A February 10, 2002 NY Times article, "Where the Dogs Are: The Favorite ZIP Codes," stated the following:
"The city requires that all dogs be licensed and their owners identified...There are 90,663 licensed dogs in the city, but Robert A. Marino, vice president of the New York Council of Dog Owner Groups, pointed to A.S.P.C.A. figures and other sources to conclude that less than 1 in 15 dogs in the city are licensed. So New York has roughly 1.5 million dogs, licensed and unlicensed."
On April 18, 2004, the NY Times reported this in "Under Plan, Every Dog Would Have His Insurance":
"City residents own about 530,000 dogs, but only about 110,000 are licensed, according to Department of Health estimates.
"It's a very anemic licensing program in New York City," said Edward Boks, executive director of Animal Care and Control, a group the city employs to run its animal shelters, which take in 45,000 lost cats, dogs and other animals each year."
"We have a very difficult time enforcing the leash law and the license law."
In 2004, your own Department estimated the city dog population at 530,000. NYC DOG estimates the same population as numbering 1.5 million and that number has not been challenged by your department. How the DOH could be off by about 1 million animals is something that we feel should be examined further and thoroughly explained before any revision to the leash law is considered.
Center for Animal Care & Control, an agency under your authority, could not convince the vast majority of New York City dog owners to leash and license their dogs in 2004. Approximately 4 out of every 5 dogs in this city were not licensed at that time. Your most recent report listed that 105,000 dog licenses were issued during FY2006. Since we are being told that the number of dogs in the city is consistently rising, then the percentage of licensed dogs appears to be plummeting. The wide discrepancy, in and of itself, between the number of dogs owned by city residents and the number of licenses issued, whether it be 1 out of 5 or 1 out of 15, should be enough for you to decide against granting DOPR the authority to make exceptions to the leash law at this time.
The NY Daily News reported on May 11, 2002: "a spring Saturday attracts up to 700 free-range canines" in the Prospect Park Meadows. According to your statistics, 560 of those "free-range" dogs are unlicensed. Your statistics also reveal that roughly 1% of the total dog population will bite. That means that on any given morning, there are thousands of dogs roaming freely in parks throughout our city that harbor a propensity to bite ‒ basically, they are "ticking time bombs." Many of the dogs being allowed off their leashes "for their health" are the ones on the U.S. Center for Disease Control's Dangerous Dog List. This is being addressed by neither DOPR nor DOH and is of great concern to the people of Queens.
This brings us to another question: How will the public be protected from dogs allowed off-leash in park areas that are not fenced? For example, as mentioned previously, Prospect Park allows off-leash activity in areas called the "Long Meadow," the "Nethermead" and the "Peninsula." Where do these areas end and adjacent areas begin? This is part of the reason why off-leash is not a sound policy. It allows vague interpretation of where dogs are allowed off-leash. If there are no boundaries, then that means dogs may roam anywhere. You can't ask people to avoid off-leash dogs by avoiding "designated" areas of the park when those areas are not well-defined and not fenced in to protect park patrons.
The Parks Department currently designates areas that dog owners have chosen as "ideal" spots to unleash their dogs. This usually results in the most popular or most centrally located area of the park or heavily trafficked park paths being overrun with off-leash dogs. (If you look at a map of Prospect Park, you will see that the Long Meadow spans the entire length of the park!) Again, people cannot be told to "simply avoid" these areas during off-leash hours. This does not take into consideration the rights of other park users.
Below is an interesting comment by veterinarian, consultant, teacher, and author Myrna Milani, DVM (from www.mmilani.com):
"I don't think we can overlook the final reality of canine social experiences which is that our desire for the companionship of other humans more than any desire for our dogs to experience quality canine companionship might fuel a lot of these activities. In spite of how complex our lives are, a lot of us are lonely. Puppy playgroups and dog parks provide us with an opportunity to socialize that comes with the added benefit of a built-in topic of conversation. Unlike sitting in a singles bar or going to a party with a bunch of strangers with whom we can only hope to broach some subject of mutual interest, those involved in canine activities always know that they can talk about dogs."
