by Brendan Sample
In response to increasing concerns regarding off-leash dogs in in Wissahickon Valley Park, Friends of the Wissahickon held a public dog safety meeting at the Valley Green Inn on Dec. 5.
With representatives from both the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and police departments, residents on both sides of the issue were able to voice their concerns and suggestions in an effort to find new solutions to the ongoing controversy.
Complaints against unleashed dogs have been increasing over the past year, as there have also been a number of attacks by off-leash dogs on park-goers, other dogs and horseback riders. There have also been recent reports of people taking action themselves against these attacks, with one rumor claiming that a dog was poisoned at the park.
While nothing has been proven with this or any other case at the time of publication, rumors were enough to help push the FoW to open up a discussion.
The meeting was set up as a panel discussion, with representatives from several different departments attending to provide some answers to neighbors’ questions about the dog issue. Panelists included Susan Buck, Parks and Recreation deputy commissioner of operations, Maura McCarthy, executive director of the FoW, and Jamie Hazelton, manager of Ranger Operations at Fairmount Park.
Representatives from the offices of Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. were also present. The meeting was facilitated by Ellen Greenberg, owner and founder of Partnering for Change, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm dedicated to creating dialogues and finding solutions to a wide variety of issues throughout the area.
Local residents on both sides of the issue were present at the community meeting to present their points of view as well as offer up suggestions on potential solutions. While a number of dog owners admitted to letting their dogs run in the park unleashed, some have not appreciated what they feel is an unfair generalization brought on by a few isolated incidents. Even with that in mind, however, most of the meeting’s attendees acknowledged that something should be done to prevent the issue from getting worse.
Suggested solutions that were brought up focused around setting up designated areas and/or times for dogs to run free as well as increased enforcement of the Philadelphia leash laws. Some residents suggested that the owners of dogs that have bitten park goers likely did not fear getting ticketed for having their dog unleashed, and that the number of incidents could go down if enforcement were to be seen as a legitimate risk again.
Others brought up programs in other states that forced dog owners to obtain a permit if they want to walk their dogs without a leash. Such programs could involve passing a test and paying an annual fee, which could also be an income source for the city.
One woman in particular shared her story of how she was bitten by an off-leash dog in the Wissahickon and managed to track down the owner, who was apparently completely dismissive of her claims when confronted. Beyond her shock at the owner’s actions, she also felt that she and other residents need clear directions on what to do in the event of a dog-biting incident.
Parks and Recreation did confirm that the department is working on distributing a one-page document detailing what to do in the case of encountering a problem dog. In addition, classes at the Wissahickon Environmental Center, a.k.a. the “Tree House,” have started teaching children safety instructions in the event they are ever bitten by a dog in one of the parks.
With controversy over unleashed dogs in the park dating back several years, many residents have grown more and more upset over how the situation has seemed to continue to get worse. Attendees expressed their shock over just how many people have stopped going the park because of the fear of off-leash dogs.
One owner who said that she walks her dog on a leash claimed that she has been bitten twice by unleashed dogs, which has led to her carrying pepper spray and using it on three occasions. Another resident specifically called out the FoW, claiming that the group is against dogs in the Wissahickon overall and even saying that it is launching a “jihad against dogs.”
While Greenberg acknowledged at the start of the meeting that the issue would not be completely solved that evening, feedback from the community certainly did help to get the ball rolling. Responding directly to some of the suggestions, the FoW confirmed that it has not discussed a metal fenced off area at the park, fearing that it would compromise the environmental integrity of the Wissahickon. Even if any of the present departments were in full agreement that a designated spot for unleashed dogs would be the proper solution, none of them currently have the specific mandate to create a separate recreational area, as it would have to go through the proper channels.
Though the FoW realized that there is unlikely to be a solution that pleases everyone, the group is still committed to finding the best possible fix to this ongoing problem. There is currently no direct follow-up meeting planned, the FoW promised a continuing dialogue on social media, as well as announcing more meetings like this one in the near future.
For more information on the Friends of the Wissahickon, including dates and times for future events, visit fow.org.