A Dog’s Life

Its a dog's life
Its a dog’s life

If you are a dog-lover, you will be interested to know that tourists rate Geneva as one of the world’s most “dog-friendly” cities. This is not a trivial honor. In France and Switzerland, where dogs are pampered like children, a municipality’s attitude towards them can be considered a measure of its moral fiber. For some foreigners, Geneva appears to be a canine utopia where citizens guarantee dogs the right to first class access at restaurants and public parks.  Most owners can provide their loyal pets with basic needs like housing along with occasional amenities such as warm beds and treats. Geneva citizens boast about their humane treatment of animals, but is their claim justified? I thought so until my recent visit to that city.

On the surface things looked pretty good. Geneva offers better habitats for dogs than cities like Beirut or Bangkok. Such is the disdain for dogs in the Islamic tradition that a Muslim’s worst insult would include “dog” in a string of profanities. In Bangkok, polluted waters and toxic dumps afflict many animals, so they have chronic skin sores. In those cities, a dog’s life is a wild and dangerous existence. Needless to say, the people living in slums share their lot. Although Beijing and Seoul may offer strict ordinances to control pollution, I wouldn’t want to be a dog in either metropolis. Dogs are reportedly kidnapped, caged, fattened then served up as dog soup.

Geneva citizens, on the other hand, put dogs in front of the plate, not on it. At the most elegant lakeside restaurants, dogs happily sniff the cordon bleu aromas while lingering under the tables. When dining at a famous beef bistro, I spied a large gold retriever strategically positioned among fellow beef lovers. Between pats on the head and admiring greetings from the waiters, she licked her paws and eyed her midnight snack. Swiss pets return the favor of their public privileges with characteristic national civility. I never saw a dog beg at another client’s table. Few things in Switzerland are enigmatic, but how pets abide by a code of good behavior is a true mystery.

Life for dogs is equally congenial at the Geneva Botanical Gardens. On a sunny spring Sunday, owners treat them to long walks along the lakeshores. One day, I spotted a dachshund running about without his leash. No one seemed to think he was overstepping his bounds when he ran off to greet other dogs. All pets without leashes were presumed to belong to someone, and I never saw a homeless dog wandering about. The owner would call out occasionally, and the dog dutifully rejoined the family walk. (I observed that Swiss children behaved in a similar fashion).

My opinion was increasingly favorable and I was about to give Geneva the Legion d’Honneur medal for canine treatment when my friend, Rudo Mungwashu from Zimbabwe objected. She pointed out that since large numbers of Swiss are smokers, those with pets must subject them constantly to second-hand smoke. Dogs often frequent smokey bars and restaurants, so pregnant dogs and puppies must be also affected.

I had seen alarming evidence about second-hand smoke for humans—that it increases children’s risk of middle ear infections, respiratory diseases and asthma and that it causes heart and lung diseases in women. The WHO report on gender, women and tobacco states that prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke can cause lung cancer and that women who live with partners who smoke may also be at great risk for heart disease. All that is bad news for pregnant women, children and pets who live with smokers. However, I had never seen any statistics on the impact of second-hand smoke on dogs. Animals were invisible in the national health statistics and exposure to secondhand smoke was an unknown—but possible—cause of canine death. Rudo had a point. As a true dog lover, I had to disqualify Geneva as a dog’s heaven.