Last Tuesday, Ellen Taft added another animal to her shit list.
The setting was City Hall, where council members Richard Conlin and Nick Licata were hearing public comments about the pygmy goat legalization effort (see "Oh Udder, Where Art Thou?" Sept. 12). A representative of the Goat Justice League had just praised the "sweet and good and helpful" nature of her pet goats, Brownie and Snowflake, when Taft stepped up with a forceful rebuttal.
"Well, this is a hard act to follow because my two pet goats were called Blackie and Brownie, which isn't very creative," said Taft. "Snowflake is really hot."
Having warmed up the crowd, Taft embarked upon an epic recounting of the flaws of caprine animals: They devour expensive ornamental plants, they're uncontrollable, and so forth. Moreover, she inquired, had either Conlin or Licata tried to wrangle a goat for an entire day? Both men answered no. "We're going to have goat feces in restaurants, in bars, in supermarkets," warned Taft.
After running over her time, Taft walked out of the room. She received animal-friendly Seattle's equivalent of a Bronx cheer: the withholding of polite applause.
Goats are a new front in an old war for Taft. She's perhaps the area's leading anti–animal rights activist, a firm believer that, in her words, the "U.S. Constitution does not grant dogs, pigs, or animals any rights whatsoever, nor does it guarantee dog ownership as a right of the people." When Taft returned to her Capitol Hill home after the hearing, she unscrewed a wall panel to access a large, airtight bin—a veritable treasure trove of pet owners' crushed dreams. It's all there: stories of pigs rooting up lawns, an incriminating cassette tape of a local politician downplaying rabies, and scholarly articles dissecting the pathogens in dog poop, among other keepsakes.
A fiftysomething self-described housewife, Taft has served as president of Seattle Pro-Leash and Citizens for the Protection of Volunteer Park, two grassroots groups devoted to driving unleashed dogs from her neighborhood. In 2000, Taft helped sue the city over an off-leash dog run in Volunteer Park, and won. When dog owners banded together in 1996 to create COLA—Citizens for Off-Leash Areas—she became involved with UNCOLA: United Neighbors Concerning Off-Leash Areas. (Neither group apparently cared that their acronyms conjured up 7-Up instead of dogs.) She was also one of the early complainers about potbellied pigs in Seattle.
Many Seattle officials have been recipients of her animal-related queries. She once left a note at Licata's home asking for more leash-your-pet signs in the city. Hearing the opening lines of this reporter's pitch, but no names, one official said, "Let me guess, Ellen Taft?" He then declined to comment.
"We're familiar with her and we've heard quite often [from her]," says Conlin, sponsor of the goat legislation. "It's almost always a similar complaint: something about how all the dogs in the city are unlicensed and running wild, basically."
Taft also called in to a radio show last year to ask Mayor Greg Nickels why he wasn't cracking down harder on unlicensed animals, saying they cost the city $1 million a year. A couple of months later, lo and behold, the city started raising fines, and pet licenses are up 16 percent from last year, according to Seattle Animal Control.
So devoted is Taft to her pet patrol that she had a security camera installed in her yard to catch loaf-pinching hounds in the act. To her, the alleged crap attacks demonstrate the superiority complexes nurtured by local pet owners. She's met dogs in Germany ("very controlled and very aggressive") and dogs in England ("very reserved and very gentle"), but avows that Seattle dogs are "more obnoxious" and "badly behaved."
"Most of these animal owners, they think their animal has social dominance over everybody else and that the rest of society should—what's the word?—validate their ownership of their animals," she explains. "It's like before the French Revolution: One of the causes of unrest with the peasantry was that the aristocracy could just go hunting in their land [and] trample their crops as they were chasing some fox. That was tough on the peasantry, and it's just like that with irresponsible animal owners."
A few unpleasant events soured Taft on dogs. At 31, she was a graduate student in Minnesota who used the bus to get across town. But it seemed that wandering hounds who knew her schedule didn't like her on their block; they followed, chased, and otherwise menaced her as she left her condo. "Honest, I could not get to the bus stop for four months without some kind of dog doing something to me," she says.
