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A brutal dog attack in Nob Hill has revived the city's battle over canine control. Here's why it's going to get worse.

Wednesday, Jan 20 2010

On the evening of Nov. 11, 2009, two San Francisco police officers found 74-year-old Marion Cope sitting on the ground in Huntington Park, clutching her bleeding right leg. The officers had responded to a call about a dog attack at the small patch of public land, which sits in the shadows of three historic luxury hotels atop exclusive Nob Hill. They discovered that Cope had suffered a 10-inch gash to her calf, leaving an unsightly flap of skin and subcutaneous fat hanging from her leg.

She explained to police that she had been walking her Irish terrier, Clancy, a former champion showdog, on a leash past the park's north side. After stopping to deposit a bag of the animal's feces in a trash can at the corner of Sacramento and Taylor streets, Cope and Clancy found themselves set upon by four off-leash dogs. Interceding to protect her dog, she was knocked off her feet. Sometime during this encounter, according to police investigators, her leg was torn open by one of the canine aggressors.

"I saved my dog's life, and I got ripped up in the process," Cope recalled. "Mauled. A huge, huge mauling."

Cope is no ordinary woman, and Huntington Park is no ordinary square of grass. The widow of Newton Cope, the proprietor of the swanky Huntington Hotel — both park and building take their name from 19th-century railroad baron Collis Potter Huntington — she is a member of the wealthy and influential Nob Hill Association, which has been battling with dog owners who run their pets off-leash in the park. Free-roaming mutts are technically banned there, and the Cope incident provided the anti-off-leash-dog faction with a bloody shirt to wave.

That cause was buttressed by a similar incident in the park, less than a year earlier, in which a 66-year-old woman told police that she was knocked to the ground by a group of eight to 10 dogs. Further aggravating tensions was the fact that dog advocates had lobbied for — and apparently achieved — a reduced level of leash enforcement by Rec and Park rangers in the months prior to the attack on Cope.

"I grew up in the country, where we had a lot of trains, and with trains you have a lot of railroad crossings," Stephen Patton, a real-estate agent who chairs the Nob Hill Association's Huntington Park Committee, told the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission at a public meeting on Dec. 3, shortly after SF Weekly first reported the Cope incident on its news blog. "A lot of those crossings were often known to be extremely dangerous, but nothing was done about that danger until a train struck somebody and killed them, and then the county would address it. I'm here because we've had two train wrecks, unfortunately, in Huntington Park. Thank goodness both victims survived."

Off-leash dog advocates, a perennially battle-ready special interest in San Francisco, also seized on the incident, hoping to forestall a sudden crackdown by park rangers throughout the city. "We've been very quiet recently, and I think this may be one of the things that makes it louder," Sally Stephens, chairwoman of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group (SFDOG), told SF Weekly. "This whole call for enforcement is like a kick to the sleeping dog."

To anyone familiar with the outsize role domestic animals have played in San Francisco's modern civic life, the Cope affair may seem like old hat, the latest in a series of inconclusive leash-law tempests — often referred to as the San Francisco "dog wars" — that stretches back at least a decade. In fact, while the incident was a particularly dramatic headline-grabber, it was also a prelude to imminent shifts in leash policy of more lasting significance.

This summer, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), a federal park that oversees much of S.F.'s pet-friendly public land, plans to release a series of proposed revisions to its canine rules. Off-leash advocates say they expect a drastic curtailing of access, a move that would fit with the National Park Service's increased focus on conservation and wilderness restoration in its Bay Area holdings in recent years. Stephens estimates that tens of thousands of dogs are walked in the GGNRA on a given day, and that these animals could create an unmanageable strain on San Francisco's roughly 200 parks and 22 legal off-leash dog areas. "Suddenly, in parks that have had a very low level of conflict, it's going to be hitting the fan everywhere," she predicted.

The new dog-management plan could prove a spark to the powder-keg of San Francisco pooch politics, ending an uneasy détente that has held among partisans for the past several years. If so, get ready: The next dog war is on its way.

At 5 on an already dark December evening, Board of Supervisors president David Chiu exited a four-hour session of the board's Land Use and Economic Development Committee and retreated across the second floor of City Hall to his office. The Harvard-educated Internet entrepreneur and former criminal prosecutor was personable and polished as he settled into the chair behind his desk for an interview with a reporter. He showed no sign of fatigue from the year-end legislative rush and ongoing city budget crisis. But when the subject of dogs in Huntington Park was broached, he allowed himself a pained smile. "It's not that different from any other issue in San Francisco," Chiu said.

He paused. "Well, I shouldn't say that. It is different. It's the incredible intensity of each perspective, and I'm just trying to find the common ground in between. So far, no luck."

Last year, in response to concerns from a constituent about inadequate enforcement of leash laws at Huntington Park, which is within his district, Chiu asked newly appointed Recreation and Park Department general manager Phil Ginsburg — a former chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom — to consider stepping up park rangers' presence in the area. Then, after a flood of complaints from the off-leash dog crowd about overzealous patrols, Chiu again got in touch with Ginsburg, suggesting he scale back enforcement.

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Peter Jamison


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