Unleashed

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.

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.

Dog owners at Huntington Park were cheered to see regular ranger patrols disappear almost overnight in the wake of a July meeting with Chiu and the supervisor's subsequent contact with Ginsburg. Several months later, in this dog-friendly atmosphere, Cope was attacked.

Leash-law advocate Andrea O’Leary often cleans up after dogs at Sunnyside Park.
Frank Gaglione
Leash-law advocate Andrea O’Leary often cleans up after dogs at Sunnyside Park.
Martha Walters, pictured with companions Grace and Space at Crissy Field, fears a curtailing of dog access to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Frank Gaglione
Martha Walters, pictured with companions Grace and Space at Crissy Field, fears a curtailing of dog access to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

In the first year of his first term, Chiu had made what more experienced pols might consider a rookie mistake. He had tried to use the power of his office to make some sense of the Dog Issue.

Conflicts among dog owners inclined to run their pets off-leash in public areas and those averse to such activity — environmental activists, native-plant buffs, older people, families with young children — erupted in the late 1990s, and have flared up periodically since then. Early in the last decade, when municipal and federal park officials revisited their policies with an eye to making leash laws stricter, the seemingly pedestrian question of pet control led to reams of hotly contested legislation and rancorous public meetings that were literally attended by thousands.

Several characteristics of the city make it rife for scorched-earth warfare over such a seemingly minor issue. Start with the unusually large number of household pets. Dog advocates estimate the canine population at close to 150,000; by contrast, the most recent Census figures indicate that there are only 102,000 children in San Francisco under the age of 15. Add to that a progressive political mentality that takes a generous view of animal rights, as well as a history of do-as-you-please scofflawism that traces its lineage back through the days of the Summer of Love and the Barbary Coast.

"Because San Francisco is generally a wealthier city, with fewer crushing social problems, people have more time to agitate around issues that are not life-or-death," said Michael Schaffer, a former Philadelphia Enquirer reporter whose 2009 book, One Nation Under Dog, includes an entire chapter on San Francisco's dog-park debates.

In his book, Schaffer observes the many ways in which the local argument over leash laws has been inflamed by rhetoric normally reserved for heftier political causes. Bumper stickers reading, "I HAVE A DOG ... AND I VOTE" abound in the city, he notes, and one pro-dog group, on its Web site, displays a firebrand quotation from Thomas Jefferson next to an image of pooches at play — "When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the people there is liberty."

Yet he cautioned against viewing the Dog Issue as an only-in-San-Francisco excess of left-wing politics. "I actually thought it was a case of California trend-setting for the rest of the country," Schaffer said. "There was a big to-do about leash laws in a park right here in dowdy old Philadelphia, which is never made fun of as a liberal paradise."

While the city's dog lovers are often cast by opponents as hysterical and uncompromising, advocates of strictly enforced leash laws can be just as passionate. One such partisan, Miraloma Park resident Andrea O'Leary, recently met with a reporter at Sunnyside Park, a terraced recreational area on the slopes of Mount Davidson where most off-leash dogs were expelled after a renovation that was completed in 2007. "I can't tell you how many dog feces I've had thrown in my yard, and nails in my tires, and threats on my life," said O'Leary, who believes off-leash dogs use her beloved park as a latrine and scare off small children. "I come down here every day to pick up dog shit and trash and everything else," she said, adding that many dog owners in her neighborhood are "relentless, intimidating bullies."

The park is no longer the site of frequent dog-war skirmishes, but O'Leary continues to follow debates over leash law across the city. One seemingly moderate idea floated by the pro-dog lobby is the notion of "timed use" — allowing pets to run off-leash in parks for a certain part of each day, just as seniors enjoy a few hours when they alone can swim at municipal pools. When O'Leary was asked about this proposal, some of the old fighting spirit showed, opening a window on the all-or-nothing, sometimes-irrational approach to dog politics that to date has made the question of leash laws insoluble.

"Now they want to force down our throats this mixed-use thing, which is probably going to happen over our dead bodies," she said. "I call it our children being the cheap weenie in the hot dog, where the dogs get the bread. They get the two ends, and the meaty part, and our kids are in the middle with the cheap meat. It's disgusting."


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