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Turf War

Big dogs vs. little dogs, dog owners vs. the canine-deprived. Can we learn to co-exist in this town?

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Auschwitz!” snaps the less-than-fully-haired dog lover as he views the fenced-in South Lawn at the 72nd Street entrance to Riverside Park. He points to the Parks Department prohibition on the fence: quiet zone: no radios, no team sports, no barbecues -- and, most important -- no dogs. He ratchets up from snap to snarl: “Auschwitz-on-the-Hudson!”

He declines to give his name and turns to leave, barking polysyllabic commands at two fully haired golden retrievers. Lucy comes to heel; Max continues hunting the elusive Upper West Side black truffle deep beneath the battered roots of a maple tree. I make the observation that his analogy is perhaps a tad intemperate. It was, after all, at Auschwitz that dogs, specifically German shepherds, were encouraged by their SS handlers to rip Jewish prisoners to pieces. He tells me to fuck off. I continue my ramble up the delightful strip of riparian real estate and several minutes later arrive at the Holocaust memorial near 83rd Street, upon whose discreet plaque an adorable poodle, her hind legs in demi-plié position, is releasing a bladderful of piss.

Another fine morning in Riverside Park.

Turf battles in the city’s parks between dogs and people (or more fairly between dog people and ordinary people) are neither uncommon nor new. The Parks Department has correspondence going back half a century from canophile New Yorkers demanding or cajoling special treatment for pets frolicking in the city’s commons. Almost all involve allowing them off the leash either in specific places or at specific times. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, foresaw that his splendiferous rus in urbe would be a magnet for dogs; he promulgated strict regulations about leashing that were subsequently adopted by the city and remain in force today throughout the system.

Betsy Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy and the leading force in the park’s transformation from seventies moonscape to nineties grandeur, says administrators are “always under pressure to give away pieces of the park to special interests . . . many of them extraordinarily worthy.” (One of her favorite examples: a proposal at the end of World War I to re-create the trenches of Verdun in North Meadow.) At the beginning of Rogers’s fifteen-year tenure (she resigned in 1996), Parks quietly began enforcing the leash laws after decades of non-observance. This became a major factor in the dramatic restoration of Central Park’s green spaces.

But now dogs are becoming one of the department’s biggest physical-management problems -- it’s not simply the damage they do but the added enforcement the refuseniks, whose numbers are increasing, make necessary.

Ten to fifteen years ago, observes Adrian Benepe, the no-nonsense Parks commissioner for Manhattan, the parks were rife with crises: crime, drug dealing, graffiti, homeless encampments, rotting infrastructure. Many were resolved. “The dog problem is the only real problem we have,” he says.

And it’s getting bigger:

What is strikingly new, says Benepe, is the size of the breeds people are buying. For many decades, the typical New York dog tended to be a handbag baby -- Pekingese, Maltese, Yorkie, Pomeranian, etc. -- no doubt because rules against pets in apartments were pervasive and strict, and the little fellas were easier to smuggle in and out. Now, says Benepe, he and his staff are seeing bigger and bigger dogs coming into the parks: the obvious retrievers, German shepherds, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, huskies, and Labs, but also Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Irish wolfhounds, Great Danes. Several of these appear on the American Kennel Club’s top ten breeds of last year (the top two are Labs and Rotts). The Big Dog syndrome can be seen as an invasion of suburbiana into the city’s culture -- the priorities of Westport, White Plains, and Saddle River abroad in Central Park. Benepe, however, believes they’re “a fashion statement.”

Henry, a corporate lawyer who lives “in the Eighties just off Park,” laughingly agrees. Henry had a good year in ‘97 and bought himself a colossal Great Dane we’ll call Dog Doe. But it’s not just fashion, says Henry; he likes “the feeling of walking along the street with a big dog in tow.” Perhaps it’s akin to that earlier-nineties chic: being trailed by a large bodyguard with a wire in his ear. Or perhaps -- big dog being current media slang for an Alpha-male over-achiever -- owning one makes you, by association, the meanest predator in the pack. Like sports utes, these often dangerous, always expensive dogs are symbols of boom times: They mirror the bulging pecs of an economy on steroids. Henry also bought a Range Rover last year, mainly to have something to transport Dog Doe around in. Big cur, big car.

Henry’s self-image is his own business, his choice of cur -- and car -- a private one. Until he goes outside. Then it becomes a public affair. Benepe points out that New Yorkers, charmed by the unquestionable grace and heft of these animals -- many well in excess of 100 pounds -- fail to realize that they’re working dogs, bred to be hunters, trackers, shepherds, and guards. (The Rhodesian ridgeback, for example, was bred to protect livestock and hunt lions.) No matter how steely your buns, if you’re a lissome 110 pounds, you’re going to have trouble holding back a Siberian husky whose vocation in life is pulling fully loaded sleds with large Alaskans standing on them.

“People are almost compelled to let them off the leash, because they need so much more exercise and space,” says Benepe. Dog owners make these choices and then expect their fellow New Yorkers to live with the consequences. “They say to us, ‘You need to allow us to exercise hunting dogs in crowded nineteenth-century parks.’ “

New Yorkers who grew up in the late fifties, sixties, and early seventies -- okay, boomers -- were accustomed to minimally managed parks whose work force, hidebound by union rules, did desultory maintenance. The most significant influence on the parks, up until then, had been Robert Moses, a modernizing commissioner who installed projects like skating rinks in Central Park that would have made Olmsted shudder. Moses’s guiding principle was: If the People want it, it’s probably fine.

By the mid-seventies, this anything-goes attitude had reached the point where you could do pretty much whatever you liked in the parks, according to your lights, short of mass murder. (Individual murder was frowned upon but tolerated.) A generation of dog owners came to see the parks as giant dog runs, and who could blame them? There was no grass in Sheep Meadow in those days, no flower beds and saplings to be destroyed, little wildlife beyond rats to be slaughtered. And, of course, far fewer users. Indeed, it was said that the presence of dogs at all hours helped to make the parks a little less dangerous.


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