E. B. White and the Crime of Harboring an Unlicensed Dog

Some funny business about dog licensing laws from humorist E. B. White

Posted May 02, 2013

I recently got a phone call from the wife of a colleague of mine who was quite disturbed by an incident that occurred at her local dog park. She arrived with her Old English Sheepdog and was stopped by a man who showed credentials that identified him as being a city bylaw enforcement officer working on animal control. He accused her of having an unlicensed dog, and informed her that the law allowed him to impound the dog and to issue her a ticket with a $250 fine. As it so happened her dog was licensed, but the tag was not visible since it was lost in the deep folds of the dog's long hair. When the license tag was finally found, the man harrumphed and wandered off, apparently in search of another dog owner to harass.

This is a relatively unusual situation, since, except when municipalities occasionally initiate a short-term campaign to enforce dog licensing laws (usually as a result of needing the funds which result from fees and fines), nothing much happens to owners of unlicensed dogs. That is unless their dogs bother the neighbors, are lost or stolen, bite someone, or are nabbed by animal control. This probably explains why in most urban centers between 60 to 80 percent of dogs remain unlicensed.

Once a dog is picked up and impounded by animal control personnel, however, the game changes. If a dog is licensed, shelter employees can check the registration records to identify and notify the owner. Meanwhile the owner of an unlicensed dog can be subjected to substantial fines and penalties. Even worse is the fact that unlicensed dogs are often euthanized sooner than dogs with license tags. If you happen to go away for the weekend and your dog escapes from the dog sitter, the two or three additional days a licensed dog is given at the shelter could be in the difference between getting it back and losing it forever.

The phone call from my friend's wife reminded me of an incident involving E.B. White, who you will probably best remember as the author of the classic books Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White split his time living in New York City and in a small cabin in rural Maine where he shared his life with a series of dachshunds. In the spring of 1951 White was accused by the New York chapter of the ASPCA of not having a license for his current dachshund, Minnie. He responded to their charges with the wit and humor that characterized everything which he wrote. This letter, which I forwarded to my friend's wife, I also offer to you as something that might brighten your day.


dog pet puppy human animal bond license law EB White Minnie

Author E.B. White and Minnie

12 April 1951

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

York Avenue and East 92nd Street

New York, 28, NY

Dear Sirs:

I have your letter, undated, saying that I am harboring an unlicensed dog in violation of the law. If by “harboring” you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her, I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off. I suppose you are wondering by now why I don’t get her a sweater instead. That’s a joke on you. She has a knitted sweater, but she doesn’t like to wear it for sleeping; her legs are so short they work out of a sweater and her toenails get caught in the mesh, and this disturbs her rest. If Minnie doesn’t get her rest, she feels it right away. I do myself, and of course with this night duty of mine, the way the blanket slips and all, I haven’t had any real rest in years. Minnie is twelve.

 In spite of what your inspector reported, she has a license. She is licensed in the State of Maine as an unspayed bitch, or what is more commonly called an “unspaded” bitch. She wears her metal license tag but I must say I don’t particularly care for it, as it is in the shape of a hydrant, which seems to me a feeble gag, besides being pointless in the case of a female. It is hard to believe that any state in the Union would circulate a gag like that and make people pay money for it, but Maine is always thinking of something. Maine puts up roadside crosses along the highways to mark the spots where people have lost their lives in motor accidents, so the highways are beginning to take on the appearance of a cemetery, and motoring in Maine has become a solemn experience, when one thinks mostly about death. I was driving along a road near Kittery the other day thinking about death and all of a sudden I heard the spring peepers. That changed me right away and I suddenly thought about life. It was the nicest feeling.

You asked about Minnie’s name, sex, breed, and phone number. She doesn’t answer the phone. She is a dachshund and can’t reach it, but she wouldn’t answer it even if she could, as she has no interest in outside calls. I did have a dachshund once, a male, who was interested in the telephone, and who got a great many calls, but Fred was an exceptional dog (his name was Fred) and I can’t think of anything offhand that he wasn’t interested in. The telephone was only one of a thousand things. He loved life — that is, he loved life if by “life” you mean “trouble,” and of course the phone is almost synonymous with trouble. Minnie loves life, too, but her idea of life is a warm bed, preferably with an electric pad, and a friend in bed with her, and plenty of shut-eye, night and days. She’s almost twelve. I guess I’ve already mentioned that. I got her from Dr. Clarence Little in 1939. He was using dachshunds in his cancer-research experiments (that was before Winchell was running the thing) and he had a couple of extra puppies, so I wheedled Minnie out of him. She later had puppies by her own father, at Dr. Little’s request. What do you think about that for a scandal? I know what Fred thought about it. He was some put out.

Sincerely yours,

E. B. White

As a final note, I was just now speaking to a lawyer that I know and the topic turned to dog licensing (since it happened to still be on my mind at that moment). According to him it is fairly common to find legislation that is written in a way that makes stealing only of licensed dogs a crime. According to him this could be construed to mean that in those venues stealing an unlicensed dog is legal. I wonder what E.B. White's comments would be about that.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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