Off-leash: Dogs, Paris, Heaven-on-Earth


by Rich Broderick | September 28, 2009 • The first off-leash dog park I ever visited was a 10 acre forested site centered on a bowl-shaped meadow in the middle of Battle Creek Regional Park.

This was about three weeks ago. The reason I was there was Chance, a four-month old shelter dog we adopted in mid-August.  Since then, I’ve taken him to a number of off-leash parks, and I’m here to report that they strike me as something close to heaven on earth.

 That may seem a bit melodramatic, but let me explain.

We live in a society that is strictly, if informally, segregated along lines of race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, and sexuality. And while it’s true we have made some progress – electing an African-American president, etc. – our divisions are becoming increasingly rigid, the combined by-product of a consumer-based economic system that breeds isolation, loneliness and anomie faster than puppy mills breed sickly dogs, and a political culture that, with the compliance of a corporate-controlled mainstream media, gleefully sows fear of the Other.

But at the off-leash park, these artificial distinctions fade into the background – as they are wont to do, if we only allow it to happen — and those present, from suburbanites with their Jack Russell Terriers to teen-agers keeping a close eye on the family’s Yorkie to inner city folks unyoking a pair of muscular Pit Bulls to everything in between, become nothing more than dog owners, chatting away about canine off-spring with people that, under “normal” circumstances, they would otherwise never socialize with (and here it is worth noting that the often-fierce opposition to the creation of new off-leash parks usually comes wrapped in a fear of the “outsiders” a new facility will bring into the neighborhood). Though I know this may not always be the case — there are rare moments of conflict, both human and canine — these parks tend to be off-leash parks for people, too. And that, to me, is as good a definition of heaven on earth as I can think of.

Which, oddly enough, reminds me of something that happened recently in Paris, of all places.

One beautiful Saturday afternoon, my family and some friends and I were there walking to a restaurant when our path took us up a street that ran up to the main entrance of Pére Lachaise, the cemetery that houses the remains of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jim Morrison, among other luminaries.

As we approached, we could see a crowd of about 150 people – a mélange of men, women and children of every race and color and costume, including several regions of Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and Europe — was mingling in front of the cemetery. Moving among them were some young people wearing reflective vests with “Amitullah” printed in block lettering across the back.

Getting closer, we were finally able to figure out what was going on: Amitullah (which I subsequently learned means “Servant of God” in Arabic) had pulled a truck up on to the promenade and was feeding hot meals to the poor and hungry of Paris – immigrants and the homeless, street people and the marginally employed – anybody who showed up.

True, social agencies in this country also provide free meals to the indigent, but in the U.S. such events take place, for the most part, behind closed doors. On this occasion, though, the dishing out and eating were taking place in broad daylight in front of one of Paris’ most famous tourist attractions, giving the affair a strikingly exotic effect, at least to me; it was like stumbling onto a scene from one of the synoptic Gospels in the middle of a modern city.

Overcome by curiosity, I crossed the avenue and began to mingle with the crowd, trying to get a closer look at what was being served (mineral water and fruit juice and a hearty looking, saffron-tinted cous-cous mixed with sautéed vegetables). I had just rounded the truck when one of the volunteers tapped me on the shoulder and explained, very politely, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais il faut que vous fassiez la queue.”

It took a moment for me to figure out what the he was saying. “Excuse me, sir, but you have to get into line.” If I wanted to eat, in other words, I was going to have to queue up, just like everybody else.

I was a little taken aback at first. But then something else set in. Relief. How nice not to be pegged as part of some category of persons that set me apart from everyone else. How liberating to be seen as nothing but another poor soul drawn here to satisfy one of the most basic – and leveling – of human needs. For a moment, I actually considered ditching my previous plans and staying to dine with the crowd, but in the end the knowledge that the rest of my party had continued on for several more blocks and was waiting for me to catch up coupled with a stab of guilt over accepting a free meal when I could afford to pay for my own food, dissuaded me.

Still, it was, you know, nice to be asked.  For the truth is that, while on the material plane, we exist in a world governed by an economy of shortages, in which there is a finite supply of resources, including food, on the spiritual plane, where we surely also exist, we live in a universe of infinite abundance. We have not, despite the impression we often get, been commanded to fight over the last scrape, or scramble after crumbs. We have been invited to a banquet, one whose bounty is increased every time we accept the invitation. All we need to do in order to join the feast is to forget, at least for awhile, the veneer of superficial differences with which we armor ourselves – and armor others.

“The world is a bridge,” goes a saying that Muslims attribute to Jesus. “Cross over, but don’t build a house on it.” And what more do we really need to cross that bridge other than some decent food, sturdy footgear, enough clothing to ward off the cold, and friendly companionship – both animal and human – to help lighten our burden as we journey through life?