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Saturday, June 10, 2023

As Bruce Baber walks four dogs down University Avenue, he listens to “This American Life” and tries not to think about his own.

He walks with the dog leashes in one hand and a red “Save Bruce” lawn sign in the other. The logo is also printed on his white shirt, a remnant of a neighborhood movement to save Baber’s dog-sitting business.

Since the Gainesville City Commission ruled in February that he was not allowed to run his dog-sitting business from his home, he’s been trying to make ends meet by walking the dogs he used to watch all day.

He gets $5 per dog for an hour-and-a-half walk, which he does a few times a day. However, it doesn’t meet his day-to-day needs.

“There’s not a lot of dogs to be walked,” he said.

He made $12 per dog, per day when he cared for them at his house. He made a very small profit back then. Now, he can’t break even.

“The dipping into the savings is kind of scary,” said Baber, 64. “I was planning on having that cushion.”

His life changed that February. No more dogs to care for. No more smiling faces charging at him when he opened the door. No more guard dogs to protect him from strangers and loneliness.

“It was extremely much too quiet and lonely at night,” he said.

But he said it’s getting better.

Now, he gets into his Mazda 5 minivan and drives house-to-house through neighborhoods collecting his customers’ dogs. He goes downtown with his canine companions panting out of every window to unload them for their walk.

Sometimes, he’ll lead them to a dog park where they’ll sprint and dig and play to their hearts’ content.

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“The dogs are getting a far less quality experience because they could’ve played with each other all day,” Baber said.

When he walks them, they line up side by side like sled dogs. They look back at him every so often with wide eyes and panting mouths as if to check that he’s still there. They look like they’re smiling.

He’s always been introverted and doesn’t like talking with people much, he said as Sadie, a fluffy goldendoodle, leaned her head on his leg.

“I just love dogs in general,” he said. “I just have a rapport with them.”

While they run around at a dog park on Main Street, a black dog, Abbey, stops and looks at Baber. He waves to her.

He said she’s his favorite right now, but, then again, she belongs to him. Baber adopted Abbey last week after being her foster father for four months.

She keeps him company at home and on his 15-mile weekend walks when he clears his mind of the stress that plagues him on a daily basis.

“Any anxiety I might have,” he said, “I get to walk off.”

He likes most of his neighbors, but there is one family he tries not to think about. Getting angry won’t solve anything.

The Gainesville Board of Adjustments initially approved his request for an exception to city code so he could keep his dog-sitting business.

Then, the neighborhood family — the Bowes — complained that the dogs were too loud.

They won, and Baber was out of business.

“I’m past the point of being angry,” Baber said. “I still have some resentment ... I try not to think about that now.”

Tuesday, he heard the best news he’s heard in a while. The Gainesville Community Development Committee is considering changing a city code to allow pet businesses. There would be restrictions on how many animals could be kept at once and the types of animals that could be kept for pay.

“It’s never going to be a real business situation,” Baber said. “It will be a making-ends-meet situation.”

But it would give him back the business he started in 1987, which he’s said is his life.

He said he’s optimistic that the commission will change the code.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins, who is chairman of the committee, said it would take at least six months. It could take longer.

He said he supports the code changes Baber’s attorney suggested, but some members of the committee aren’t behind the changes just yet.

At the last meeting in March, the committee decided to ask for some changes before they look at the proposal later this month.

Unlike with the February appeal, Hawkins said the Bowe family’s complaints probably will not be taken into account since they haven’t come to any of the the committee meetings.

The Bowe family could not be reached for comment.

Besides, Hawkins said, the rest of the neighborhood seems to believe that Baber is a neighborhood gem, not a nuisance.

Baber said after everything he’s been through, he’s happy things might take an upward turn.

“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride,” he said.

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