Live Small, Live Local: Man’s best friend proves to be a great indicator for the economic climate

May 6 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on Live Small, Live Local: Man’s best friend proves to be a great indicator for the economic climate

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Jock Brandis poses with pampered pups Hilda and Horace. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

During a moment of introspection last week, I decided to admit to myself that we (myself and Jock) have turned into those people: During the winter, Jock comes home in the middle of the day to build a fire for Horace and Hilda. In the summer months, we run our window air-conditioning unit all day for them. When we go out in the evening, we are always heading home by 10 p.m. because of Horace and Hilda’s schedule. Even if we aren’t buying groceries for ourselves, we will always go out to get food for them. They are one of the first topics of business in the morning: Have Horace and Hilda had breakfast yet? And one of the last concerns before sleep in the evening: Do you think Horace and Hilda are happy?

They are our dogs. They bring us more happiness than I ever imagined possible. I could actually tally up the money we spend on them in an average year, but to even try to put a price tag on the two members of the family that I like best would be unthinkable. We are not alone in this.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, in 2012 83.3 million dogs were owned by Americans. The American Veterinary Association estimates that New Hanover County has just under 27,000 pet dogs. In November of 2012, The Atlantic ran a piece on global economics using dogs as an economic indicator. Their theory was that a rise of dog ownership in countries and cultures reflected economic growth, i.e. more available funds for things like vet-care.

In addition, in a growing entrepreneurial environment, dog-boarding, grooming, dog toys, and high-end dog goodies create new businesses and jobs. According NBC News, in 2013 Americans spent $55.7 billion on pets. That’s almost the same amount that the president has proposed increasing the national budget next year.

Are we seeing any of this $55.7 billion locally? A quick search for the Wilmington area shows at least 34 groomers, 30-plus veterinarian clinics, five pet bakeries, 10 dog walkers, 11 dog trainers, and eight pet stores. Then there are the three off-leash dog parks at Hugh MacRae, Ogden and Empie parks.

Frequent visitors to the Empie Park facility, no doubt, are aware that the large canine sanctuary is closed for renovations. There are two separate fenced-off parts of the dog park divided by size: one for dogs less than 20 pounds and the other for larger dogs. The small dog park is still open.

Standing outside the Empie Park gate, I found myself wondering what sort of renovations could a dog park need? Having survived several renovations of historic structures, I imagined a team of plumbers, electricians, and that one guy in town who does good plaster work overhauling the dog park. Amusing as that sounded, a call over to the City of Wilmington Parks and Recreation Department shed light on the real plans. Marian Doherty explained that the three-week renovation project’s main goal was to build a shelter in the park.

“We made the decision based on the feedback we collected from the users of the park,” she explained. “That and an improved walkway around the watering station. It gets very muddy.”

OK, that seemed much more reasonable and realistic than my visions of historic plastering.

“So, what’s this shelter going to look like?” I asked.

My mind went straight to beach cabanas, open on one side, complete with a fully stocked wet bar. This is why I am not an architect. Doherty offered to connect me with Phil Pope who had the schematics and could better answer questions about details. Mr. Pope explained it would be open on all four sides—like the park shelters at Hugh MacRae.

I decided not to ask about the wet bar; though, I still think it would be an improvement. It also could be a funding source. It would be much easier to get Jock out to a dog park if he could buy a cold beer while supervising Horace.  As a devoted dog person, I am just offering my 2 cents here.

Pope further explained that the decking would be like the deck on a house. A nice metal roof and backless benches will complete the picture. “I guess I can go ahead and tell you about the other plans,” he chuckled.

There will be an American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant ramp to the shelter and to the watering station. “In order for us to build the shelter, it had to have a ramp,” Pope explained. “So, we decided to go ahead and take it to the watering station.”

Pope added they also were re-furbishing the benches and the sponsorship signage, or as he put it: “brightening up the park.” The renovations are being carried out by a contractor hired by the city but supervised by the parks department. Pope pointed out that the weather hasn’t been very cooperative. (When is it ever?)

I asked Doherty if she had any statistics on the use of the dog park. “No,” she stated. “It’s an interesting dynamic. People bring their dogs before they go to work; it’s hard to get numbers.”

After-work visits are popular, too. Both times fall outside of hours that city workers can easily track. Doherty was quick to confirm that the dog park is a very attractive amenity and is heavily used at Empie Park.

Apartment complexes, too, are now building dog parks as part of the amenities packages they offer. I would be much more likely to take Horace and Hilda to run at a dog park everyday than to swim in a pool or play tennis. It would be a better use of money for me and any prospective landlord I might have.

Jock estimates we spend about $1,500 a year on dog food. That’s a low-ball number that does not include cheese, buttery-toast bits or chips. They love their chips. They both get bathed a lot during the year, and after the last attempt to convince Horace that the world was not ending, just because he was getting bath, we decided it was worth the money to pay someone else to have this problem. Somehow the car ride seems to soften the blow.

So, let’s say we spend another $400 a year on baths and associated things like the eve-present squeaky toys. I don’t want to put an estimate on vet visits because that seems like tempting fate. Safe to say, everyone is well-cared for. In addition to the regular expenses of dog ownership, Jock keeps explaining to me that we need a large screen, hi-definition TV so that Hilda can watch nature shows on PBS. Or the Kentucky Derby.

“Hilda would love the Derby!” he says. “All those horses running! Come on! She’d be thrilled!”  Maybe there is more of an argument for dogs as economic indicators than I thought.

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