Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Letter to ABC News

Below is a letter that we just sent to ABC News regarding a story on their website:

Committee for Responsible Dog Ownership
Brooklyn, NY 11218

May 14, 2007

News Room
Eyewitness News
Via email: eyewitnessnews@abc.com

Re: "Rules released for dogs off leash at parks"

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am writing with regard to the above-referenced news story, which appears online and presumably aired last Thursday. We are an advocacy group dedicated to assuring proper conduct by dog owners. Currently, that mostly means fighting the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s ill-advised policy, which has turned large portions of the parks into unfenced dog runs.

This “news story” of yours is shocking in that it is nothing more than an unattributed copy of the DOPR press release. And the DOPR is, unfortunately, not a neutral party; it has turned into an advocacy group for off-leash interests. Here are some of the problems with your “story”:

1. “The successful ‘courtesy hours’ policy.” Commissioner Benepe call it “successful”, and in doing so merely adopted, verbatim, propaganda issued by the main off-leash advocacy group, the New York Council of Dog Owners Groups, or NYCDOG. But “successful” in what sense? Certainly, the policy has increased the number of unleashed dogs in the parks—all over the parks, by the way, not merely in the areas subject to the ‘courtesy hours’ policy—but is that all that one must look at? It has resulted in increased conflicts with on-leash dog owners and other park users. In fact, it was a mauling by an unleashed dog that caused the Juniper Park Civic Association to sue the City, ultimately unsuccessfully, to enforce the leash law, and it was that lawsuit—not the success of the policy—that caused the City to codify this “policy”. We do not believe that Commissioner Benepe has asked anyone besides off-leash owners whether they regard this policy as “successful”. Have you?

2. “The designated areas are listed on the Parks website.” Actually, they are not, as your reporter could have found out by checking the website. The website lists only the parks that have designated areas. My call to the DOPR’s general counsel’s office revealed that to find out which are the designated areas, you have to call the particular park. Eventually, the DOPR plans to upload a GIS map of the parks showing the designated areas, but that’s not going to happen until the end of June, if then.

3. Dogs may be off-leash “with proof of current . . . license information.” That is indeed what the new regulations say. The question is whether, and how, the DOPR will enforce it. According to an article in the October 2, 2005 New York Times entitled "Dog-Waste Management", in 2003, the last year for which information is available, 102,004 dogs were licensed out of an estimated dog population of one million. Many, if not most, of those who take advantage of the off-leash hours in Prospect Park keep their dogs off-leash even outside the off-leash areas, i.e., they are not exactly rule-bound. What percentage of the off-leash dogs do you think are licensed? Also, in 2003, 68 (sixty-eight) summonses were issued for unlicensed dogs. There are currently six (6) PEP agents in all of Prospect Park during the entire time Prospect Park is open. When I called last week, I was told that no PEP agents were on duty until 9 A.M., i.e., the agents don’t come onto duty until the off-leash hours are over. How likely do you think it is that any PEP agents will be assigned to check dog licenses in off-leash areas?

4. “Over the past 20-years” That is a figure concocted by the off-leash people and recently adopted by Commissioner Benepe. It is demonstrably false. The Notice of Adoption of the Board of Health regulations, that permitted the DOPR to change its regulations to permit off-leash dogs, asserted that the courtesy hours policy began “in the 1990s.” But there is really no evidence of the existence of any “policy” before the late 1990s at the earliest. Moreover, the “policy” seems to have evolved, more by default than anything else. According to a former Brooklyn resident who is not exactly neutral in these matters (he rarely leashed his dog), in the mid to late 1990s dogs were “allowed” off-leash in Prospect Park on weekends—only—and even then official NYPD policy was that they were entitled to enforce the leash law and issue summonses any time they wanted to. And periodically the NYPD would crack down. But, this former Brooklynite said, when the NYPD did, someone would call Tupper Thomas, the Prospect Park administrator and a major off-leash advocate, to “get the cops in line”.

5. “This policy has kept parks and neighborhoods safer.” This is pure nonsense. Yes, crime has gone down dramatically in the City—and the parks—over the past 20 years. But this decline has occurred across the City, in all parts of the parks, and at all hours. Why attribute any of that decline to an unofficial and unpublicized “policy” that was limited to parks—and only parts of them—and at most to weekends or a few hours each day?

