Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Angry neighbours and hound hell

I lived in the cheek-by-jowl suburb of Observatory in Cape Town for seven years, and from that experience realised that I don’t like having neighbours. From the students over the road who partied hard and loud into the small hours seven days a week, to the woman next door who left rude notes on the windscreens of friends’ cars if they parked on ‘her’ pavement, my neighbours weren’t people with whom I’d ever want to form lifelong bonds.

So I decamped to the (then) thinly populated village of Riebeek Kasteel, and for several years lived blissfully across the road from the town cemetery – better neighbours I simply couldn’t have asked for.

At around the same time as I bought a house a little further into the centre of the village, there was a sudden property boom, and it wasn’t long before the large plots around my home had been carved up into smaller ones, and I was once again surrounded by neighbours – and the niggles that came with living with them.

Aside from one lengthy incident involving a neighbour’s questionable decision to import a pair of rabbits into his garden, and allow them free-range freedom (with catastrophic results for both the rabbits and their gazillion babies, which were relentlessly hunted by the neighbourhood cats and birds of prey, and often got run over when caught in the headlights of some hapless driver-by; and the neighbourhood, which, many years on, was still dealing with the multitudinous garden-devouring offspring of the original pair), almost all incidents of ’burb rage were sparked by dogs.

Our road became known as ‘Blafstraat’ (‘Bark Street’), as every one of its eight houses had dogs – except, for several years, mine. The hound population of the house at the top corner ranged from an annoying four to a fury-inducing six – and it was these that raised the alarm if someone walked around that corner into our road, barking hysterically and setting off every other dog all the way down the street. When this happened at night, I would lie in bed biting my duvet in frustration, wondering how the hell their owners could sleep through the din, if I, all the way at the other end of the road, was being kept awake by it.

But the surrounding neighbours at the end of the street waged that war and, finally, won a victory of sorts – the owner agreed to put up an interior fence so that at the very least their dogs wouldn’t be able to race all the way around their house, thereby cutting in half the length of time the frenzied barking went on. And so a kind of peace reigned for a while.

Then the people over the road from me, who already had a Staffordshire terrier, acquired three miniature dachshunds. Crikey, they were cute. And by god, they could yap! They yapped at each other, at their owners, at their owners’ kids and friends and popper-inners; they yapped at passing people and cars and other dogs; they yapped at birds flying by and insects on the ground; they yapped at breezes and sunshine and rain. And, because the garden in which they lived was enclosed by only a chickenwire fence, they yapped at all the cars and people and birds and insects they could see all the way up and down the road.

Not only that, but they were escape artists – so it wasn’t enough that they yapped their little bloody heads off inside their garden, they often got out and ran up and down the road, snapping at passerbys’ ankles, attacking other dogs (I once had to rescue a stray puppy from certain death – miniature dachshunds might look endearing but, make no mistake, they’re little killers; they were initially bred to hunt badgers) and generally causing havoc.

Now, up until then, my over-the-road neighbours and I had lived in a state of détente. Neither of us was a perfect neighbour. I, for instance, occasionally had loud parties that went on into the small hours and sometimes beyond. They, on the other hand, ran an unlicensed crèche from their house, which meant that three mornings a week, twice a day, I was treated to the exhaust fumes and noise of parents dropping off and collecting their little darlings, and also several hours of kids’ playtime (consisting of mainly screaming and crying) in their front garden. They also ran some sort of chemicals business out of their garage, with people coming and going at all hours of the day and night to collect huge drums of I-don’t-know-what.

But the dachshunds changed that status quo. And, just so that you know I’m not Mrs-Nigglypants-Neighbour, I didn’t actually register any complaints at all for about a year. Then several things happened to prompt action. First, there was the near-death-of-the-puppy incident – in trying to rescue it from the dachshunds, I got my jersey snagged on a piece of barbed wire, so all I could do, since I was trapped, was hold the puppy up out of reach of the three hysterical little would-be murderers and scream my lungs out in the hope that their owner would hear. You can imagine my astonishment when only one of their children – a little boy aged about 6 – responded. Why? Because his parents were out at the time, and the only ‘responsible adult’ in the house was a 12-year-old cousin who was too scared to come out.

