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Sounding off at First Run, New York City's first dog run.

Mahatma Gandhi said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its animals. But in New York, another criterion may be how people treat each other when disputes over animals arise. The most contentious of such disputes center around dog runs:

• When the city first began constructing a playground on 42nd Street, a group of dog owners who opposed it sent a letter to the mayor calling the playground a "frivolous, costly, and ultimately wasteful construction."

• When dog owners at the Washington Square run became suspicious that a common water bowl may have spread a viral infection among dogs, they called in a veterinarian to examine the bowl. A pro-bowl contingent hired their own vet for a second opinion.

• At a community board meeting, a resident compared dogs in Stuyvesant Park to packs of wild dingoes in Australia who have been known to attack humans. The audience booed him.

An article in Governing Magazine, which tracks trends in local government, cites dog regulations among the most rancorous issues cities face today - on the same level as taxes.

The limited amount of park space in New York makes dog runs a particularly difficult issue, according to former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who helped found the city's first one in 1990.

"It's simple," said Stern. "For dog owners, they are a pleasure. For others, they are a nuisance."

FIRST RUN

New York City's health code forbids animals from being off a leash, but for years dogs have been allowed to run free in certain parks. When incidents do occur - people or other dogs get bitten, flowers are dug up, or poop goes unscooped - the Parks Department or police often respond with a crackdown on leash law violators.

Following a series of complaints and a crack-down on free-range dogs in the early 1990's, former Commissioner Stern came up with a compromise that would allow for some off-leash hours at certain locations.

Thus the city's first dog run came into being - aptly named "First Run" - in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.

Today, there are 26 official dog runs in the city, according to the Parks Department. Central Park features some gathering places for dogs, but no official fenced-in runs.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn provides one of the largest and most lenient off leash areas in the city. But that's not enough for some Brooklynites. "There are many many owners who, for a variety of reasons, cannot let their dogs off leash in wide open spaces," writes Elizabeth Heeden, calling for an enclosed dog run in the park, on the Park Slope Gazette, one of Gotham Gazette's interactive community pages.

Proponents contend that in addition to creating a place for pets to play, dog runs are where New Yorkers can meet and build a sense of community. In this way, dog runs are not really about animals, according to Jeffrey Zahn of the New York Council of Dog Owners Group, which represents some 15,000 dog owners in the city; they are about people.

"A common mistake is that the issue is about the dog's rights, when it's not," said Zahn. "Dog owners are just one of many groups in the city competing for a limited amount of space."

Opponents counter that dog runs are a smelly, noisy, and poor use of the city's limited parkland.

"It's dusty, dirty, and they act like they own the place," said Laurel Harrington, a student who frequently studies in Washington Square Park. "I like dogs and they're cute, but of all of the things that happen in this park, the dogs are the only thing that makes it smell."

Even some dog owners are wary of dog runs because they fear for the safety of their pets. One of the most popular topics on the message boards of the website urbanhound.com, which touts itself as "the city dog's ultimate survival guide," is berating owners who cannot control their pets.

"Washington Square Dog Run has been getting too rough lately because of the people who either don't watch their dogs or correct bad behavior," one posting reads. "It's not always a safe place for small dogs to roam freely. I cannot risk my smallest dog's life there any longer."

Then there are those owners - who the responsible dog people argue give others a bad reputation - that ignore dog runs completely, because they do not think their companions should be fenced in.

In 1996, a woman was arrested in Central Park for letting her Bichons Frises, named Baby and Sugar, run off leash. After trying to run away, the woman, who was married to an Italian count, was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed to a bench for 45 minutes. "It's not like a herd of wild dogs," the countess reportedly said. "And even if it were it's not like they don't deserve a place to run."

CREATING A CANINE PARADISE

About a year ago, Olivia Lee had a seemingly simple goal: she wanted to start a dog run for her beagle-mutt Max.

So Lee, who had no experience in such a civic project, selected a rarely used handball court in a park on the corner of 35th Street and Second Avenue as her chosen spot. She founded a website, www.murrayhilldog.com and collected over 700 signatures of support. But when she took the idea to her local community board, Lee realized her battle was just beginning.

"One person said, `I don't know if you are new to the neighborhood, Missy, but your dog run is not going to happen,'" Lee recalled. "The person actually called me `Missy.'"

Gary Papush, of community board 6, said that the board always considers serious proposals, but that frankly the neighborhood is facing more pressing issues.

"If David Letterman did a top ten list of the major concerns of community board 6, dog runs wouldn't make the list," said Papush.

The encounter between Lee and her community board is a common, and by New York City standards, fairly tame example of the tensions that exist over dog runs. Getting just a few square feet of park space set aside for pets can take years, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a lot of political lobbying.

"It can take anywhere from six months to ten years to get a dog run," said Jeffrey Zahn of NYCDOG. "My advice is to keep a sense of humor and be patient."

Even though local community boards do not have the power to block a plan, they still often hold the key to whether a plan is approved or rejected. If a community board is in favor of a run, it has a much better chance of being approved by the Parks Department. (Click here for a step by step guide to starting a dog run.)

But it is not just founding a dog run that takes effort; it is maintaining one after it is approved. The city's dog runs operate like miniature governments with their own elected leaders, rules, and committees.

One of the most successful, and well respected, organizers in the city is Mary McInerney, who runs FIDO, the Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners.

Five years ago, many city parks began putting an end to off leash hours. Prospect Park in Brooklyn has no dog runs, and so McInerney approached Tupper Thomas, the administrator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and offered to self-police dog owners. Now each evening, hundreds of dogs and their people enjoy off-leash hours in several meadows. In return, the owners must abide by a strict set of rules including keeping their dogs under control, picking up waste, ensuring no holes are dug, and staying away from horses and ball fields. The fine for breaking any rule is $100.

McInerney's mission is not only to educate owners in "responsible supervision," but to be a kind of liaison to anti-dog New Yorkers.

"Some people are afraid," said McInerney. "A lot of people who live their lives in the city have had a limited experience with animals, whether it's dogs, cows, or ducks."

POWER TO THE PUPS

While dog owners may not enjoy the political power of real estate, labor unions, or racial voting blocs, dog owners do make their presence known in local politics.

In 2001, the New York Council of Dog Owners Groups (NYCDOG - pronounced "nice-dog") organized a rating system for local candidates to make sure they were educated on leash laws as well as rent regulations and tax policy.

Over 80 candidates responded - including three Democratic mayoral candidates Fernando Ferrer, Peter Vallone, and Mark Green. Michael Bloomberg received a rating of "In the Dog House" for his failure to answer.

At a recent forum on how to run for political office, West Side City Councilmember Gale Brewer spoke to a room of future candidates and told them that along with fundraising, organization, and a rolodex full of contacts, dog runs were an essential part of a successful campaign in New York City.

"I don't own a dog," said Brewer, "But I hit the dog runs so often that when the dog groups did their endorsements, I got four paws."


Do you have issues with dog runs in your neighborhood? Visit the Community Gazette homepage, find your neighborhood, and post a message under "COMMUNITY VIEWS – Ideas to Improve Your Neighborhood."


RELATED LINKS
• New York Pet Policies (Gotham Gazette)
• Urban Hound - City Dog Survival Guide
• Dog Lawyers
• Ratings of NYC'S Dog Runs
• New York Council of Dog Owner Groups
• Parks Department Dog Run Info
• Dog Licenses

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