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.

At 10 on a sunny winter morning at Crissy Field, a stretch of beachside property below the Presidio, the lapping blue waters of San Francisco Bay suffused the air with a lingering hiss. In the background, the rust-colored far arch of the Golden Gate Bridge cast a neatly etched shadow over the Marin Headlands. Dogs of all shapes and sizes charged gleefully through the surf, trailed by owners bearing club-shaped tennis ball launchers. Martha Walters, who trudged through the sand accompanied by her pets Grace and Space, clearly felt at home, speaking of dog access to this federally controlled property as though it were a patrimonial right. "Dogs have been coming here for 100 years or more," she said.

In a tightly packed city with a patchwork of small neighborhood parks, Crissy Field, like other parts of the GGNRA within San Francisco city limits — including Ocean Beach and Fort Funston — offers long, seemingly limitless tracts of seaside open space fit for four-legged roaming. "People want to go out and do stuff in life," said Walters, head of Crissy Field Dog, a group that lobbies for expanded dog access to the federal park. "They don't want to stay cloistered up." It didn't need mentioning that dogs would be by their side.

The appeal of these areas to dog owners isn't hard to see. What's less apparent is how unusual a dispensation they enjoy. Off-leash dogs are banned from all national parkland in accordance with federal regulations, and dog activists here have been vigilant for any sign that they could likewise be brought to heel. In 2008, for instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's proposal to change the park's name to Golden Gate National Parks — dropping the reference to recreation — stirred an outcry among pro-dog groups, who feared it could be a harbinger of future restrictions on canine play.

“It’s like having a big group of children,” says one dog owner who frequently visits Huntington Park (below), where Cope was attacked.
Frank Gaglione
“It’s like having a big group of children,” says one dog owner who frequently visits Huntington Park (below), where Cope was attacked.
Dog owner David Troup, left, and 
leash-law advocate Peter Cohen worked together to craft a compromise for canine rules at Duboce Park. Chino, center, has no complaints.
Frank Gaglione
Dog owner David Troup, left, and leash-law advocate Peter Cohen worked together to craft a compromise for canine rules at Duboce Park. Chino, center, has no complaints.

Now it looks as though such restrictions could be inevitable, and that's got Walters worried. "I can't speculate," she said grimly as she marched through the sand. But her best guess is that federal administrators are on the verge of closing down large, as-yet-undetermined sections of the park to off-leash dogs. "If you close down more areas here in the GGNRA, there will be a lot more pressure on city parks," Walters said.

It wouldn't be the first time federal dog-control efforts on the San Francisco peninsula had set the political cauldron to boil. Dogs' access to the GGNRA has persisted through a series of historical quirks. For decades, Park Service officials didn't properly enforce the federal rules, taking their cue instead from a 1979 policy produced by a Citizens Advisory Committee that permitted off-leash dogs.

In the 1990s, National Park Service officials first proposed banning off-leash dogs in some parts of the federal recreation area, a move that would have brought it in line with counterparts across the country. The resulting outcry surprised and puzzled those who didn't have a metaphorical dog in the fight. At a January 2001 meeting of a GGNRA advisory panel, thousands turned out — some stood outside in the rain — joining in a civil-rights-era–style chant of "No leashes!" Gavin Newsom, then a supervisor, played demagogue to this unruly crowd, threatening the federal government with expulsion from the peninsula if it did not relent on leash laws. Federal officials' efforts to ban off-leash dogs from some areas were eventually torpedoed in 2005 by a federal circuit court judge, who ruled that the Park Service had sought to change the law without following an appropriate process for collecting public input.

Now the agency's duly followed public process is at last coming to a close. GGNRA spokeswoman Chris Powell said that park officials hope to introduce a draft version of a new dog policy this summer. While declining to discuss details of the plan — which will be subject to public comment for 90 days once released — Powell hinted in an interview that the new regulations will likely take the park in a direction more nearly aligned with its national counterparts. That means less space for off-leash dogs. Maybe a lot less.

"There is a federal regulation in the National Park Service requiring dogs to be on leash," she said, with a note of weariness. "Many, many years ago Golden Gate erred by allowing dogs off-leash in the park, which caused quite a bit of confusion in the minds of dog walkers. It also caused, increasingly, complaints from other visitors in the parks. ... We did and do continue to still have bites in the park. We have reports of people being knocked down, dogs going down the cliffs at Fort Funston. Our staff put themselves in danger rescuing them." She added, "Those are all things we're going to address in the plan."

Many activists, particularly in the environmental community, have been pushing for such restrictions for years, arguing that uncontrolled dogs have harmed the park's remaining sectors of wild habitat. While no Yosemite, the GGNRA is more pristine than, say, Huntington Park, and portions of Crissy Field and Ocean Beach are already off-limits to leashless dogs out of respect for the snowy plover, a federally threatened species. Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute and owner of a Chihuahua-terrier mix, asserts that his fellow dog lovers have wrongly resisted the level of sensible regulation that applies to most other aspects of urban life.

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