Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
For centuries, pets have lived alongside humans in the Dutch capital, but there’s no official record of them. One photographer set out to change that.
If you take a visit to the Amsterdam City Archives, you’ll find extensive records of how humans have lived throughout the city’s long history. Animals have lived right beside them all along, of course, but officially, the city doesn’t have much to show for it. For the most part, historical documents only catalog animals that were used for meat or fish sales.
“Now that the dog tax has been abolished, we don't even have data on how many dogs there are in the city,” says photographer Isabella Rozendaal. But man’s best friend can still be found all over the Dutch capital. Pets are as common here as perhaps anywhere else, but for Rozendaal, they make up a class of Amsterdam’s “unseen citizens.”
That’s why she set out to showcase the city’s non-human population, which she says is too often overlooked or sidelined. Training her lens on domesticated animals of all sorts, she began to document the pets of Amsterdam last year for a weekly feature in the newspaper Het Parool. Her captivating portraits will be available as a book in the U.S. starting August 31, and are also on display in the Amsterdam City Archives through September 3, bringing the long-awaited furry, feathery perspective to the halls of municipal record-keeping. Taken together, the collection highlights the ways in which the lives of Amsterdam’s animals surprisingly reflect those of the city’s human demographics.
The effects of gentrification, for instance, aren’t limited to the city’s human population. Among humans, the city’s transformation has pushed larger and lower-income households out of the city core. For animals, that coincides with a decreasing population of larger dogs, according to Jeroen Slot, a statistician at the city archive.
“As houses become more expensive, households are becoming smaller and a lot of people on lower incomes have left the city center,” he tells CityLab. “Wealthier people have arrived, including people from abroad who come for a year or two to work and don't bring their dogs with them. When you see a dog in the city center nowadays, it's typically a smaller, portable, dog, with the larger breeds only really found in the periphery.”
The loss for larger dogs is apparently cats’ gain. Smaller, better suited to apartment living and easier to leave alone all day, cats show no signs of losing their foothold in the city core. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Amsterdam, however, and cat owners are by no means exempt from the housing pressures faced by dog owners. In 2015, housing problems were reportedly the number two reason (after allergies) that San Francisco pet owners surrendered their animals to shelters. As city home sizes shrink and rents continue to rise, animals are only more likely to be at the receiving end of this kind of pressure.
As the wealthy capital of one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Amsterdam is still largely exempt from the severe problems facing animals in many cities even in Europe, where huge stray populations have necessitated the creation of mass spaying programs in cities like Bucharest. So what would the city be like if its relatively “unseen” animal citizens were given more attention? Rozendaal’s aim is simultaneously modest and important—to make pet owners and prospective pet owners think more carefully about the care and conditions that domestic animals need in order to thrive.
Below is a selection of the best images from her book, “Animalia Amsterdam,” highlighting some of the stories of the animals and owners they portray. While they’re attractive photos, Rozendaal’s final point having completed the project is actually quite sobering. Liking animals is by no means a reason to get one as a pet, and Amsterdam needs to take their welfare more seriously than it currently does.
“We need more foresight and thought put into getting a pet. When I talk to city officials, it's not even on their radar as an issue,” she says. “Almost everyone is surprised to learn that I don't have pets... but the more I see pets the more I'm inclined not to get one because I am so aware of how intense a commitment it is—10 to 20 years of being totally responsible for them every day of their lives. That's not a responsibility you should take lightly.”
Wilbur the Call Duck
This duck, owned by computer programmer and houseboat dweller Hannes, belongs to a breed with a somewhat dark history—at least if you’re a duck. Call ducks were domesticated fowl originally bred so as to attract wild ducks with their honking, luring them into traps or into range of hunter’s rifles. While these ducks have long been replaced in hunting by artificial whistles, Wilbur still lives something of a double life that reflects the breed’s history. By day he spends time with ducks that live wild on the canal, but invariably returns home to Hannes’s boat in the evening.
Dirkie, the Scottish Fold
This isn’t just any old alley cat. Dirkie, a fluffy, long-haired Scottish Fold cat, is that most contemporary kind of urbanite: an Instagram star. Dirkie’s combination of folded ears, huge eyes, and long piebald hair has earned him more than 7,000 followers—and according to Rozendaal, he has the kind of personality that thrives on his owner’s attention.
Corrie Camping and her Chihuahuas
Rozendaal was actually present at the birth of these Chihuahuas, owned by the father of an intern working on the project. “It wasn’t until photographing the birth that he told me he was also a drag performer, going by the name of Corrie Camping. I came back to take this shot eight weeks later, just before Ms. Camping was about to go onstage.”
Spekkie the Miniature Pig
The comfortable bond the Chihuahua and miniature pig show here apparently continues off camera, with the pair going on regular walks together. Rozendaal nonetheless cites the animals and as an example of how pets can demand far more care and attention than even conscientious owners are ready for.
"This family are animal lovers who have several dogs and cats (and a horse living elsewhere) as well as their pig. They underestimated what having a pig in their house would mean, however, and their house has been half destroyed. The pig gets along well with the other animals and humans, but without pig companionship they get bored. It has wrecked the kitchen cupboard doors, for example, and they have to have a lock on the refrigerator. They love the pig but last time I spoke to them they were considering putting it in a petting zoo to see if it might be happier there."
Joep the Mastif
The elaborate Medievalesque setting in which this dog is presented is all the more striking when you realise that the rest of the owner’s house is, according to Rozendaal, relatively normal.
“Since Roman times, Mastiffs have been used as war dogs trained to fight—at least that’s the story shared by many lovers of the breed, which I haven’t verified myself—and it’s possible that this dramatic setting is a tribute to that history.”
Pasha the Parakeet
This parakeet got in touch with its former life thanks to Rozendaal’s project. It landed on the shoulder of its current owner’s brother in a public square seven years ago, and wouldn’t fly away even when he rode home on his bike. Finding a home with the man’s sister, the bird’s original owners recognized it when it appeared in Het Parool—but wisely decided that it would be happiest staying in its current home.
Frank the Pug
Rozendaal describes Frank as a “real cautionary tale.” “Like many pugs, he has a lot of health problems—he's paralysed from the waist down, so he's wheeled around with his hind legs in a cart. He wears shoes to prevent his hind paws being grazed on the floor. Frank's owners told me the huge amounts of money she was spending at the vet just to keep him comfortable. She has actually warned everyone in her neighborhood, who love Frank as much as she does, not to get a pug themselves because of problems with the breed itself. They haven’t all paid attention, and now the neighborhood has other pugs that also have health problems.”
Dizzie the Greyhound
Excuse the graphic content, but anyone with a knowledge of Amsterdam’s recent history will know what an iconic image this is. As Jeroen Slot notes, the Dutch capital’s dog poop problem was once legendary.
“Until a few decades ago, the amount of dog poop on the street was citizens’ most commonly voiced complaint. It summarized people’s frustration with local government. Now that period is long passed, and the rattling sound of a wheeled suitcase is now has taken the place of dog poop as public enemy number one.”
While the problem has been dealt with by a combination of changing owners’ habits and better street cleaning, Rozendaal was nonetheless glad to catch a photo of an issue Amsterdammers would instantly recognize. You may be glad to hear that this greyhound’s owner cleaned up the mess within minutes.