Even Harvey Milk Couldn’t Solve the Great Duboce Park Dog War

The park once had a major dog poop issue, but now proves that long-sparring San Franciscans can find compromise.

A dog takes a break from playtime at Duboce Park’s off-leash area. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Step off the N-Judah at Duboce Park on the southern edge of Lower Haight on any given day and you’ll see groups of dogs frolicking in the grass alongside bookworms or people simply relaxing. It’s considered one of the city’s most dog-friendly parks, hosting the Tri-Pawed Dog Picnic and the annual DogFest benefit for nearby public school children. Across the way on Sanchez Street, the Duboce Park Cafe welcomes pups, too.

But this harmony between dog owners and regular park visitors is a relatively new phenomenon. The situation used to be comparatively tense:  People were known to start bitter arguments or even call the police on others for bringing off-leash furry friends that used the park as a bathroom. 

“It was really combative 15 to 20 years ago,” says David Troup, a longtime neighbor and Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association board member who sat on a working group to resolve the dog owner-regular human divide. “People were so angry at this issue that they would get up at a meeting and would be practically foaming at the mouth.”

Harvey Milk recognized how heated this made San Franciscans. The former supervisor famously “accidentally” stepped into dog poop during a 1978 press conference held at the park to announce legislation on the matter. The issue was city-wide, but feces-littered Duboce Park, established in 1900, served as the perfect poster child. What’s forever known as the “Pooper Scooper” law required dog owners to pick up their pet’s waste or face a fee.

It brought attention to the issue, but rogue dog poop kept making an appearance as Duboce Park’s users continued to let their pets run off-leash. The way Troup sees it, people tend to break all the rules when they know they’re breaking one.

So Troup decided it was time to change the rules. Then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty established a working group to sort out the differences and Troup joined around 2005, despite being constantly told that it couldn’t be resolved. As it had in the past, tensions ran high during the mid-2000s effort — some wanted dogs off-leash all over the park while others wanted dogs banned outright.

After months of community meetings, the working group reached a compromise. Part of the park was made off-leash but the sign signaled it was open to all and avoided a gated barrier so as not to attract professional dog walkers.

“It changed people’s mindset to where they started doing a better job,” says Troup, who formerly had a yellow Labrador retriever and shar-pei mix. “Dog lover or non-dog lover, nobody wants to step in poop.”

Troup is not surprised San Franciscans got this animated about a dog’s place in parks but is still surprised it took decades to find a solution. Today, he’s happy to say Duboce — like many city parks — is not the poop minefield it once was. A “cleanup culture” emerged from the 2008 renovations.

That one of San Francisco’s major issues was warring factions of dog owners and petless residents seems quaint amid this onslaught of displacement and homlessness. But Troup feels it serves as a “great example of how neighbors coming together can resolve old conflicts and make things better.”

“We have a lot of things that we fight over in this city. … If we just put our weapons down and come together and talked about it and recognize that everybody has a right to coexist or live their lives,” Troup says. “My interests are not more important than your interests. We don’t know all our neighbors, but we are all neighbors.”

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