The Fight for Off-Leash Dog Parks
As I finally pay bills and do laundry and all the other life chores that my passion for “the dog park fight” has kept me from for months, I ask myself, “Was this ‘doggie debit’ worth it?” Sometimes I think, “Hmmm, wouldn’t a bunch of $250 fines have been a lot easier on my savings than putting my real estate career on hold and taking on this dog park crusade?” Then, I look down at my faithful Golden Retriever companion and I know the answer. In my rocking chair, I won’t remember the extra dollars I should have earned. It’s the many new dog friends, the huge accomplishment, and the feeling that I did the right thing that I will remember. That, no money can buy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having taken a 10-year break from dog ownership after my last furry companion passed away, I knew I now wanted a dog in my life again. I had heard that the Golden Retriever Rescue Association was in need of foster homes. Within two days of volunteering, the email came: a beautiful 10-month-old pup, abused and untrained, needed love and a place to stay. That was it. I drove to the shelter to pick him up and be his “foster mom,” later falling in love with him and becoming his “adopted mom.” And my life was changed forever.
The $250 ticket
“What do you mean, new dog fines?! $250?! We’ve been using this dog park for years, along with 500 other citydogs a week! This is our neighbourhood dog park—a safe place in our urban jungle to seek dog friends, exercise, socialization, and training tips, and for getting to know new neighbours. What do you mean you are going to fine us $250 for exercising our dogs here now?”
And there it began. With a ticket-dealing dog bylaw enforcement officer telling us that our beloved neighbourhood dog park was not an off-leash dog park during the day and I was to pay $250 for being there. Cody and I had found our first doggie activist adventure.
Things got a whole lot worse after that. I headed home in a fury and started my research with a Vancouver Parks Board elected official whose number I found in the phone book. His suggestion was: “Take your dog to the dog park and tie it to a tree if you don’t like the fines.”
That was it; I’d had it. At his abusive former home, Cody had been tied to a tree for eight months and, with the help of this neighbourhood dog park, I had just spent a year correcting the damage that had been done to him. I wasn’t about to give up our park quietly! We just couldn’t lose the freedom, enjoyment, exercise, and socialization that it gave us all. And that’s how the “all-out doggie war” began.
Money and votes
I quickly found out what was behind the city’s new dog policy: money and votes. The city wanted to please the “dog complainers” (it was an election year), and to raise funds to replace an old animal shelter. Instead of finding funding from general revenues, city staff created a Five-Year Strategic Plan for the Animal Control Department to be self-sustaining through some of the highest dog fines in North America.
The city of Calgary, Alberta, took a different approach to dog management, one that many cities have taken as their model. I flew to that city to interview the chief bylaw officer and tour their gorgeous Animal Services Center and dog parks. Calgary has achieved over 90 percent compliance in dog licensing for the city’s 90,000 dogs, which brings in over $3 million a year to cover their budget for their world-class dog facilities, including 300 dog parks.
Vancouver, unfortunately, tried to achieve the same results as Calgary without following its model. There was no planning for new off-leash parks, no encouragement for dog owners to license their dogs, no attempt at building a good relationship with dog owners. With over 75,000 dogs in Vancouver and less than 35 dog parks (and less than ten of them with fulltime hours), we knew we had a huge “dog fight” on our paws.
Fortunately, a civic election was coming up in a few months. We prepared to send a loud message to City Hall that there were a lot more dog-loving voters than they had accounted for. It would be the “dog fight of all dog fights” to teach our local politicians that dogs are important city citizens, too. And so our group name was born: Canine Citizens of Vancouver.
“I own a dog and I vote!”
Radio, TV, newspapers; we were everywhere! Cody and I saw every local radio station studio for months and were even on our local morning TV news several times. We did everything we could to get City Hall’s attention.
We staged a full-out dog rally with 200 dogs, and a picnic in the park for over 300 dogs. We held a fund raiser and blanket drive for the dog victims of Hurricane Katrina and organized a lecture by Dr. Stanley Coren, the wellknown dog researcher/writer, who happens to live here in Vancouver. We did every dog thing we could do.
City statistics showed that “only” some 20 percent of Vancouver tax payers were dog owners, and many of the city councilors thought that by passing 1000 percent dog fine increases, they would gain support among the other 80 percent. By our estimate, however, if you included all dog businesses and retailers, such as the hundreds of pet food stores, vets, dog walkers, doggie day cares, and every other dog-related service, dog-friendly voters totaled over 60 percent.
Our bumper stickers said it all: “I own a dog, AND I Vote!”
After months of hard work and devoting myself full-time to this fight, I was dog tired. We had hit a wall and nothing was being done. I almost gave up— until I realized what was really needed: a change in city council and the parks board.
Re-energized with my new found “puppy power,” I sought out the dogfriendly candidates and went to work on their election campaigns, while encouraging all dog park users to get out and vote. I even organized an allcandidates meeting.
Finally, our “small” dog park project actually became an election issue. WOW! It was then that I realized just how hard I had worked to gain this much visibility for our dogs. A large city like Vancouver, host to the 2010 Winter Olympics… and our dogs had become one of the most talked-about election topics! We all had to celebrate. It was “puppy champagne” in the dog park for everyone and lots of wet canine kisses.
A fair shake for dog owners
We couldn’t believe it when one of the mayoral candidates decided to call a press conference in our neighbourhood dog park a week before the election. It was a very tight race and he was looking for dog owner votes to give him the lead. Our message had finally been heard that we were a large voting base and that dogs vote, too, through their owners.
This candidate pledged, if elected, to make Vancouver “fun for dogs as well.” He promised to create more leash-optional areas and reduce the $250 fines to $125. In the exact dog park where months earlier our “dog park crusade” had started, and in front of all the TV cameras and radio and newspaper reporters, he said, “We think responsible dog owners need a fair shake.”
I knew then that I had made a difference for the thousands of dogs in our city. Cody got a big hug, and I shed some big doggie tears in a moment of deep accomplishment.
Well, those extra dog votes won that mayoral candidate’s campaign and the city’s most dog-friendly candidate was elected as Vancouver’s new mayor, along with all the dog-friendly city councilors and parks board commissioners for whom we had campaigned.
Now, our next doggie activist project will to be to collect on those election promises. You can bet Cody and I will be sniffing all over it!