Bryson the pug frolics about enthusiastically.
In between wheezes, Bryson dribbles all over his black jumper: a garment designed just for him, with tiny holes for arms and an embroidered ‘B’ plastered along its back. It’s nearly 10 a.m. and Bryson is eagerly anticipating one particular four-legged arrival. Thrasher.
Thrasher is Bryson’s best friend: a graceless staffie-cross who jumps from the dusty tray of her family’s ute and waits restlessly at the gate. I first met Thrasher on a quiet Wednesday afternoon as she bolted toward me, her tongue two strides behind.
“She ain’t aggressive or nothing, I promise!” Thrasher’s owner yelled, a man with facial hair as shaggy and limbs almost as gangly as my rescue hound. Our two dogs scuffled like blundering fools while we cackled together for nearly an hour, like old friends.
I don’t know his name, but it doesn’t really matter. We still manage to meet fortuitously every fortnight at our swarming, local dog park: a fenced wonderland for our respective four-legged children to wrestle, drool and howl at one another until dusk.
In 2016, the Australian Veterinary Association reported there were more than twenty-four million pets in Australia, making it a country with one of the highest household rates of pet ownership in the world. Dogs remain the most popular choice of companion for Australians, with an estimated national populace of 4.8 million canines.
Fil is mine: a dishevelled looking deerhound-cross with a propensity to stroll up random, off-street staircases and an unexplained interest in boutique puppies – Boston terriers, tiny groodles and baby beagles. He is gawky and kind, and looks like something J. K. Rowling dreamt up, albeit far less mystical. He is also my living, breathing catalyst – a panting gateway to new friends and associations. Fil’s daily yearning for exercise has me frequently talking to strangers: like the old woman who narrates Fil’s cloddish play habits every afternoon; the disenchanted dog shelter volunteer searching for his estranged adult son on Facebook; and the rocker who – despite the forecast – wears faux leather almost every day and calls me ‘dude’.
“This is a community,” wrote Paul Daley about his local dog park in The Guardian. “We know the names and idiosyncrasies of each others’ dogs and talk about them endlessly… and (occasionally) we even talk about other peripheral stuff like our families and whether the world is about to end.”
Among chewed-up tennis balls and the rubber crumbs of toys, individuals from diverse walks of life are expected to sit – sometimes alone, sometimes together, but at least for a while – as their four-legged sidekick kicks up dirt before them. Dogs aren’t picky when it comes to the simple mathematics of camaraderie. They don’t care for fluff, fur, snout, muzzle, tail or stump. If something runs, they chase until wearied and hungry.
The friends I have made at the dog park are as diverse and multilayered as their canine counterparts. However, when Thrasher affectionately sniffs the backside of another dog or, much to their surprise, whizzes past a group of lounging women, people look on cautiously. Their eyes scan the cargo slacks her owner stands in. They subconsciously note the way he strokes his goatee, listen for the rasp in his voice as he calls Thrasher’s name, and pity his tarred hands. Thrasher is assumed dangerous. Out of control. While Bryson may have a gold, embellished ‘B’ on the back of his jumper, Thrasher carries a label far more pronounced: her family’s working class is etched into her coat. Even here, in this canine utopia, discrimination quietly bares its teeth.
“Do you think everybody reassures people in advance that their dog isn’t aggressive, or just Thrasher’s owner?” I ask Paul, my partner, as we drive home one afternoon. Fil exhales loudly in the backseat, like a deflated plush toy in his state of total, blissed-out fatigue.
“No, I don’t. I mean, do we?” he asks. Fil, who stands taller than me on his hind-legs, could canter, hurtle and howl like a mad donkey, only for small terriers to grovel away and park-goers to giggle and point. He has a formidable presence due to his size alone, despite his physical awkwardness.
In Fil’s canine metropolis, there is no segregation, only the occasional Pedigree DentaStix and kelpie snapping at his heels. Perhaps that’s the beauty of more-than-human spaces, as Julie Urbanik and Mary Morgan note in Geoforum. We have the tools to follow suit. If willing, the ways we come to socialise have the power to become more-than-human themselves: devoid of the usual partisanship that pervades the sidewalk, bars, shopping malls, university grounds and news feeds we otherwise frequent. And yet, still: when three young African boys enter the park one evening with their pooches – a golden labrador and a rottweiler-cross – people observe them with the sort of attention they reserve for Thrasher and Thrasher only.
“Interactions among park visitors from different backgrounds can still, regrettably, be impacted by racial intolerance,” Edwin Gómez, Joshua W. R Kaur and Ron Malega note in the Journal of Urban Affairs. The neutrality dogs afford their owners in inner-city dog parks is reserved only for some.
Ask any dog park dweller, and they’ll tell you: nobody has a good time if people don’t pick up after their four-legged shadows. The rubbish bags are supplied and restocked daily so dog poo doesn’t stick in between the welts of sneakers.
A dog park littered with faeces is one thing, but one that homes the grimy remains of prejudice is even worse. Quiet bigotry lodges itself far deeper than any regrettable smear does in the grooves of our shoes. It keeps going, wafting unapologetically into our homes. Perhaps more-than-human spaces require humanness to begin with, and if we’re unwilling to afford that to the working-class or people of colour, the utopia we construct in our urban parks ceases to exist.
“Our dogs are really friendly, don’t worry,” one of the African boys utters – to both everybody, and nobody, in particular – as his labrador slumps into a tired heap in the shade.
Madison Griffiths is a writer, artist and poet whose work has been published in VICE, SBS, Overland, Daily Life, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Pedestrian, Catalogue Magazine, Catapult and Going Down Swinging, among others. In March 2018, she was the Victorian Women’s Trust resident writer. Last year, she was shortlisted for the 2017 Overland Fair Australia Prize. Her work revolves predominantly around issues concerning women, mental illness and race.