ON LOVE, DECORUM AND PETS IN BELGIUM

Guest Blog by Dora Scott

Dora Scott is a South African living in Gent. You may find her in public spaces trying to attract other people’s pets with snacks.

Belgian Dogs

The dogs in Belgium are typically small, often well-trained and frequently of the poodle variety. Well no, that is not fair. Belgium is full of lovely people with charming dogs and cats of all sizes. I live in Gent, in the very old city centre, and I was amazed to see how many people have pets here. The lives of pets in Flemish cities look rather different than those of pets in South Africa.

The whole of Flanders is industrialised and every centimetre is used for agriculture or industry. In South Africa, people take the space for granted, but in Belgium, especially in Flanders, space for animals is a luxury. Forests, gardens, woods, beautiful landscapes and trees are in nature domains outside cities or in the suburbs, far from where I live. The wildest of animals you can spot in the Flemish countryside are cows in meadows. Nothing wrong with cows of course, but cuddly pets or ferocious beasts they are not.

Inside the city centres, houses stand shoulder to shoulder on cobbled roads. People in the centre do not have large gardens so cats or small dogs are very popular as pets. I do not dare keep a cat, because our home is central and has a lot of traffic (and a death of a beloved pet by this means is not one you want to experience twice). However, the pets that surround me are streetwise and city-savvy. Cats jump gracefully over rooftops, while dogs wait patiently outside shops and manage not to chase cyclists. During winter, you might spot someone in a warm cloak taking a shivering dog for some exercise. In the darkness, you will not hear these dogs barking from beyond a gate and only with some luck might you spot a cat on a window sill. All of this changes when summer comes around. The city explodes with life and laughter and all the animals come out to play.

It is one of my greatest pleasures to walk along the street and observe people with their dogs. Burly men with tattoos take their attack dogs to city gardens. Hippies with dreadlocks, their streetwise dogs by their side, share the sidewalk with ladies in dresses who trot behind tiny groomed prize winners. Whenever I pass someone with a dog in the street, I shamelessly coo and remember the wild fun I had as a child with our pets in our garden. However, no matter how much I would like to, it is just not done to approach someone else’s pet on the street – a hard lesson in manners!

The urge to love an animal and to be loved in return is so strong, that even in Flanders with its limited space, people do their best to have an animal companion. The animals may not be large, but they are certainly here and catered for. Pet decorum, like people decorum, is at a premium, so if they are well-behaved they are welcomed in public spaces. The city pets are on leashes, all of them, and people generally pick up after their dogs if they make a mess (you risk a fine if you don’t). Young and old, furry and fluffy crowd the cafes and bars. Cafes and terraces are generally animal-friendly and provide water for the thirsty four-paws.

I may not have a pet (or be allowed to touch other people’s in the street), but it is a comfort that they are present in the crowded city. It makes the city human and it keeps people closer to nature and more sympathetic to animals and each other. It remains the most amazing thing; no matter where you go in the world, people love and want their pets.  

Dora Scott is a South African living in Gent. You may find her in public spaces trying to attract other people’s pets with snacks.


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