Sunday, July 27, 2008

Running the dog

In looking through old writing, I ran across this letter I wrote to the city after receiving the second in a series of tickets. The topic of the letter is of less than earth shaking importance, but there are serious issues on the function of government and freedom versus order.

After writing the letter I did some research. I discovered that the level of injury and death caused by dogs is almost exactly the same as that resulting from baseball, and the most common victim in both cases is children. It also turns out that dogs are most likely to cause trouble in or near their homes and least likely to cause trouble in public places. In addition to normal animal control my city (through its Natural Resources department) spends on the order of a quarter million dollars a year enforcing leash laws. The leash law applies to all animals including cats, but there is a specific exemption for birds under voice control.

In the end, the city had its way. The fines double on every ticket and I could no longer shoulder the burden. I made some attempts to change the law, but could find no leverage point. I no longer spend much time at the park. Other dog owners have also been driven away. When I do go by the park the dogs are gone, and so are many of the people. I was genuinely surprised at how important the simple pleasure of running the dog at "my" park was to me, and how betrayed I felt at having local government stop me. When my dog running disappeared, so did my pride and sense of responsibility toward the city.

The Letter

This note is about a bad law that has been badly applied. On September 29, 2004 I received a ticket for having my dog off leash in Spring Creek Park (animal at large). This is my second ticket. Each ticket was issued by park rangers I had never seen before and have not seen since. Each of them said they had no discretion in issuing the ticket. The second ticket was issued in what looked like a concerted effort by the city to crack down on unleashed dogs in the park. There were at least two rangers, one of them driving a pickup truck through the park to make sure lawbreakers did not escape.

Over the past nine and a half years I have come to Spring Creek Park at least twice a day virtually every day: rain, snow or shine. I spend between ten minutes and half an hour at each visit. That makes about 7000 visits to the park or about 1400 hours. I think it is accurate to say that over the past ten years I have spent more time in Spring Creek Park than anyone else. Until receiving this latest ticket, it was my intention to create and publish a photo essay book showing daily views of the park over an entire year.

The purpose of those 7000 visits to the park has been to run my dog. She is an impeccably trained border collie. If you have ever been around a border collie, you know that they are active dogs that need to run. I have trained Josie to run laps around the ball fields. She is getting old now and has slowed down. In her prime she would routinely run 20 or so laps around the ball-field as a warm up. After the laps she generally has the energy to do other training exercises. Her record is 50 laps, or about eight miles, at a full run. I have taken her to the dog parks, but there is nothing there that can provide the flat out running that she both enjoys and needs. She is completely disinterested in other dogs and humans.

I stopped bringing a leash to the park years ago. I can honestly say that, in all our visits, not once has my dog been a danger to any person in the park. By training and temperament, Josie rarely acknowledges that there are people in the park. As a border collie, she is all business and her business is running in the patterns that I tell her to.

Josie is a fixture at the park. She is known by the workers and the neighbors. She is admired for her ability and her training. I have received countless compliments on this dog. The number of complaints can be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the rare occasion someone looks nervous or says something, I take Josie out of the park. Periodically, either in Spring Creek Park or in other parks, an animal control person will stop by and tell me about the law. Without exception, those folks have complimented me on Josie's obedience and asked me to take her out of the park. To make life easier for all of us, on those occasions I leave the area. One animal control person said they were responding to complaints about dogs in that particular park. He suggested other places where he would not be patrolling that day.

The animal control workers and the visitors to the park have understood something the city ordinance and the park rangers do not. My dog running in the park is an innocuous and safe activity that improves my life, the dog's life, and is largely a joy to other park visitors.

While I am at the park, I pick up more dog waste than Josie leaves. I collect and throw litter away. Every couple of years I find a stray that has wandered away from home. I track down the owners and return the dog. One time I found and returned a wallet that had been stolen from a truck in the neighborhood. The owner didn’t even know it was missing. When teens rolled one of the trash barrels out onto the frozen lake, strewing garbage along the way, I recruited a couple of fire-fighters from the next door station. We retrieved the trash barrel and picked up the garbage.

