Dog owners to bylaw officers: Bite me!

By Ann Hui –

Dog walkers are sending up a howl: the puppy police are coming.

A single e-mail was all it took to incite dog walkers to civil disobedience at St. James Park.

For months, proponents of an off-leash area or off-leash hours in the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood green space have been waiting for Pam McConnell’s office to set up a public meeting to discuss and hopefully resolve the issue. However, in October, by-law enforcement officers began to appear during peak dog-walking hours.

At first, they simply asked owners to put their pets back on the leash. By November, the tone had changed. At least one dog owner was ticketed on Nov. 15, setting a canine cabal in motion as a flurry of e-mails warned dog owners of the enforcement action.

One anonymous dog owner had had enough. “Should you be approached by a bylaw officer while your dog is off leash, you should get the dog back on the leash and walk away,” she advised her fellow animal lovers. “I have it on high authority that these officers have no power or right to arrest or demand personal info. They are not police officers: they are glorified security guards. I recommend smiling, put the dog back on-leash, and walk away; he cannot demand anything from anyone.”

The Bulletin is monitoring the situation and will update if more tickets are issued.

Across town, a single email was all it took to reignite tensions between parents and dog owners in Leslieville, as the two groups continue their bitter fight over how Hideaway Park should be used.

Philippa Howell, who lives on Brighton Ave., sent the email to a mailing list she maintains for parents called Hideaway Park Kids. She outlined what park users can do if they see a dog owner disobeying off-leash rules in the park, including contact information for Toronto Animal Services for anyone wanting to make a complaint.

After the email was later forwarded to a general Leslieville mailing list, dog owners reacted angrily, saying that the email stirred up a potential “campaign of complaints” against them.

Tracy Chong returned home recently to find a notice from Toronto Animal Services saying that a complaint had been filed against her for letting her dog off leash. The problem is that at the date and time she was accused of this by-law infraction, she—and her dog—weren’t anywhere near the park. In fact, she was at the Toronto Animal Services centre reporting an irresponsible dog owner. “How could I be in two places at once?” Chong asks.

She and other dog owners at Hideaway Park believe that this is part of a concerted effort on the part of parents to ban off-leash hours from the park for good.

Chong, who is chair of Hideaway’s dog owner association, says that in the last few weeks, she has heard from an unusually large number of dog owners who have had complaints filed against them.

This follows what Chong calls “the summer of intolerance” in Leslieville. According to her, disputes over the park last summer lead to “gay bashing of owners and racial slurs.”

Toronto city council implemented a “People, Dogs and Parks” strategy in 2007, which set out to create consistent regulations for all of the city’s off-leash areas. The new policy means that all off-leash parks are now subject to an annual review with city staff.

This leaves those parks vulnerable, because their off-leash designation can, technically, be taken away at one of these reviews if the park is deemed “dysfunctional.”

Chong says of the latest campaign, that “they’re trying to increase the number in complaints so that when the policy is up for review, they can say get rid of the dog parks.”

Hideaway Park, near Pape and Dundas, is made up of a playground, splash park and open field area. The off-leash area is separated from the playground area during most times of year by only a fence.

Shana Hillman, another Leslieville dog owner, asks “what’s there to protect us from random manufactured complaints? It’s like East Berlin. I feel like I have to keep track of where I am every day to make sure I have an alibi.”

Toronto Animal Services spokespeople were unable to verify how many complaints have been made against Hideaway dog owners so far.    Howell, who owns a dog herself, says that before sending out the email, neighbours had been approaching her for months with complaints about off-leash dogs. Howell says that her email was simply a way of saying that “these are the rules. These are the guidelines.”

Howell insists that she is not trying to rid the park of dogs completely, but rather, wants other dog owners to be more responsible while using the park.

She points to the worn-out turf on the ground and says, “A park shouldn’t be muddy. It should be grassy. It’s about green space in an area that doesn’t have enough green space.”

Chong says she resents this “us versus them” mentality and points to an instance where a young girl with her dog was recently told by another park user to “get back onto her side of the park.” In an email she sent in response to Howell’s, she asked the group, “Since when did this great group of people in this amazing part of the city feel the need to tattle instead of talk to each other?”        

When asked whether she thought it could be possible for Hideaway to be peacefully shared again, Hillman replied with a heavy sigh. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “We need to ask ourselves before we make these calls ‘Does this help or hinder the building of our community?’”