We certainly acknowledge that socialization between people is healthy. However, we doubt that putting the public in danger in order to facilitate the social lives of dog owners is a role for which the Department of Health needs to be responsible.
From your notice of intention to amend:
"...there does not appear to be any significant negative impact on public health and safety resulting from the policy of DOPR to allow dogs to be off-leash in facilities and areas under DOPR's jurisdiction and control."
How can you assume this based solely on the number of dog bites reported in parks? There have been no studies done on off-leash activity in New York City ‒ no scientific polls conducted to gauge feeling on the issue, no statistics kept on bites occurring in parks by dogs on their leashes vs. bites by dogs not on leashes, and no study proving a direct correlation between the increase in off-leash activity and the decrease in dog bites. We don't understand how you can consider adopting a revision to the leash law based on assumptions by off-leash advocates and not hard facts. In an affidavit submitted to the court on behalf of the Parks Department, your Assistant Commissioner for Veterinary Services, Edgar Butts, made the following statement:
"The Department, while cognizant of the inherent dangers that unleashed dogs anywhere can pose to both humans and other animals, nevertheless recognizes that dogs derive benefits from being off-leash. The Department supports allowing such off-leash activity in specific areas of specified parks facilities under DOPR jurisdiction during specified times."
A January 2000 article entitled, "Dog Bites in New York City" published in the Journal of Reconstructive Surgery mentions the following:
"...many bites treated by individual practitioners in New York rather than in emergency rooms, where routine protocols are in place, are not reported. A recent study in Pittsburgh based on capture/re-capture data suggests that only approximately 36 percent of dog bites are in fact reported to hospitals, the police, or animal control authorities."
Your basis for amending the leash law boils down to a statement that dog exercise is important. Apparently you feel that it is so important that it trumps the concern you have that off-leash dogs pose a threat to people and other animals. Analysis of the statement made by Mr. Butts reveals that your Department has effectively elevated the needs of pets above the health and safety of the people you were sworn to protect. We find it inconceivable that you have publicly declared that off-leash dogs are dangerous, yet in the next sentence, said that despite that fact you support allowing dogs off of their leashes, especially since you must be well aware that dog bites are grossly underreported.
In their rush to circumvent an anticipated negative outcome of the lawsuit brought against them, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has failed to adequately answer the safety questions raised, and they have allowed the dog lobby to present misinformation as facts, which Parks has neither attempted to correct nor proved to be true.
Parks' enforcement of the leash law at present is non-existent and they have not presented any plan for better enforcement if off-leash activity is written into law. After a successful crackdown on leash scofflaws in the 1990s, the Department of Parks scaled back their Parks Enforcement Patrol in the course of trimming their budget. (That number is now about 57 officers citywide.) Parks realized that they no longer had the manpower to enforce the law that addressed their number one park complaint, so they instituted the off-leash policy during hours when their PEP force was not on duty. In no way has this been a "successful 20-year policy" as some claim, but rather an act of fiscal necessity.
Up until recently, the Department of Parks had this listed on their website:
"The City of New York enforces the leash law for several reasons:
First, unleashed dogs pose potential danger to people and to other dogs. Many park users, horses, park wildlife and leashed dogs have been attacked and bitten by unleashed dogs. Second, many park visitors are frightened by dogs and may find unleashed dogs to be intimidating or annoying.
Third, unleashed dogs are more likely to leave behind waste that is not picked up by their owners; canine waste is a known source of several pernicious zoonotic diseases. Finally, unleashed dogs destroy lawns and flower beds: areas used as informal 'dog runs' have been severely damaged by the combination of wear and uric acid, a known killer of plant life."
