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The Tail-end of Civilization 

I saw a sign, standard Arts and Crafts colors, portraits of snapdragons or some such. (Regarding signs: Don't get me wrong. God creates all the minute little things — say, snapdragons — that are the true jewels of existence. He looks on them and sees they are good and He is as happy as an all-knowing being can be. It's the renderings of these things He hates.) On the sign: "This is a Poop-Free Neighborhood."

Of course, I am incredulous. Who can make such a claim for their neighborhood? Was Homer's neighborhood free of the distractions and aggravations we describe in the vernacular as "poop" or one of its symptoms? Was Solomon's neighborhood? Or Roman Gen. Lucius Cornelius Sulla's? Or Albert Schweitzer's? Highly doubtful. This thing is part and parcel of the human condition.

But when I drew closer to the adorable little sign, I realized that I was dealing with a far less metaphorical form of poop. This was the dog kind; witness the plastic disposable bags in the dispenser nailed just under the adorable little sign.

My, my. Remember the tale that if aliens glanced out of their spaceships and saw humans walking behind their dogs picking up the poop, they would surely be confounded as to who was the master and who the servant?

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was no doubt. When somebody said, "Man, she leads a dog's life," there was no doubt that you were describing an existence decidedly inferior to that of any human being whose mailing address did not include the word "Angola." Nowadays, a dog's life is likely to include suede coats, life insurance and massage therapy.

Just more evidence of the domestication — and anthropomorphic stretch — of dogs these days. I recall a cartoon in the New Yorker: A man and his terrier are sharing a hospital bed. The man's doctor is telling him, "Under our holistic approach, Mr. Wyndot, we not only treat your symptoms, we also treat your dog."

That's how close we are to merging, the dogs and us. I had some visual evidence the other day. I pulled into a parking lot. I looked over at the car next to mine. There is scraggy blonde hair, surely too long and yellow for the hands on the steering wheel. And fitted perfectly between the halo of hair the excited face of a barking lap dog, one of those that must go everywhere with his "mama." Now they have merged inter-specie. A perfect Picasso painting of The Decline and Fall of Homo Sapiens.

We used to pair up our dogs. Now we spay or neuter them because many of us are unproductive and hate to be reminded. Now they pair us up. "Oh, I met the cutest guy the other day when I was walking Bitsie. He had the most darling Boyken Spaniel!" (Once again I fail to get it. OK, I'm picturing Hilary Swank. Yes. Now I'm picturing Hilary Swank shoveling the droppings from her Cane Corso Mastiff into a huge plastic bag. Not the same thing at all.)

Remember when dogs slept outside or under the house? That was how dogs were housebroken then; they were not permitted in the house unless or until they were broken of the habit of soiling a house's floors and sofas. So where are they now? Inside, that's where. Why, if you don't let your dog inside, you're the animal.

Of course, the little darlings must be let out from time to time, and that brings us back to where we began, the Land of Poop. People taking their dogs for a walk don't have an easy time of it. If the beast wants to pause on the sidewalk or flower garden of someone who happens to be eyeing them coldly from the porch or driveway, the owner must drag him away with great fervor.

If nobody's in sight, then the walking pair may pause. While the dog gets busy with his sniff-and-scratch dance, the owner must allow a faraway glance to take over his body and soul. In a 1940 piece, the great essayist E.B. White noted the peculiar body language: "A dog owner may feign disinterest but his mask will not suffice. Nothing is more comical than the look on the face of a person at the upper end of a dog leash pretending not to know what is going on at the lower."

The next step for the see-no-evil owner is to scoop up whatever evidence his dog has left with a plastic bag (conveniently stretched over one hand like a transparent oven mitt) and carry it to a trash can. My personal suspicion is that a high percentage of those who walk around with Malamute's leash on one hand and the oven mitt on the other do not reach down and grab a large handful — if they think no one is watching.

* Speaking of oven mitts, if you own something massive like, say, a chocolate Lab, don't you need one for each hand?

** By the way, I used to wonder at those guys who looked as big as Dick Butkus walking a Yorkshire Terrier. Yeah, those guys looked a little fey, but now I see that they have a lot less to pick up when the time comes.

So here I sit, ensconced in a neighborhood where the dogs are inside and their excrements are outside, just waiting to be found by someone wearing oven mitts.

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