Dogs will soon be barking up a tree in a Santa Monica park near you.
To the delight of more than 100 fervent dog fans--and one German shepherd named Heidi--in the audience, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday voted to allow a six-month trial romp in the park for Rover.
Starting Jan. 1, dogs on leashes will be allowed in all the city's parks, with portions of Marine and Joslyn parks set aside for untethered dogs.
The vote reverses a decades-long policy in which dogs have been canes non grati in the city's parks, mostly because of their tendency to leave a little something of themselves behind.
In fact, much of the discussion Tuesday night centered around the ins and outs of doggie-doo. Owners brandished the plastic bags they use to clean up after their dogs and promised to use them religiously. A local pet store handed out coupons for 40% off on pooper-scoopers.
There was a discourse on how hard it would be for a small child to contract a disease from dog fecal matter (don't ask). And we shall also spare you a lesson from an intensive-care nurse on the fine art of picking up after a dog suffering from intestinal distress.
Since this was environmentally correct Santa Monica, portable toilets were suggested for the parks so owners could properly dispose of their dogs' leavings. (Putting the stuff in the trash could ultimately pollute the ground water; leaving it on the ground or street would pollute the storm runoff into the bay.)
Dog owners who leave their dog leavings in the grass will be subject to fines escalating from $100 for a first offense to $500 for recidivists.
The steep fines met with the approval of the dog owners at the hearing Tuesday night, even though they clearly believed the real crime was the longstanding discrimination against their pooches.
A parade of speakers took to the microphone to extol the virtues of their beloved pets. Many of them were members of the local dog lobby, Santa Monica Dog Owners Group (DOG), which has pushed energetically to break down the park barriers for the local canine crew.
"Studies have shown dog owners have longer life spans and fewer divorces," said David Warfield. "Dogs need to be healthy and need more space than sidewalks. . . . We owe them that much."
Speakers also broadcast their annoyance that the city known for respecting the rights of all God's creatures had long discriminated against the city's 5,000 licensed dogs.
"A dog is a human being," said Ruth Stemok. "Just because it doesn't talk, that doesn't mean it . . . doesn't have feelings. (Dogs) should have a right, and I want it done."
Then there were the dog scofflaws, who admitted routinely flouting the ban on dogs in parks. "I'm tired of skulking around the city like a criminal because I have a dog," said Callie Warfield.
Naturally, politicians had to have their say too. State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) sent a letter saying the dog ban is "outrageous. . . . They should be allowed to enjoy the splendid outdoors with the rest of us."
Many dog owners, alluding or referring to the homeless people who occupy many parks, noted that they wouldn't dream of going into a local park without their pet in tow. Moreover, they argued, their dogs couldn't make the parks any more unsavory than they already are.
"I don't think my dog can compete with the homeless poop (in the park)," said Donna Wilson. "And he doesn't sell drugs."
Even a former New Yorker said she was afraid to venture into the parks alone. "I've felt more unsafe in Santa Monica than living in Manhattan for four years," Debbie Lee said.
Many viewed the admission of dogs as a first step in luring the public back to parks, which have gained the reputation for being unsafe and overrun by groups of homeless people.
Though council members said they had received a substantial number of calls and letters from those who oppose allowing dogs in the park, dog aficionados clearly held sway at the hearing Tuesday night.
Those who did have the temerity to speak out against dogs in the parks did so at their own peril and in most cases only after waxing poetic about how much they loved dogs.
When one woman meekly said she was against the proposal, someone in the audience yelled out, "Go sit down."
Adam Blumenstein also took a chance by saying, "The attitude of all these people is similar to the attitude of people who smoke cigarettes" and falsely believe they have a constitutional right to impose their views on others.
"(Dogs) do have rights," hissed one woman, as Blumenstein walked by.
Among the least happy people in the room were seven homeowners whose back yards abut the Marine Park off-leash dog area, where pups will be free to roam from 6 to 9 a.m. and again from 6 to 10 p.m. daily.
Several of these residents pleaded with the council to imagine the barking marathon that will surely ensue when their own dogs are confronted by strange dogs on the other side of a chain-link fence.
"I work late; I need to rest," said Sue-Ann Schwabl. "If another dog walks by, you know how your dog acts."
The council approved the six-month trial, 5 to 2, emphasizing its temporary nature. Councilmen Robert T. Holbrook and Tony Vazquez opposed the plan, in part because, they said, the dog run in Marine Park would unfairly impinge on the neighbors.
In a flurry of motions, the council decided to restrict the off-leash parks to licensed Santa Monica dogs, but the rest of the parks will be open to dogs from other cities, just as they are to humans from other cities.
Mayor Judy Abdo said she took her dog to family picnics in Burbank parks. "She (the dog) was welcome in the park, and I would certainly want to reciprocate," Abdo said.
Councilman Kelly Olsen had the last word on the dog poop issue. It came as he questioned Jean Gennis, who brought her German shepherd, Heidi, with her to the podium to show that a dog can be well-behaved in public.
"Worse things have been done in this room than what your dog may do," Olsen quipped. "Sometimes by council members."