Then one day she missed the bus. While walking down the street, she was jumped by two neighborhood dogs named Thor and Fluff. The attack left her black-and-blue and scarred, she says. She took the owner to small-claims court and attended hearings to have the dogs euthanized. Her death wish proved successful.
When she relocated to Seattle, Taft was astounded by the hordes of bounding, unleashed dogs in Volunteer Park. But it was a pig, somehow, that wound up in her crosshairs. "He was huge, absolutely huge. He was immense," she says. This was Albert the Pig, a potbelly who, in the early '90s, relaxed with his owner by the conservatory and was never on a leash, according to Taft. One night, Taft happened to walk by a bar on 15th Avenue. Inside was Albert, slurping beer from a bowl.
Her calls to animal control helped spur a crackdown on Albert and his trendy, unleashed kin, but Seattle nonetheless legalized potbellies shortly thereafter, in 1993. As some pigs turned mean or surpassed their average weight of 120 pounds, swelling into oinking dirigibles, they became subject to abandonment and abuse by neglect. Taft proved to be prescient in her reservations, though at the time she was thinking more about the tax burden of pigs. As she outlined in a written analysis to the City Council: "The costs will be as follows: 1) Modifying the six Animal Control trucks to transport pigs. 2) Money to train the 8 field workers and indoor workers. 3) Since Animal Control does not have a facility to contain pigs, if there is an increase in the number of pigs, a new facility will have to be acquired and built. 4) Given the weight of pigs, it is anticipated that workmen's compensation bills will go up....In a worst-case scenario, the bill for compensating an Animal Control officer for the loss of a hand will be very expensive." (The director of animal control says the pigs were no bureaucratic burden.)
In 2000, Taft's Citizens for the Protection of Volunteer Park filed a lawsuit against the city for an off-leash dog run near the Seattle Asian Art Museum, calling it a public nuisance. The clawed-up ground was muddy, stinky, and barren of grass; noise of sparring dogs and owners drifted through Taft's thick bedroom shades to sabotage her catnaps. So she hired a private detective to stake out the park, filming video of dogs running free to the off-leash area and owners ignoring fresh-made waste. "It's called evidence," she says of the effort.
The footage never entered the court file, though aerial shots commissioned by the citizens' group of the park's bald spot did. So did an arborist's description of a UWZ, or "urine wet zone," which had softened the bark of pricey trees and created a stench so concentrated that "it is hard to breathe at certain times," according to the arborist. The judge issued an injunction, and the off-leash area disappeared. Taft and perhaps two dozen neighbors who submitted letters of support in the lawsuit rejoiced. The legal proceedings cost the group $30,000, says Taft, who won't say if she bore the brunt of it. "It was a great victory," she says.
From a corner office in her house, which she shares with two daughters, a husband retired from Microsoft, a fish, a bunny, and a pair of guinea pigs, Taft works the phones. "The pets live in the basement," she says of her paradoxical stewardship.
Taft's goat intel is quick in coming. A dairy and livestock expert at Washington State University's agricultural extension has offered up enticing data. There aren't many local vets who specialize in goat anatomy. The mandated burning-off of horns can cause brain damage, if done improperly, and dogs can maul goats (in some cases, they seem to relish it). These are concerns shared by breeders of little goats.
She also has issues with property damage and disease that might sound familiar to people who witnessed her pig and dog battles. "A lot of this is rehashing," she says.
The pygmy goat legislation is a fait accompli, but Taft has talked to her lawyer about it anyway. At this point, she's a fighter for principle. That principle, oddly enough, is racial.
"The city of Seattle keeps legalizing things that white people are doing that are breaking the law," says Taft, who's white. "Any white person can go out and get any illegal animal, and all they have to do is go to City Council and act like a victim. There will be lots and lots of really cute pictures and cute publicity to those members of City Council who sponsor the legislation.
"You're sending a real clear signal out to every white person in this town," she continues. "'You want to get a cow, you get a cow. We'll legalize it.'"