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July|August 2002
Dog Docket By Dashka Slater
Zero L By Ayo Griffin
Almost Homeless By Jonathan L. Hafetz
Bad Fences By Sari Bashi
Misquoting Madison By Michael Doyle
Blessing Sham Shelters By Sheldon D. Pollack

Dog Docket

By Dashka Slater

Every weekday at around 8 a.m., Carsten Allen and his two dogs, Roger and Beau Regard, come to the same stretch of San Francisco coastline and flout federal law. The scene of the crime is Baker Beach, just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The law they are breaking, Section 2.15(a)(2) of Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, requires pets to be leashed while on National Park Service land. Allen believes the law is wrong, at least for the parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—Baker Beach and Fort Funston—where for generations he and other dog owners have allowed their hounds to run free. Today, as he ambles over the sand, a lanky figure with a broad stride and a boyish smile, he is wearing two leashes, one red, one purple, around his chest like bandoleers. Roger and Beau Regard don't wear any.

"I'm ready to go back to court," Allen says. "I told Brian O'Neill"—the superintendent of the national recreation area— " 'Get your rangers down here! I'll subpoena you and charge you with entrapment in front of a federal magistrate judge!' "

This is from a guy who admits he got "royally spanked" in February when he campaigned for canine frolicking in front of Federal Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James. Allen had asked a ranger who wanted to give him a verbal warning to go back to his truck and get his ticket book, and he hoped to stage a spirited attack on the whole dog-leash policy. Unfortunately for him, the prosecutor got the judge to stop him, and so the trial pretty much revolved around the question of whether Baker Beach is part of a national park (it is) and whether Beau Regard, a waggish Plott Hound, and Roger, a sleek and brindled German shorthaired pointer, were off-leash on the mornings of October 6 and October 29, 2001 (they were). In the end, Judge James ordered Allen to pay a fine of $150 and chided him for being "completely irresponsible."

Allen, a 39-year-old carpenter and father of two, sees it a bit differently. To him, and to hundreds of San Francisco dog owners, this is a battle for the civil rights of dogs and their human companions. Never mind that dogs can wreak habitat havoc as they romp free. Never mind that there were 54 dog bites in the Golden Gate recreation area between 1998 and 2000 or that a guidebook to San Francisco warns of roving Rovers filching the sandwiches of Baker Beach picnickers. "These guys need to run around," Allen says as Roger and Beau Regard scramble up hillsides covered with windswept cypresses and snack on soft-shelled crabs and tiny blue jellyfish called By-the-Wind-Sailors. "They need to do their alpha role-playing. It's like taking our rights away from us and putting us in jail." He grins at Roger, whom he sees as both a four-legged family member and an emissary from nature's wild kingdom. "You should see him swimming with the seals," he says. "I've seen him nose to nose with a seal."

It's a cold, overcast morning, but there are about ten dogs capering across the beach off-leash. The website of a San Francisco dog group lists more than a dozen city parks where dogs can run without their leashes, but a grassy field or a fenced-in dog run doesn't have the same appeal as a long stretch of sandy beach with pounding surf and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. And there's an historic aspect to the struggle as well. Both Baker Beach and Fort Funston were used for leash-free scampering long before the national recreation area was established there 30 years ago. In 1979, a citizens' advisory commission recommended that the Park Service continue to allow off-leash dogs in those areas.

Everything continued as it had been for the next 22 years, until dog advocates got into a scrap with the management of the recreation area. First there was a suit over Park Service plans to close off ten acres of Fort Funston coastal bluffs that the bank swallow, a threatened species, uses for nesting. Then officials announced that federal law requires dogs to be leashed in all national parks, the 1979 advisory recommendation notwithstanding. "We do not have the ability not to enforce the policy," explains park spokeswoman Christine Powell.

