The Tribe of Indelible Dogs
"I wish my tattoos were this easy," says Renee Harris, opening a brown case to reveal a compact electric tattoo kit. But Harris isn't adding another swirl of permanent black to her wrist. This kit isn't for her, or me, or you, or any other human being. It's for the Fluffys, Brandys, and Spikes of the world -- dogs and cats.
Renee's tattoo operation, run out of her pet grooming salon located upstairs from the Mission Pet Hospital on Valencia, imprints numbers on the inner thighs and ears of pets, coding the animals into a national databank called Tattoo-A-Pet. If a lost pet is found, the number can be traced both to the New York office and Renee's client records. Dog is matched to owner, the skies part, the sun shines, it's a win-win situation all around. She also tattoos so-called "dangerous" dogs for the Department of Animal Care and Control, but most of her clients are pets.
And unlike the competing technology -- rice-size digital microchips injected under Fido's skin -- animal tattoos are analog, dating back to the natives of New Guinea, who marked their prize hunting dogs to indicate ownership. Today's principle is the same. No hard drive to crash, no cursor freeze. Just grab a paw, hoist it up, and look at the number.
Three major tattoo registration companies serve the country -- National Dog Registry, Identi-Pet, and Tattoo-A-Pet, which is the largest and oldest in the business. For $10, your pet will receive its own separate code number for the rest of its life.
"There's never any fees, there's no annual BS," says Renee, who has been tattooing pets for six years. "It's really fantastic."
Her shop is unavoidably doggy, but sort of homey. One small mutt wanders back and forth amid clumps of dog hair, looking like a squat loaf of black bread. Renee's two assistants hang out on chairs, chatting away, just like employees do in human tattoo shops. But while a human shop might be festooned with numerous flash designs, nudie calendars, or World War II Nazi helmets, Renee's work space boasts shelves of paperwork and an entire wall of doggies in cages. KFOG's phone number is pasted on the wall, alerting the newcomer to what may safely be described as a "classic rock situation." You can only imagine the scene: animal on the table, held firmly by two assistants, Renee touching the needle to the inner thigh with a confident BZZZT!, accompanied by Led Zeppelin singing, "Hey-hey, mama, say the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!"
Such a scenario has repeated itself many times. Renee has registered 50 tattoos over the years, and marked another 27 with their AKC numbers. San Francisco once had more pet tattooists, but she is now the only one she knows of.
"There used to be this lovely lady on Guerrero Street," says Renee. "She did it for years and years. A selfless woman. She's a doll, she's a nice lady."
The two assistants break into peculiar smiles.
"She's old as dirt!" exclaims one. Everybody cracks up.
"She did it for a long, long time," Renee continues kindly, "to the point where she would read the lost-and-found items, and call up and say, 'Well, if your dog had been tattooed it wouldn't be lost, and if you get it back, I'll tattoo it for you!' " The room shrieks.
Renee got involved after realizing her bull terrier show dogs were such a hot property on the black market. The process seemed even more attractive when she discovered that it's illegal to use any tattooed pet for medical research. But tattooing your driver's license, Social Security, or phone number onto your pet isn't sufficient protection.
"If you're not registered with a registry, anything else will be absolutely useless except for proving it's your dog in court," says Renee. She combs a hair clump out of a visiting West Highland terrier and shrugs. "It won't help your dog get back home."
Principally, a dog tat is much like a human tat. Renee surgically shaves the doggy's inner thigh, sterilizes the area with alcohol, a thin layer of Vaseline is applied, then the number is inked. Two weeks later the owner receives an aluminum tag for the collar, with the dog's tat number and a 24-hour 800 phone number.
The operation doesn't hurt the dog, but its skin is thinner than a human's, so the needle is set to only 1/16 of an inch. "They fuss because of the noise and vibration more than anything else," Renee explains. She runs the machine over the palm of my hand. It tickles harmlessly; humans require at least 1/8 of an inch needle depth. Short-hair dogs are set for life after their tattoo, but furry dogs must be shaved every 10 to 12 weeks, and Renee will gladly darken or redo it at no extra charge.
She does only registry numbers, but the more flamboyant pet owner interested in a custom piece might drop by to see her friends at Jerry's Tattoos in the Mission. Renee remembers a 124-pound Rottweiler named Guido, whose inner thigh was recently emblazoned with a poodle wearing fish-net stockings. The design ended up in High Times magazine.