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Free-Range Pups

Suit seeks to end the early-morning leashless lives of city dogs.

For the past twenty years, the city has allowed dog owners to unleash their pets in public parks with no dog runs between the “accommodation hours” of 9 P.M. and 9 A.M. Maybe not for long. On June 27, a judge will rule on a case brought against the city’s Parks Department by Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association in Queens, to make New York fully enforce its leash laws, which forbid animals’ being “unleashed or out of control in any park.” Holden says he decided to take action after he watched a dog—“It looked like a big bear”—gallop up to a small child in the park and trap him against a fence, “barking and growling, and the kid is shaking like a leaf.” Dog owners are barking and growling in response to the potential ban. “Come on, get serious, we’d be screwed,” says Mary McInerney, president of Fido Brooklyn, a dog association in Prospect Park. “I would leave the city. I have two retrievers—what am I going to do, walk them around the block?” Canine-activist associations are distributing petitions and arranging a call-in campaign to the mayor’s office. “We MUST make our voices heard, so bark loudly . . . ” said one e-mail circulated by Central Park PAWS. The groups have gathered over 25,000 signatures. “Letting dogs off-leash is an enormous benefit to the dog,” says Susan Buckley, president of PAWS and the owner of a yellow Lab named William; she also points out that dog bites numbered 40,000 annually in the sixties, before the off-leash policies, and now there are under 3,600 a year.

But Holden will not heel. “Some people have vicious dogs,” he notes. A recent Rottweiler attack in a nearby park underscores his point. Gabriel Tapalaga, Holden’s attorney, says, “I don’t understand from a liability standpoint why the city would even allow it.” The city declined to comment on the pending litigation, though a spokesman noted that the accommodation hours have been successful for two decades. The city did offer to put a dog run in Juniper Park, but Holden didn’t bite (besides, he thinks they’re unsanitary). Henry Stern, the former Parks commissioner and enactor of the nine-to-nine policy (whose golden retriever, Boomer, died in 2004), saw it as a truce between “dog owners and dog haters. I was thrust into this controversy, and it was an endless struggle. But it’s worked out extremely well over the many years that it’s been in place, and it’s never been challenged before now.”

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