Not that the Park Service is too broken up about it. Park officials contend that off-leash dogs roam onto sensitive dunes, dig up plants, chase birds and rabbits, and harass sea lions. They say that dogs wander down cliffs and get lost or stuck, sometimes getting their owners in trouble as well; in one three-year period, rangers rescued 58 dogs or dog owners in Fort Funston. And, they say, off-leash dogs scare people. In the wake of last year's fatal mauling of Diane Whipple by a 120-pound Presa Canario, San Franciscans have become noticeably more cautious about canine behavior. "We noticed an increase in telephone calls from people saying they had issues with feeling safe in the park because of off-leash dogs," Powell says.

None of this moves the dog walkers, who are a passionate and activist lot, even by San Francisco standards. They see the recent rash of citations for leash violations as retaliation for the Fort Funston lawsuit, as well as just plain wrong. To them, a whole way of life is at stake. "It's like a cocktail party on Sunday evenings," says John Keating, the lawyer who represented the dog walkers against the Park Service in the Fort Funston suit. "People go out and they mingle and they talk. You ask people about their dogs and they ask you about yours and it breaks the ice. It was kind of an experiment in democracy."

The dog walkers are certainly good at grass-roots mobilization. At one public hearing, more than 1,000 people showed up to speak, evoking in passionate terms the joy that off-leash romping brings to dogs and that dogs bring to them. Mention of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's many rare and endangered species drew loud and spirited booing from the audience, who failed to see why a bank swallow or snowy plover should take precedence over Fido. As one dog lover put it succinctly, "Walking off-lead with a dog is as American as apple pie and motherhood."

Fights over off-leash parks are the bane of neighborly relations across the nation. Dog advocates are increasingly adamant that dogs have the same rights as any American—the right to liberty from leashes and the pursuit of happiness on public land. The San Francisco SPCA has even written a dog's Bill of Rights. It includes "The Right to Act Like Dogs" and "The Right to a Fair Share of Public Resources." On the other side of the debate are those who are just as sure that off-leash dogs are an urban plague akin to speeders, cell phones, and panhandlers. And current law treats dogs—and all animals—as property, meaning that they don't have rights.

Animal rights attorney Steven Wise points out in his book Drawing the Line that numerous surveys have found that many Americans feel as close—or closer—to their dogs as to any other member of their family. He believes that the autonomy and self-awareness of many species merit legal rights, and he thinks that dogs may qualify. But Wise, who teaches a law school course on the topic, is talking about freedom from enslavement and bodily harm, not the right to have a doggie playground. "It's premature to argue that dogs have rights to run free when they don't even have the right not to be chopped up and eaten," he says.

Other animal rights attorneys question the wisdom of defining off-leash dog runs as even a good idea. "I've never had my dogs off-leash—I have seven of them," says Rutgers law professor Gary Francione. "I am as strident and ardent an animal rights person as you're going to find: I don't eat animals, I don't wear animals, and I don't let my dogs off-leash. It's not a question of the dog's right, it's a question of protecting the dog. The idea that there's some kind of right to run off-leash—this is why animal rights people get a bad name, because they have idiotic ideas like this."

The question whether dogs have a right to roam is not likely to be litigated any time soon, at least not in San Francisco federal court. Carsten Allen was the second dog walker to come before a federal magistrate in recent months, and in both cases the judge limited testimony to the events of the day of the citation. This was a surprise to Allen, who had planned to argue that he hadn't been properly notified of the new leash rules, and much more besides. "I thought I was going to have my day in court," Allen says. "I thought I would get up and tell my side of the story and the U.S. attorneys would tell their side. But when I got into court, they shut me down right way. I couldn't even put a newspaper clipping into evidence. I told the judge, 'I'll find out how to get these into evidence! I'll learn!' "

And so, as Allen whistles for his dogs and heads to the Baker Beach parking lot, he keeps an eager eye out for park rangers. He knows that Judge James fined him heavily last time to deter him from further off-leash excursions. He's not deterred. "I'm still out here," he says. "I'm ready."

Dashka Slater is a journalist based in Oakland, Calif., and the author of a novel, The Wishing Box.

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