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Pet Peeve : Owners Growl at Dog Ban in Parks, Beach, Promenade

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Santa Monica, the city dubbed “Soviet Monica” for its stringent rent-control laws and “home of the homeless” for its liberal treatment of the homeless, is not as kind to its four-legged residents. Dogs in this city are treated, well, a little like criminals.

Dogs--on or off a leash--are not allowed in Santa Monica parks, beaches, schoolyards or on the Third Street Promenade. Dog owners here who try to take Fido for a romp will find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

A case in point is Zoe, who, along with owners Karen Brooks and Fred Spencer, started the year off as a transgressor. On New Year’s Day, the couple went out with their Akita for some doggie/owner quality time at Los Amigos Park. Aware that dogs are verboten , but thinking that enforcement might be overlooked on the holiday, they unleashed their dog for a romp after glancing around furtively for animal-control officers.

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Within minutes, Brooks said, an animal-control officer appeared and cited them for having the dog in the park and sans license. (The dog was licensed, but the tag had fallen off.) The couple said the officer gave them a ticket and threatened to impound their license-less dog.

Brooks and others have gotten numerous tickets for that same infraction.

The penalty for having a dog in the park, on or off the leash, is $27. The penalty for not picking up dog excrement is $50. Mike Dennis, the city’s finance director, said there are no records on how much revenue the city garners from dog-owning scofflaws.

The ordinance was enacted more than 30 years ago, said John Sanchez, supervising officer of Santa Monica Animal Control, so that park maintenance workers wouldn’t have to pick up after residents whose dogs foul the parks. “It’s very unhealthy for kids to play in an area where there is dog excrement,” he said.

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For about three years, there has been an informal doggie lobby in Santa Monica, campaigning to see that every Santa Monica dog has its day. About 175 people have signed a petition asking for a dog park or designated off-leash hours.

They complain that the city has no place for free-spirited, untethered canines, except for a 21-by-230-foot gravel run in Memorial Park. Most dog owners complain that the park is too small, unpleasant to the paw and aesthetically displeasing, all antitheses to the reasons one takes a dog to the park in the first place.

Being able to lawfully walk dogs on a leash in all 23 Santa Monica parks would be fine, Brooks said, but “what we’d really like is a park with designated hours for dogs off the leash. People are willing to pay another 50 cents to $1 on licenses or to pay for the cost of a program like this. People are also willing to put time into it, clean up after other dogs or devote time to monitoring the park.”

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Brooks has been posting signs reading “Dog Owners Unite” around Ocean Park and hopes to gather a formidable force out of the more than 5,000 licensed dog owners in the city.

Until now, activists say, the city has treated them, at best, dismissively.

Brooks and others have written to the City Council about the issue but say they are getting nowhere. They say they have requested copies of a study launched by the city Recreation and Parks Commission more than a year ago that examined whether to lift some of the restrictions. But Brooks said no copies have been sent out.

Susan McCarthy, director of the city’s Cultural and Recreation Services agency, said that the study was done but that nothing conclusive came of it.

Recently, dog lovers seem to have found an ally in Mayor Judy Abdo, who has promised to have Cultural and Recreational Services look into the problem in March.

Abdo, a dog owner, said: “I think there should be a dog park, and other council members think so too. I don’t want my dog to be an outlaw. The people I know who take their dogs to parks are very responsible about it and pick up after their dogs and keep their dogs under control because they don’t want to lose the privilege.

“When we have a community with so many apartments and condominiums and people who enjoy dogs, it’s imperative we find a way that dogs can be in parks legally. Our gravel dog run is an example of people not caring what dog owners wanted. It’s embarrassing.”

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Abdo said the city hasn’t really done much about a dog park in the past because “staff hasn’t been real responsive and it’s more work.” The forthcoming study will analyze dog parks that have been successful in other cities, Abdo said. Dog parks have been successful in such cities as Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, Laguna and Mission Viejo.

But McCarthy, who will be in charge of the study, said the dog advocates could meet some stiff resistance. “We have limited park space and a lot of residents are concerned about dog excrement. I just got a letter from a gentleman who asked if we could restrict dogs further. Finding a balance where dog owners and non-dog owner residents’ needs are met is difficult.”

Dog owners counter that if there are worries about dog excrement, are there not equal worries about human excrement left in the parks by homeless people? And who are the parks meant for, anyway? Homeless anti-encampment laws are largely not enforced or prosecuted, leaving the parks open to a myriad of unsavory activities, they say.

Mary Howard, who with golden retriever Sam lives next to Hodgkiss Park at 5th Street and Strand Avenue, complains that dog owners receive unequal treatment by the city.

“Transients use the park for drug dealing, prostitution and fornication in broad daylight,” said Howard, adding that she would not walk through the park without her dog unless she was foolish.

“They use the back of my house as a bathroom. I rake it out into the park. Who cleans it up? They urinate in my bushes,” she said. “The city has selective enforcement. If they cite transients, they have no address and they don’t prosecute them. I am a taxpaying resident, walk my dog in the park, get a ticket, and they know where I live and how to find me.

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“But a dog in the park affects the community a lot less than 10 guys smoking, drinking and selling crack, making it unsafe to bring children into the park.”

Even Sanchez appears to be amenable to allowing dogs in the park. “As far as I’m concerned, if a law is passed allowing dogs in the park, it’s just one less thing I have to do.”

But Jim Kelley, one of five members of a group called Friends of Jocelyn Park, said people who have come to his group’s meetings have been opposed to making the neighborhood park into a dog park.

“I don’t think that dog owners would take responsibility for cleaning up after their dogs,” Kelley said. “I was in favor of restricted off-hours at night for dogs. One of the arguments made by people who came to our meetings was, should the parks be for children or dogs?”

In the meantime, many dog owners are flouting the law in the dark of night to give their pooches a roll in the grass, an open run and a chance for inter-species socialization. But a group that used to meet informally in Los Amigos Park after 10 p.m. each night gave up the habit after animal control carried out a “dog sweep” in August.

As the perpetrators tell it, it was reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Half the dogs and their owners ran one way and half the other way. No one got a ticket that night, but they haven’t reconvened since. Most dog owners say that the life of the lawless isn’t pretty, but Fido’s well-being far outweighs the cost.

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Some see it as a form of civil disobedience. As one dog owner, who put on a bandanna for a photographer, put it: “I am an outlaw of animal control.”

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