San Francisco residents love their dogs. There are luxury dog hotels, fashion shows, and even a bakery that specializes in doggy birthday cakes. The city’s dog population even outnumbers kids, and thanks to affordable and accessible spay and neuter clinics, euthanasia rates in San Francisco have dropped.
But it wasn’t always this way.
More than150 years ago, several years before the San Francisco SPCA was founded, the city was infested with stray dogs. An ordinance had to be passed to control the population, and dogs without a leash or muzzle were either shot or thrown into the pound and killed. Residents even left out poisoned food, hoping to rid their city of both rats and dogs.
In January 1861, a vicious fight broke out between two strays. Outmatched and severely injured from a bite wound on a leg, the smaller dog would have died had another dog not intervened. Bummer, described by Malcolm Barker in Bummer & Lazarus: San Francisco’s Famous Dogs as “Newfoundland, with protruding teeth, and a permanent grin, and a clumsy walk,” not only chased off the attacker, but guided the injured dog to safety.
Bummer was a stray, but the city’s residents also valued him for his legendary rat-killing skills. After the fight, he worked his usual route, “bumming” food from sympathetic souls to take back to his new friend. Lazarus eventually recovered, and the two dogs became known as the city’s best rat-killing duo.
In a rat-infested city, their skills made them highly prized, but it was their heartwarming friendship that made them famous. Local press wrote about their escapades, and they were immortalized in a series of satiric cartoons as well as a staged burletta titled Life in San Francisco. When Lazarus was captured by a dogcatcher, angry citizens demanded his release. City supervisors, in an attempt to maintain peace, exempted both dogs from anti-stray laws.
Unfortunately, the life of a stray dog was brutal and short. In 1863, Lazarus died from eating poisoned meat, and Bummer died two years later after a drunk kicked him down a flight of stairs. Their bodies were stuffed and displayed in a saloon that Bummer often frequented on Montgomery Street. In 1906, they were donated and placed into storage at the Golden Gate Park Museum then destroyed in 1910. Today, you can still see a plaque dedicated to Bummer and Lazarus near the Transamerica Pyramid.
The friendship between Bummer and Lazarus stirred the hearts of many, and may have marked the beginning of a movement that would eventually lead to the progressive, pro-animal ordinances in San Francisco today. In fact, only three years after Bummer’s death, the SF SPCA was formed after a banker witnessed two men dragging a squealing hog down the street. The disturbing sight moved him to rally together like-minded citizens to stop the abuse of animals.
Today, San Francisco may be known as a dog-friendly place, but it’s far from paradise. The city’s skyrocketing real estate has led to an increase in owners abandoning their dogs due to a shortage of pet-friendly housing. San Francisco may also be considered the first “no-kill city” in the country, but that title has been tarnished by controversy over the last decade.
While progress may feel impossible at times, the story of Bummer and Lazarus reminds us that true compassion is the heart of animal advocacy. At a time when dogs were killed on sight, the bond between Bummer and Lazarus changed the heart of an entire city. The San Francisco Bulletin referred to them as “two dogs with but a single bark, two tails that wagged as one.” When Bummer died, elegies and poems flooded the papers, proving to even the most jaded that loyalty and friendship are traits universally admired.
Susan Pi is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.