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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Canine Celebrities

In days long ago, San Francisco had a horrific stray dog problem as hordes of scrapping, feral mutts roamed the city unrestrained. Most were routinely rounded up and exterminated, but there was one pair that the entire citizenry rooted for, because the city was also infested with rats, and these two were superb ratters to whom the Board of Supervisors had granted immunity from the pound-master. Their names were Bummer and Lazarus.

It was the 1860s, when the city was young, gold was plentiful, and San Franciscans were enraptured by the Fat Boy of Maguire’s Opera-house and the eccentrics who lived among them, such as self-proclaimed Emperor Norton (bankrupted merchant Joshua Norton) and “George Washington Coombs” (Frederick Coombs, who believed himself the re-incarnation of George Washington). Like their colorful human counterparts, stories of the two dogs frequented the city newspapers.

Bummer was there first. Described in the press as an ungainly cross between a Scotch terrier, a black- and-tan, and a Japanese snub-nosed Poodle, he had one wall-eye and his ears had been cropped off by an amateur, who had cut one shorter than the other. Ned Knight, a reporter for the local newspapers, brought him to town after a trip to Petaluma. Knight named him Bummer, although soon enough Knight’s new pet asserted his independence. The name was appropriate, for the dog bummed his way through the town without fear or favor. At meal times he was always there on Merchant Street, and the shop owners there never opened their rat traps until Bummer came.

By and by another mongrel appeared on the canine lunch circuit, a sleek, half-starved animal that was part hound, part terrier, and a good many parts of several other breeds. The newcomer, another vagrant, showed up one morning and made a splendid haul of the opened rat traps, but life on the streets was always fraught with danger; and one day Bummer rescued him from a fight with a larger canine opponent. The new dog was badly injured, and not expected to live. But Bummer licked his wounds, brought back scraps from his own foraging, coaxed him to eat, and huddled next to him to keep him warm at night. The injured dog’s remarkable recovery earned him the Biblical name Lazarus, and he and Bummer became inseparable friends. As a team they proved to be exceptional, once finishing off 85 rats in 20 minutes.

One day Bummer was seen to be missing from Lazarus’s side. By following Lazarus, men found Bummer, sick, and Lazarus acting as his nurse, carrying scraps to his friend and caring for him.

Then on an October night in 1863, some brute poisoned Lazarus. He was found dead on Sansome Street; it was reported that Bummer was inconsolable, walking the pavement of Montgomery Street for hours. Bummer survived his friend only a few more months before a drunk brutally kicked him down the steps of a building, so hard that he died of his injuries in a few days. Bummer’s killer was arrested and fined $25.00 (a significant amount in the 1860s) for cruelty to animals.

Thirty-some years later, San Franciscans still remembered the legendary friendship of the once-famous canines Bummer and Lazarus. Both animals’ bodies had been preserved by taxidermists, and now were taken for exhibition in the California State Building at the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago.

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