Back Off My Chihuahua

Small dogs may rule in Rittenhouse Square, but try walking a petite pooch in West Philly

Though I’ve lived in other states (Ohio, New York) and other countries (Costa Rica, Texas), I’ve spent most of my life in Philadelphia. Virtually all of that time was spent east of the Schuylkill, until about seven years ago, when a friend invited me to move in with her in West Philly. “What’s it like there?” I asked, as though we were moving to a yurt in upper Mongolia.

She said it was great—gorgeous architecture; friendly neighbors; diversity in age, ethnicity and income; accessible public transportation; a lively café culture.

She was right. Every morning, I’m awakened by birdsong. When I walk to work, I smell the blooms of dozens of flowers. Every person I pass says, “Good morning,” with a smile.

Across the street, there’s a man who specializes in African instruments. Someone’s always on his porch plinking at strings or shaking a gourd. Last summer my partner gave the man some fresh-caught fish for dinner; he reciprocated by making us an instrument.

Clark Park, drum circles, community activism. I even bought Dansko clogs.

But it’s not all co-ops and puppets. There’s also a prejudice I confront every day that makes me long for Center City or the Gayborhood—anywhere the discrimination is less acute.

I speak of the bias against small dogs.

I have a 10-year-old Chihuahua who, through no fault of her own, weighs seven pounds. She is easily chilled so she shivers. She is afraid of everything larger than she is—dogs, people, flowers.

Because of her disinclination to cold (or perhaps my own), she’s paper-trained and doesn’t require walks in winter. But when it’s warm, I walk her frequently. And while I appreciate neighborly dialogue in general, I could do without the small-dog comments. You know—“Look, a rat on a leash!” Or, “Ooh, I’m scared.”

Today, for instance, I walked past a guy on his porch. I smiled and said hello. He said, “I see you’re out walking your guinea pig.”

When I walk my dog through Rittenhouse Square, it’s like I have Lady Gaga on a leash. People freak out when they see her. They run over. They try to inhale her. There is so much love that she hyperventilates in terror and I have to pick her up.

In Center City, see, people have persuaded themselves that Chihuahuas aren’t ugly. They also admire those tiny Yorkies blinded by their own frantic hair, and they love the squat, snuffling, soda-can pugs. In Rittenhouse Square my small dog is a superstar. In West Philly, she’s an embarrassment.

I am one of the few owners of a purebred toy in my neighborhood. Most residents walk spade-headed pitbulls they rescued from death. Sometimes they even have two.

Ten years ago, I’d never heard of puppy mills. I went into a pet store and saw a shivering lump of protoplasm behind a pane of glass. I didn’t even know what kind of dog she was, or indeed if she was a “dog” proper. But I had to take her home.

Now people feel free to tell me how Chihuahuas are yippy, nasty and mean. How they’re dumb. How overbred they are. How they look like aliens, or at least Marty Feldman. People screw up their faces and say, “I really don’t like small dogs.” Say that about pitbulls and you’ve got a neighborhood riot on your hands.

The other day I saw a guy walking what appeared to be a Chihuahua. I said, “Hi! I have a Chihuahua too.” To which he replied, “Well, I got him from a shelter, so he’s more likely a mix.” You wish, I thought. That dog was a Chihuahua if ever I saw one.

So now I’m getting in on the West Philly activism by starting a new empowerment movement: “small and shivery is beautiful.” (Buttons available.) And guess what? My dog will probably live till she’s 17. So get used to it.