These problems are hard to deny. To further explain their third reason, we found a website (www.playatthepark.ca) dedicated to promoting off-leash activity in dog runs that mentions the following:
"Some owners believe that dog poop -- being organic -- automatically disintegrates into the ground. However, there is always a residue that gets left behind. When people play ball or come into contact with it and they put their fingers in their mouth, it is like having feces for a snack. It is important that areas both on and off the grass where children play are free from dog waste."
Every park area used for off-leash activity is one used by the general public, including children, at other times of day. Will these areas be sanitized? Will the public be educated as to the dangers of utilizing those areas, especially since dog "residue" can't always be seen? Will parents be advised to not allow their children to play or crawl around on the ground in these areas? This is a major health concern that is not being addressed, is not covered in this notice to amend, and to our knowledge, DOPR has no plan to address it in the future. This is another good reason why amending the leash law to allow for this activity is not a good idea.
The vast majority of NYC dog owners don't walk their dogs off of leashes. They have respect for other park users who may be uncomfortable around unleashed dogs. If most can do it, we don't see why all of them can't be expected to do it. However, if you amend the law, you will be encouraging more people to unleash their dogs; in fact, the wording of your intention to amend combined with the rhetoric of the off-leash advocates would probably cause the public to believe that dogs should be let off leash so that they will get proper exercise. For if they do not then they are not good owners who are mindful of their pets' health. We feel it would be in everyone's best interest if dogs were exercised on-leash, as dog owners, too, would benefit from more exercise and improve their own health in the process. Currently, they stand around talking with each other while their ignored dogs run freely. An on-leash exercise program would be a great public health initiative for you to launch ‒ "exercise with your pet in the park" ‒ and we would be in full support of it. Most civic groups would be happy to help you promote a campaign to that effect.
You cannot simply assume that because the majority of people have been silent on this issue that it means they are either in favor of relaxing the leash law or don't care. The hearing announcement was not featured prominently on your website, there were no press releases from your office or much coverage of it in the newspapers beforehand, and we had to dig around on your website to find your notice to amend. This is a stark contrast to the way you have trumpeted your intended ban on trans fat. Obviously, you did not want to draw attention to the fact that relaxing the leash law in no way complies with your stated mission of protecting the citizens and visitors of this city from harm. The public is now questioning why ‒ with all the legitimate public health issues this city is facing ‒ our number one health advocate is making off-leash recreation for a fringe group of dog owners a top priority.
The following is from The Central Bark, a Publication of Central Park Paws and the Central Park Conservancy, Volume 6, Issue 3, Summer 2006. Susan Buckley is the President of Central Park PAWS and the editor of the newsletter. She wrote:
"Is it because the fenced-off greenswards are irresistible? Is it because human nature leads us to take our privileges for granted, as rights rather than privileges? Is it because we can't remember a time when we didn't think we had "the run of the park"? For whatever reason(s) there seems to be more than usual flouting of the rules over the past few months. Recently I saw seven dogs racing across the ball fields north of the Great Lawn as one owner tossed a ball right in front of three Conservancy supervisors. Central to the mission of Central Park PAWS is the ongoing dialogue that we as dog owners have with Conservancy staff. We report concerns to the Conservancy and they report concerns to us. It's odd, they are saying, but more people are letting their dogs into off-limits areas than usual. I was shocked, too, when I received an email report from a Brooklyn dog owner who was part of a Mayor's Alliance event in Central Park earlier this summer: 'I had to ask multiple times to have people leash their dogs past my area where I was setting up and I was yelled at and treated rudely......Not one person heeded my request......'"
From the Autumn 2006 FIDO Brooklyn newsletter:
"You can help keep offleash alive in Prospect Park by being a good citizen and obeying the offleash rules. You've heard it a zillion times, but it's especially important now with so much pending (plus, it is migration season again -- give the birds a break while they're here resting!)"
Since, by these two dog advocates' own admissions, after 20 years of off-leash courtesy hours we are still experiencing the aforementioned problems, then it is time that this "experiment" is terminated as a complete failure.