6. “In some areas, dogs are prohibited at all times . . . .” Remarkably, these areas don’t included “Forever Wild” areas, areas that the DOPR has classified has environmentally sensitive nature preserves. In fact, in Prospect Park—and I believe there are other examples—one of the off-leash areas is in the middle of one of the “Forever Wild” areas and a prime feeding area for birds, when they can get to it. New York City must be one of the only places in the world to allow unleashed dogs in nature preserves. If one goes to these areas when the weather is bad, one sees many, many birds feeding on the ground. These are often migratory birds, which use New York’s park to “fuel up” in the middle of their long journey. Prime feeding time for birds is in the early morning, up to about 9 A.M. And when the dogs are there, the birds are not.

7. “Allowed owners to exercise and socialize their dogs.” Why should the burden of this be borne by non-dog owners and by dog-owners who do not let their dogs off-leash in public?

8. “Parks with a dog run . . . usually do not also have off-leash areas.” Both Central Park—the crown jewel of the parks system— and Riverside Park have both, and I believe there are other examples. Have you checked? And have you thought why a park needs BOTH a fenced dog run and what amounts to an unfenced dog run?

9. “Allowing responsible dog owners to exercise their dogs is good for the community. . . . Codifying [the policy] was a long process that encouraged community input . . . .” The policy is good for off-leash dog owners, maybe. It essentially prevents anyone else—including birders, strollers, joggers, people who sleep in the park, anyone—from entering large swaths of the City’s parks until 9 A.M. In Prospect Park, for example, the “courtesy hours” areas comprise the entire open area of the park—one third of the entire park—and these areas effectively block off other areas unless one is willing to run the gauntlet of unleashed dogs.

To our knowledge, no community organization other than off-leash groups was ever consulted by the DOPR in adopting these courtesy hours to begin with, and the regulations process was as unpublicized as it could be within the law. It received no broadcast coverage on the networks and virtually no coverage by the City’s major newspapers—for example, it merited not a single news article in the New York Times. The only reputable poll that I know of—not one conducted online—showed that the vast majority of the public want dogs on-leash in the parks all of the time. There hasn’t been a public reaction yet simply because most of the public doesn’t know about these rules.

We believe that there is a story for you here. Have your reporter analyze the DOPR press release critically; I’m sure he’s trained to ask penetrating questions. Send your reporter--with a cameraperson--to Prospect Park’s Nethermead, and the Peninsula and Long Meadow, on Saturday or Sunday morning. Talk to people on the fringes, people without dogs, people like birders. Walk the pathways around these areas, pathways where dogs are supposed to be leashed, and see how many are. Watch the dogs in the water as they chase the waterfowl. Stroll through the Midwood—another nature preserve—and see how many offleash dogs are tromping through the underbrush. Come back to these places after off-leash hours and ask the people who are there what they think about dogs urinating and defecating just where’s they’re standing. Ask some of the joggers what they think of unleashed dogs in the park. And ask some of the dog owners whether their dogs are licensed. Visit the Central Park Ramble, which is clearly off-limits to unleashed dogs, and count the unleashed dogs there. Come to Prospect Park one morning during the week, see how many dogs are there, see just how big the area is for unleashed dogs, and decide for yourself whether such a vast area is justified—if any off-leash activity in the parks is justifiable at all. And visit Juniper Park in Queens and see just how clean the off-leash people keep it.

Another part of the story might well be how a small group of well-financed and well-organized individual succeeded, largely by deliberately and persistently violating a law, in getting that law changed with no discernable benefit for anyone else.

While you’re at it, you might want to compare the ethnic makeup of the off-leash owners with the ethnic makeup of other park users—particularly in Prospect Park, but I suspect in other parks as well. That may be a story in itself.

These rules went through solely because the off-leash lobby is well-organized and well-financed, and the public is generally ignorant and passive. We are working to change that, and ultimately plan to challenge these rules in court if we cannot get them repealed some other way. But we realize it will not be easy.

For further information, contact me or see our website, http://credo-ny.blogspot.com/

If you would like company on your visit to a park, one of our members would be happy to guide you around.