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.

The argument that leashing a dog limits the animal's freedom, Plater said, is "true, in the same way seatbelts are inhibitions on our freedom to drive, or wearing bicycle helmets is an inhibition on our freedom to ride bicycles." He continued, "This is always the case when we manage risks like this. The number of people who die in car accidents compared to the number of people who drive in cars every day is tiny. But we still think it's a risk that's important to manage. I think a similar kind of approach should be used in our regulation of dogs, if only for our dogs to remain safe."


From the perspective of city park users, the effects of a canine exodus from federal lands could be dramatic. The Recreation and Park Department has proved no more adept at crafting a coherent leash policy than the federal government.

The Dog Advisory Committee created by the Recreation and Park Commission managed to suggest new leash rules at only a small handful of city parks — not all the suggestions were actually implemented — before disbanding in 2007. Split among vociferous pro- and anti-dog factions, the committee, by most accounts, compiled a five-year record of dysfunction to rival that of the Iraqi Parliament. Sgt. Bill Herndon, head of the SFPD's Vicious and Dangerous Animals Unit, was a member; asked about the experience, he sighed and held an outstretched finger to his head. "Just shoot me."

Since then, things have not improved. The Cope incident was just one in a series of dog-related skirmishes indicating the tense state of San Francisco's municipal parks. In August 2008, Cynthia Smith, a Sunset District resident and podiatrist whose answering machine showcases a verbal exchange between herself and a canine interlocutor — "Park? You want to go to the park?" — had an acrimonious run-in with a ranger who wrote her a ticket for illegally walking two German shepherds off-leash in Golden Gate Park.

Smith filed a police report, asserting that the ranger had shoved her after she refused to sign the ticket, and a claim with the city attorney's office, which was denied. "They let the Gestapo investigate themselves, and of course found absolutely nothing," she told SF Weekly.

At Huntington Park, complaints about overzealous enforcement are also common. One neighborhood resident, Liz Mandel, claims that she and her curly-haired golden mutt, Kukur, have been subject to harassment over their reluctance to obey leash laws, including an incident in which they had to leap out of the way of a ranger's moving vehicle while crossing the street. "If you set up a volatile situation instead of a workable situation, you can't be surprised when it explodes," Mandel said.

She spoke while visiting Huntington Park with Kukur on a cold weeknight. It was the unofficial after-work play hour, and off-leash dogs teemed illegally across the center of the tiny park, causing a human visitor toting a video camera to carefully navigate toward its picturesque central fountain. "It's like having a big group of children, in a lot of ways," Mandel said. "Children need space to play."

As she talked, a placid golden pug in a black sweater padded up to her feet and stared upward, as though suddenly interested in the policy questions related to the surrounding playspace. A dachshund meandered by. Mandel hoisted him to shoulder level, displaying him to a reporter. "This is Dashi," she said. "He's a good boy." She addressed herself to the dog: "You're a good boy." Dashi stared back with dark, emotionless eyes.

Wendy Crittenden, another dog owner, engaged Kukur in conversation.

"What's happening, Kuk?"

The dog stared at her.

"Kukur, sit," Crittenden said.

Kukur stood.

"Kukur," Mandel chimed in. "Sit." When she pushed Kukur's rear end to the ground, he sat. Sort of.

Another visitor that evening was one of the four pooches implicated by police in the attack on Cope, a black-and-white terrier mix who goes by the name of Frank. His owner, a neighborhood resident named Lana Beckett, calmly offered a defense of her animal. Beckett was wrapped in a pink scarf to protect against the chill. Behind her rose the luminous façade of Grace Cathedral. Other sides of the park are bordered by the Pacific Union Club and the Mark Hopkins and Huntington hotels. A more lavish public setting for an animal attack is hard to imagine.

"I was there," Beckett said. "It was not a maiming. We were not pulling our dogs off of her. No dogs were showing teeth. ... I even stuck my nose in [Frank's] mouth to see if I could smell blood or something." (It is unclear which of the dogs that swarmed Cope actually bit her.) Beckett suggested that a reporter speak with Alex Julian, a doctor and dog owner who she said had administered first aid to Cope at the scene and "probably saved her life."

Julian eventually showed up, a former anesthesiologist smoking a Dunhill through a gold-tipped cigarette holder. With him was his fluffy white American Eskimo dog, Zoe, with whom he has been visiting the park for five and a half years.

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