Of course, the fact that my dog is well behaved does not make the law bad nor does it excuse me as a lawbreaker. What makes the law bad is that it worsens rather than betters the community. I have spent a lot of time researching human behavior, particularly in cities. We know a lot about what makes good, vibrant communities. One of the most important factors is that neighbors know each other, are aware of their surroundings, and take responsibility for the community. Parks can be marvelous places, but many towns have the problem that their parks are dangerous, particularly in off-hours. One of the major differences between a safe park and a dangerous one is community use. Crime and trouble avoid public view. When good people are near and watching, trouble moves away.

Over the years it has been interesting to see how people use the park. Almost no one simply walks through the park enjoying it. People come because they have a reason. They do what they planned to do, then they leave. Parents who bring their kids to the park stay very close to the playground. The more adventurous will walk over to the ball field to play for a couple of minutes. Ball players stay on or next to the playing field. Walkers and runners tend to either walk in a straight line through the park or they travel the perimeter. Sunbathers invariably pick a spot away from these main uses. Except for dog runners, most of the park is simply unused other than as an attractive backdrop to the other activities. People with dogs off lead almost always stay away from other park users and run their dogs in the open, unused spaces.

I seem to be pretty typical of the people who take their dogs to Spring Creek Park. These are neighborhood people who care about the neighborhood and take care of the park. I know this because I see them every day. I see them talk with each other and pick up after themselves and others. Some of the dogs are on leash, most of them are not. The difference seems to be in the temperament of the owner and the dog. If someone has a dog that will not obey or is flighty, they will only take the dog off lead once or twice. The adventure of screaming at your dog while chasing it through the public park or nearby neighborhood is a powerful deterrent to letting untrained animals off lead. People with leashed dogs behave more like walkers. They move through the park rather than spend time in it.

I am sure the Parks Department receives complaints about dogs running wild through the park. Many people feel threatened by dogs on the loose and many people simply do not like the idea that others violate the law. If the city banned blue flowers, I am sure it would receive many calls about the law violators with blue flowers in their yards.

In terms of actual danger or harm, I cannot speak with authority because I do not have the figures. I can speak from my experience and observations. Fossil Creek Park just opened. It is a beautiful park and heartening in terms of its design. For some time parks have been dumbed down to make sure that no visitor can be injured. Fossil Creek Park seems to have very thoughtfully constructed play areas, but ones where the users must take responsibility for their actions. The skate park at Fossil Creek is marvelous and seems to be heavily used. Even without seeing the figures, I can guarantee that there are more injuries in that skate park in a single week than dogs have caused in Spring Creek Park in the past ten years. Of course there is a difference between me falling off my own skateboard and being accosted by a strange dog. One I control, the other I do not. Whenever a skateboarder lets his board fly and it hits someone else or a dog owner has a dog that is out of control, they should be held accountable. But control is the problem, not the activity.

The Parks Department is in an awkward position. There is a law on the books. Until the law is changed, they must either ticket the offenders or turn a blind eye. I would prefer that the law is changed, but this is an area where emotion runs high. Not many politicians will stick a neck out for a fight that will gain them nothing but animosity, regardless of the facts. We, unfortunately, live in a time where many areas of civil behavior have been written into law. Most of them are well intended, but many of them are violated routinely. If a policeman decided to ticket every lawbreaker he saw, he could never get to a violent crime scene. He would spend all his time ticketing speeders, jaywalkers, and litterers along the way. When laws are numerous they are, and always will be, selectively enforced. I suggest that the Park Rangers would be better employed by spending more time getting to know the neighbors who do the real policing in the parks and less time driving them away by ticketing them for harmless activities.

1 comment:

sf said...

I am sorry you are bitter, and don't think I think it without reason, but it was not Josie's fault and I think she suffered from the aftermath.