Second, the dachshunds got out of their garden (again!) and into a neighbouring empty plot, where my chickens were quietly peck-pecking away, and attempted to kill one of them. With the help of another neighbour, we managed to rescue it.

And, finally, there was the incident of the woman walking past with a boerboel (which, in case you don’t know, is a BIG dog), and the three little yappers getting out and going for both her and her dog. I responded to her cries to help and burst out of my front door. By then, the dachshunds knew me as an avenging fury, and ran away when they saw me, but the woman was distraught and her dog was in murder-mode (and, believe me, you don’t want to be around a riled-up boerboel). While I was trying to calm both the woman and her dog, I looked over at the neighbour’s house – and saw both the owners watching what was happening from behind their security gate. They had heard and seen everything, and hadn’t lifted a finger!

It really was the final straw. Later that day, once my temper had cooled to simmering, I went over to have a word with the owners. They were (surprise!) not at home, but the mother-in-law was, and when I explained the situation to her, her response amazed me. She knew about the problem, she said, because they’d received complaints not only from practically all the people in our street, but from several of the home-owners behind them as well. And, she added, I could speak to her daughter-in-law, but she could guarantee that nothing would be done – ‘Her attitude is that they’re her dogs, and that’s that.’ (She said this in Afrikaans; this is an approximate translation.)

She gave me her daughter-in-law’s cellphone number, and I called her. We had a short and unpleasant conversation, during which she told me exactly – practically word for word – what her mother-in-law had said she would.

I’m going to cut what’s becoming a very long story short here: I applied to the municipality for their bylaws concerning dogs, and quickly learned that the owners of the dachshunds were contravening all of them (too many dogs on the property; property not properly fenced; dogs’ barking not controlled; dogs being a nuisance; dogs harassing passers-by; and so on). I wrote a polite letter, which my neighbours on either side co-signed, and added a reminder that we were all dog-lovers in our street, and were prepared to help in any way possible to solve the problem (including but not limited to a neighbourly effort to properly secure and screen their front fence). I stapled it to a printout of the municipal bylaws and delivered it.

Well! Let’s just say that hell hath no fury like a woman whose dogs have been scorned. In a huge argument on my front verandah, she told me that she would have all the dogs put down the very next day – WOULD THAT MAKE ME HAPPY??! Not at all, I said; there were several other ways to handle the problem.

What happened over the next few months was, for me, very telling. The dachshunds’ owners didn’t do a thing to make their front fence more secure or less see-through, but they did make something of an effort to control their dogs, in that, every fourth or fifth time the dachshunds went into a yapping frenzy, someone would scream at them from behind the security gate. But all that this ‘awareness’ of the constant noise did was apparently make them conscious – for the first time in over a year – of the fact that their small dogs had become a sizeable nuisance.

And so, a few months later, the dachshunds suddenly disappeared. I don’t know if they were given away or put down, because, since the shouted confrontation on my front verandah, my over-the-road-neighbours have never spoken to me again. I continue to greet them; they not only ignore me, they actually turn their backs when they see me.

This doesn’t bother me – we were never going to be lifelong friends. What is interesting, however, is something that happened a few days ago. Another neighbour acquired a new dog – a collie/husky cross – who is also an escape artist, and gets out of their garden every morning to wander around in the street. But (and this is a big ‘but’) the collie/husky never barks, and it’s a nervous dog, so when a passer-by approaches, it runs away – in other words, it’s not a nuisance. What does worry me is that it seems to have no road sense, and a couple of times I’ve watched while a passing car has had to swerve at the last minute to avoid it.

For this reason, the other morning, when I saw it in the street, I went outside to let it back into its garden (it seems to find ways out, but can’t find a way back in again). At the very same time, my ex-dachshunds-owning-neighbour (the husband, this time) came shooting out of his house, screaming – and when he saw me, he went into overdrive. In Afrikaans, he shrieked, ‘You all complained about my dogs, but what about this dog??!’ – then, incredibly, he picked up a huge chunk of stone from the roadside and flung it with all his strength at the dog. The dog was terrified and bolted off up the street.

And that, really, is all you need to know about people who should never have dogs, never mind neighbours.

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