Unleashing Their Power : Dog Owners Lobby for Right to Let Pets Run Free in Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The knot of people gathered in the West Los Angeles park chatted amiably in the waning sunshine, leashes in hand, as more than two dozen dogs raced and tumbled over each other on a carpet of grass.

When strangers approached on a recent afternoon, the dog owners eyed them warily: Were they animal control police come to ticket scofflaws flouting leash laws? They weren't, but it started them debating again--should they push to make it legal for their pooches to romp sans leash.

Claudia Harrington and her year-old Dalmatian don't have to worry about that anymore. On Saturday, her hometown of Santa Monica christened its first haven for untethered dogs at Memorial Park.

"This is a giant first step," the Santa Monica woman said approvingly, as Abercrombie bolted among more than 30 dogs in the rectangular 21-foot by 230-foot fenced run at the northwest corner of the park.

Until now, Santa Monica has banned even a leashed animal from setting paw to a blade of city grass or grain of city sand. But the opening of the dog run this weekend on a six-month trial basis, if successful, could lead the City Council to approve other such dog facilities.

The Memorial Park Dog Run, the first such legal off-leash area for pets on the Westside and only the second in the Los Angeles area, is proof of the growing clout of a determined new interest group: the canine lobby.

It began in Los Angeles at Laurel Canyon Park in the Hollywood Hills, where dogs were allowed off leash during certain hours of the day in 1988, after a bitter three-year-battle between dog owners and other neighbors.

Last July, Harrington's group, PAWS (Parks Are Worth Sharing) persuaded the Santa Monica City Council to consider the needs of people with dogs.

And despite some setbacks--as in Hermosa Beach, where voters last fall rejected a dog-park ballot initiative after a campaign dominated by debate over growth, public safety and dog droppings--the canine lobby is slowly marking wider territory, targeting parts of Woodley Park in Van Nuys and Griffith Park for free-ranging Fidos.

"Dog owners are becoming more organized and are starting to flex their muscles in the political arena," said Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, who turned the tide for the Laurel Canyon group, ParkWatch, becoming the first City Council member to endorse relaxing the city's leash laws for certain hours of the morning and evening.

The movement has hopscotched across Northern California, where at least half a dozen dog parks now exist in the Bay Area. It has spread to the Midwest, and even to the Big Apple, where dog owners are lobbying for a piece of mid-town Manhattan. Even city officials in San Clemente and Bloomington, Ind., have contacted groups such as ParkWatch for information.

Said Doris Richards, who led the successful fight for Berkeley's Ohlone Dog Park in 1979: "We've been forced into it because dogs--and people with dogs--are being discriminated against" in an ever more urbanized society.

As rolling hills and fields have given way to skyscrapers, condos, shopping malls and freeways, leash laws have been imposed by litigation-conscious public officials over the last four decades.

In Los Angeles alone, a city of 3 million people that has 15,098 acres of recreation land in 350 parks, only four acres so far have been set aside for people with dogs, pet owners say. Santa Monica's dog run adds only one-ninth of an acre to that total.

But that does not equal discrimination, Hermosa Beach City Councilman Chuck Sheldon insists heatedly. He also terms "ludicrous" dog owners' claims that since they, too, are taxpayers, they deserve as much consideration in park planning as Little Leaguers, swimmers, archers, bowlers and others.

"I cannot fathom the use of the word discrimination about requiring a dog to be leashed," said Sheldon, a dog owner who nonetheless voted to extend the city's leash law to a 21-acre strip of green along railroad tracks, where owners historically had taken their dogs to run.

"I don't see (that) a dog owner getting some prurient unique pleasure in watching their dog run free (compares with the enjoyment) a Little League or Pop Warner (football) player gets . . . out of parks," he said.

Sheldon noted that since all Hermosa Beach taxpayers are footing the $7.5-million bill for acquiring the 3-mile-long park, "It seems to me that (it) should be for the benefit and use of all the citizens."

"To have relegated (it) to dogs off leash would have diminished usage . . . to dog owners (who) are a substantial minority of Hermosa Beach citizens," he said. "There are only 1,000 dog licenses in the city and about 20,000 people."

There as elsewhere, those who oppose relaxing leash laws in parks say dogs, especially large or aggressive ones, can frighten children and be a nuisance to joggers and bicyclists. Inevitably, too, the discussion turns to the piles of droppings that dogs often leave behind.

Last fall, opponents who sought to end Laurel Canyon off-leash rules arrived at a hearing of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission bearing 35 pounds of the stuff, which they claimed to have gathered at the park. It was proof, they said, that ParkWatch members were not living up to their promise to clean up after less diligent dog owners.

Commissioners ordered them to leave with the offending sackful.

ParkWatch's Purse, a 77-year-old self-described "activist" for a variety of causes, said dog owners simply need education, which her group's 1,500 active members are more than willing to provide.

At Laurel Canyon Park, those who don't pick up their dogs' droppings or rein in their pets' aggressive behavior are shown proper methods. If they still don't observe the rules, they are shamed into complying or ostracized.

Just to make sure, though, a ParkWatch volunteer can be seen circling the four-acre park just below Mulholland Drive with an industrial grade scooper and sack. The group also funds 24-hour security patrols at a cost of $1,500 a year.

For Jennifer Wolch, a professor at USC's School of Urban Planning, parks such as Laurel Canyon show that dog owners as a social group have needs that were not designed to be met in an urban area. And, she added, maybe it is time for city planners to take their needs into account.

"Playing with your dog may not be a recognized sport, but it certainly is a popular pastime," she said. "A lot of people don't have kids, they have dogs. And spending time with their dogs and letting their dogs play in an unrestricted area is important."

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