Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, September 2008
From the Editor 2: Dogs
SNOOPY, TOTO…OR CUJO?
THE BOW-WOW AFFAIR
By TOM SOTER
Growing up in New York City, my best friend was always my dog. No surprise there: dogs are traditionally seen as faithful, friendly, and obedient. After all, what other animal would be happy to go fetch a dirty stick and return it to you, over and over again? Certainly not a cat (“Fetch a stick? Moi?”)
But popular image notwithstanding, dogs can also be dumb, dangerous, and disobedient – and the source of headaches for co-op boards. In fact, if you knock on any co-op.condo attorney or manager’s door, he or she is sure to have a canine caper to share with you.
This thought came to mind when I was talking with Don Levy the other day. A vice president and account executive at Brown Harris Stevens, Don told me about one of his employees who had faced his own dog day afternoon: “One of our shareholders has two dogs that don’t look all that terrifying, but when our handyman went to make a repair in the bathroom, the two dogs attacked him and did some serious damage around his knees requiring tetanus shots and hospitalization.” Under current policy, the pets were allowed, so the board was trying to find some polite way of asking them to leave.
How does one ask a deadly dog to go? How do you determine that the canine is actually a menace and not just experiencing a one-time fit of pique caused by, perhaps, indigestion? (I recall my own dog-owning days, when Charlie, our family dog, revealed his apparently racist tendencies by growling at African-Americans who came to call. I always felt I had failed in his upbringing. Should I have banned him from the premises? Sent him to remedial racism school? Monitored his friends?)
It’s a thorny situation, from both ends of the street. I had a girlfriend once who had one of those tiny little dogs that look more like a toy than a living creature. The beast was completely innocuous but still widely noticed and admired by the staff in her Manhattan building, an East Side co-op. For some reason, the board president got bent out of shape over the animal, and like Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, ordered the dog removed. Unlike Dorothy and Toto, however, my girlfriend didn’t run away but instead fought the board, claiming that the mutt had been “hiding” in plain site of the staff and that the board’s “agents” therefore knew and tacitly approved of the dog. Unfortunately, the staff – so friendly with the tiny dog in the past – now claimed it had never seen it. Facing the collapse of her case – and after she and the board had spent thousands of dollars litigating over this tiny canine – my girlfriend threw in the towel and moved out. She wouldn’t give up the dog. She sold the apartment instead.
Was the board right to shell out the co-op’s hard-earned money over a harmless little dog that could easily have been allowed in without setting a precedent? Who knows? “Boards get crazy,” attorney Jim Samson, a partner in Samson Fink and Dubow once said to me when we were talking about pet policy. “Things get out of proportion.”
Then, again, there are times when the pet most definitely has to go. Ask Lynn Whiting, director of management at Argo. A self-proclaimed animal advocate who finds homes for feral cats, Lynn told me about a situation she had once faced in a Manhattan co-op.
“There was an elderly resident who had a dog that was emitting a very foul odor. So, the board sent a letter to the man demanding that the dog be removed from the premises by a certain date. I was surprised that the board took such extreme action, and I even called up the co-op’s lawyer and said, ‘Come on, this is an old man, you’re asking him to get rid of his 14-year-old dog. How bad can the smell be?’
“He told me that the dog had some kind of condition and that it was under medical care because its skin was decaying.’ I said, ‘That’s too bad,’ but still thought they were overreacting. So, I went to the building myself, got into the elevator, and stepped off onto the floor where the guy lives – and my gag reflex started. I thought I was going to throw up because it smelled like a dead body. Maybe worse.” The smell was so powerful that it spread throughout the hallway. Lynn Whiting, animal advocate, was convinced. “So, we got the dog to go,” she recalled. But he didn’t go alone. He took his owner with him. “There was no way that the shareholder was going to give up that dog. He moved out.” He was, in fact, this dog’s best friend. Arf.