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People who know Ms. Black, even those who love her, say she is sometimes uncontrollable. Abandoned in her infancy, she was adopted into a loving home but has always had trouble relating to her peers. She’s prone to loitering on the corner of 15th and Kearney Streets NE in Brookland, and she’s highly protective of her turf.
“I just don’t walk down 15th…because I’m not sure of Ms. Black’s property-protecting schedule,” Brookland resident Heather Phipps recently announced to a community e-mail discussion group. Another neighbor volunteered that Ms. Black had “attacked our medium sized dog on several occasions, leaping on him, growling/barking, and biting him several times until kicked off.” In a post ominously titled “ms. black, mugging, another attempted robbery by car,” a third resident wondered “when is she going to jump on my back and attack a la kujo.”
Within a 10-day span earlier this month, 10 Brookland residents penned 21 separate posts to Brookland’s community e-mail group about a single, very bad dog. Four claimed to have been attacked; more felt threatened. “That whole intersection is hers,” one resident says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When I meet other people walking their dogs and they find out where I live, they say, ‘Oh, we don’t go down that far.’”
Yet for all the hackles raised in the e-mail group, Ms. Black has her boosters among some of Brookland’s most established residents. “She is the neighborhood,” says Allan Gray, a lifelong resident of Brookland and a Ms. Black defender. “Dogs have come and gone, but she’s been here all her life.”
Dog ownership is a big deal in Brookland. “I’ll see a neighbor sometimes, and if they don’t have their dog, I won’t recognize them,” notes Danette Hensley, out walking her boxer, Trooper, on one of the neighborhood’s quiet streets. For Hensley, a nine-year resident of Brookland, Ms. Black isn’t a concern. “I call Ms. Black the Mayor of 15th Street, because she’s always running up and down the block,” she says. “She’s been here for seven or eight years. In the beginning, I wished they’d lock her up. Now, I’m used to it.”
Gray, out walking a puppy, goes so far as to call Ms. Black a neighborhood asset. In a neighborhood that is by most accounts gentrifying with poise, he believes Ms. Black gives newer residents, and their dogs, a lesson in the old, feisty Brookland way. “She sets people straight,” Gray says. “You have people coming in here, think they know it all, and she sets ’em straight.” Though Gray believes Ms. Black is too old to be a serious threat to other dogs, he doesn’t seem entirely opposed to the idea of rough dogs duking it out for control of the neighborhood. While Ms. Black might get away with snapping at puppies, “back in the day, with one of my old dogs, it’d be on,” he laughs.
Gray’s assertion that Ms. Black isn’t a true danger to Brookland’s other dogs is hotly disputed. “She hasn’t broken skin, but she’s riding that line,” says Phipps, who wrote to the e-mail group after Ms. Black jumped her German shepherd and didn’t back off until Phipps’ other dog came to the shepherd’s aid. Phipps, who’s lived in the neighborhood for two-and-a-half years, insists that her problem isn’t about gentrification politics. She’s sympathetic to the difficulty of keeping a dog restrained, she says, “but you have to do something about it.”
Phipps has District law on her side. In D.C., unleashed dogs face a fine, and there are more serious statutes regarding “dangerous dogs.” Ms. Black has already run afoul of the leash laws; her owner was issued a $33 ticket last year. And with three Brookland residents in the discussion group claiming that they’d reported run-ins to Animal Control, Ms. Black had better watch her step: If a bite report is filed, the Department of Health can initiate proceedings to have the perpetrator impounded—and euthanized. According to Peggy Keller, Chief of the D.C. Department of Health’s Bureau of Community Hygiene, fewer than a dozen dogs a year meet that fate. “We don’t want to kill dogs, but we want to protect the public,” she says. “We want to make the environment such that the dog is an upstanding member of society.”
Brookland dog lovers think that even Ms. Black could be reformed like another former stray, whose owner claims that the two dogs share a bloodline. “It would be great if…she could get picked up and adopted by another family who could turn her life around, as we did for Ms. Black’s sister, now known as Maggie Doodle.”
Ms. Black’s owner, Monica Nesbitt-Lester, was surprised to see four pages of e-mails about Ms. Black. “I said, ‘Oh, Ms. Black, you’re a celebrity,’” she recounts. She agrees that Ms. Black has her faults—“She gets on my nerves, that’s what she does”—but Nesbitt-Lester says she was offended by suggestions that she wasn’t fulfilling her responsibilities as a pet owner. Seated in the living room of her tidy home, she remarks, “I haven’t got a problem with Animal Control. Ms. Black’s got a problem with Animal Control.”
Conversation stops when Ms. Black bounds into the room. She’s not a big dog, only knee-high, with bushy black hair and a black tongue. Nesbitt-Lester says she took in Ms. Black after a son who works in construction found her abandoned at a Maryland site, and is uncertain of her breed. “Shepherd, chow, I don’t know what Ms. Black is. She’s mine, that’s all I know.”
Whatever her pedigree, she’s a barker. Finding a stranger in her living room, Ms. Black takes up a position near the doorway and, tail furiously waving, begins to belt out her displeasure with volume and ferocity far surpassing her size. After ignoring several attempts to quiet her, she retreats to another room. “I’m glad you got to meet her,” Nesbitt-Lester says.
According to Nesbitt-Lester, her pet is less of a nuisance than “people [who go] on the Internet at 7 or 8 at night and complain about a damn dog.” Nesbitt-Lester, who has lived in the area since 1967, thinks many of Brookland’s newer arrivals fit that description. “Here come the white people with dogs on a leash,” she says, when asked about the racial dimension of the dog issue. “And our dogs have been ripping around this neighborhood for years, sniffing each other for decades.”
In response to her neighbors’ concerns, Nesbitt-Lester says she’ll try to keep her dog indoors more often. But she’s not exactly apologizing. “We’re a family. And I ain’t going nowhere, so they can just wait until Ms. Black passes or the man comes and takes her away.”
Even without the authorities’ intervention, Ms. Black’s reign over the intersection at 15th and Kearney may be drawing to a close. “She doesn’t run as well as she used to,” says Nesbitt-Lester, and new competitors are vying for the mantle of the toughest dog on 15th Street. A couple of weeks ago, Nesbitt-Lester heard a ruckus outside and sent her son Jeff Nesbitt to investigate. He found Ms. Black on the losing end of an argument with a young pit bull. Nesbitt pulled Ms. Black to safety and doused her wounds with peroxide. He also gave her a lecture. “‘You’ve been selling too many woof tickets,’” Nesbitt-Lester remembers him saying, “‘and you just got caught.’”CP