Is There a Place for Animals in a Strong Town?

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A while back, a close friend confided in me that, while driving home, he’d accidentally struck and killed a cat with his car. We both love animals, and he felt awful about what happened. I also know that he’s a cautious driver, and am certain the accident didn’t happen due to any recklessness on his part. Still, he was upset about it.

I did my best to console him based on what I’ve learned from Strong Towns: how much of what we, as a society, blame on “irresponsible” driving is actually the fault of poor road design. We talk frequently here about how many pedestrian deaths are preventable, and I feel that to a large extent, the same goes for animals that, like humans, get killed while trying to cross the street.

That discussion with my friend took me back to one that the Strong Towns team had a while back on Slack, prompted by my colleague Lauren Fisher. She made the astute observation that we have turned dogs into (beloved) prisoners, rather than willing companions: They are not given the option to choose to remain at our sides when we’re with them, because we have to keep them penned up or on leashes for their own safety. Otherwise, they could—and often do—lose their lives running into the street.

For my own part, I brought up how in many traditional societies, it was typical for animals of all kinds to wander freely among humans. For instance, my father always used to tell me stories about how whenever he, as a child, visited his family’s farm in Gugad, Iran, he’d watch massive herds of sheep, goats, and donkeys passing through town on their way to pasture. The animals knew where to go with minimal guidance (often only a single shepherd guided the flock from the rear), so it wasn’t an issue. No fences necessary to keep them safe.

I was brought up on a lot of stories about Gugad when I was growing up. It felt like a fairy tale land to me, in part because my father is a marvelous storyteller, but also because it was a world so far removed from the auto-centric one I’d always known.

When I finally got to visit Gugad later in life, the town had completely changed from the one spoken of in my childhood. The family farm was gone, sold off in parcels and torn down to make room for new streets. The only part of our family’s property that remained were the ruins of a small mosque, its domed roof caved in and crumbling. No shepherds, no flocks of animals. The fairy tale had been destroyed.

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