Published June 3, 2016
The most characteristic sound of Reykjavík is neither the desperate noise of drunkards during the weekend nor the lonely song of the wind in winter. It is the sound of cats. Cats meowing, cats wailing, cats scratching, cats itching, catfights and catcalls and catlove, cats being catty and cats being nice, cats all but howling at the moon every night.
On an island where it routinely rains cats and dogs, how did one side win? How did the cats take over Reykjavík?
In part, it has to do with legislation. In what can only be seen as a gesture of kindness towards cats and mailmen, the city of Reykjavík decided to ban dogs in 1924. Why they did so is anyone’s guess, but this was at the time when they liked banning stuff, such as alcohol. The infamous beerban was lifted in 1989, but the dogban was upheld in a 1988 referendum, although it was easy to get exemptions. Apparently, owning a dog can be legal as of 2012. The law runs to 25 paragraphs and the prospective dog owner must be of a legal age, get permission from his neighbours and have a clean criminal record. The dog has to be insured, and the owner take a training course or submit sworn testimony from two individuals that he can be entrusted with the responsibility of owning a dog. Also, dogs are banned from the Laugavegur main shopping street.
The hip cats of Reykjavík strut down the streets as if they had been created solely for their existence, but there have probably been more famous dogs in Icelandic history than cats. One of them is Tanni, the dog of former Prime Minister and “architect of the collapse” Davíð Oddsson. The PM liked to tell stories of his dog, and apparently could be seen taking him for walks while deep in conversation. Oddsson claimed to be talking to himself rather than the dog, but who knows? Perhaps he was acting on canine orders when he privatized the banks. Another famous dog is that owned by MP and former football player Albert Guðmundsson. When his boys wanted a dog in the 80s, he had the law changed to allow for exceptions. Perhaps the most famous, though, is the trusty Sámur, owned by the legendary Viking Chief Gunnar á Hlíðarenda. His last words before being killed by his enemies were a eulogy for his dog, also killed at the same time.
“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog,” said Frederick the Great of Prussia, or Mark Twain, or Clara Bow (depending on which meme has just been shared into your feed). This sounds like a condemnation of the human race, but it also shows a love of dogs much evidenced in Berlin today. If there are any cats living in the city, they must all be part of some underground resistance movement. On the streets of Berlin, the dogs reign supreme. You see them in the coffee shops and in the bars, and even in my German class a dog roams the hallway to everyone’s great joy. This is a dog town.
So why do these people like their dogs so much?
In Russia in the 1990s, when Anatoly Chubais was privatising the economy and putting everyone out of work, if briefly became popular to get a dog, name him Anatoly Chubais and then kick the thing mercilessly. This I can understand, but the German love of dogs seems to go much deeper.
Up the street I see a young woman waiting outside a door. A young man emerges with a dog, and it is the dog that gets the warmer greeting. In Berlin, it is not uncommon to see a crippled dog trailing behind its master. In Germany dogs are nursed long after the owner’s own parents have been put in an old folk’s home. Even homeless people have dogs and share with them of their meagre resources. This works because German dogs, much like their owners, tend to be well-behaved and quickly admonished for barking at strangers.
It seems clear that in many cases, getting a dog can improve a person’s life considerably. So is it right to ban them from a city entirely, as was done here in Reykjavik? As a former mailman, I say yes.