Dogs have free rein of Pastorius Park. (Photo by Lane Blackmer)

by Lane Blackmer

As temperatures warm up, Pastorius Park is once again becoming a place where a visitor will find a majority of park users accompanied by dogs. And contrary to the law, those dogs are running free, without leashes.

Should you go with your dog? The question isn’t necessarily an easy one. While the park has a good reputation among dog owners who flock there in large numbers to let their canines run free, it’s not a use that’s technically legal.

Despite the threat of a $25 fine from park rangers – it’s rare but it happens – a number of dog owners and park regulars recommend the park and believe the status quo is fine. Sure, technically the law is broken on a daily basis, but regular complaints don’t appear to bring change at the park anytime soon.

One thing is clear: The Fairmount Park commission isn’t thinking of doing anything different, and neither are the Friends of Pastorius Park (FOPP).

Jamie Hazelton, manager of ranger operations, said rangers are currently not staffed at a level that would make regular leash enforcement practical.

“We are responsible for patrolling over 9,800 acres, which is the entire Philadelphia park system – of which Pastorius is part – and we have a staff of 20 people,” he said. “And for the particular area, [we have] four rangers and one supervisor assigned.”

But how about a fenced-in dog park?

Hazelton said he wouldn’t be opposed to the creation of a dog park at Pastorius, but all costs would have to be taken on by the organization that built it, just as it is at the only official dog park in the city – the Schuylkill River Park.

“It’s the only official dog park that I know of that exists within the system,” he said. “And that is managed and run by the volunteers of that park.”

The benefits to an official, fenced-in dog park, Hazelton said, is avoiding a $25 fine.

When it comes to the Friends of Pastorius Park, president Peter O’Connor said his organization is not responsible for enforcement and is not currently involved in changing the way the park currently works.

“FOPP cannot enforce city laws when it comes to unleashed dogs or curfew violations,” he said. “We urge people to call 911 if they see any crime or vandalism taking place.”

O’Connor also said the park was meant to be a walkable place of reflection.

But some in the dog community wonder if a fence would placate rumblings that some in the community are not happy with free-range dogs in the park. The rumor among several of the dog owners interviewed was that there’s been increased complaining from a couple of unhappy neighbors.

This reporter did not find anyone who objected to the dogs while reporting this article. In fact, so sensitive is the issue that dog owners interviewed by the Local did not want to be identified by their last names.

Some in the dog community said they felt people who are not OK with the dogs should stay away.

“By law this isn’t a dog park, but by fact it is. It is actually prohibited by law,” said Richard, a dog owner. “But the fact is, this is advertised as a dog park. I understand there are websites that specifically say this is a dog park.”

By “advertised,” Richard was talking about the popular review website, Yelp, on which Pastorius is listed under the “Dog Parks” category.

“The people that have been here before are well aware,” Richard said. “They don’t have a problem with it, obviously, because they still come here. The people who do have a problem with it, ironically, are the ones who don’t come here historically.”

Meanwhile, Josh, a frequenter of Pastorius with his dog for the past 13 years, had similar sentiments.

“Everybody brings their dogs here, and some people come here and they’re scared of dogs,” he said. “They just don’t belong here. I mean, they should know a little bit about the place before they show up. “

Although Josh did acknowledge that he thinks parents have a right to be upset by children being knocked over by dogs, he said that type of behavior is generally uncommon in the park.

But his main concern for unacceptable dog behavior is fights – he actually broke his finger trying to break up one at Pastorius several years ago.

“Out of all the dogs parks in the city, this one has the fewest dog fights,” he said. “I’ve been to all the dog parks in the city. Over the years, I’ve seen dozens of dogfights and only one or two [were] here.”

Anne, another park frequenter, agreed.

“I think not having a fence actually keeps some of the dogs that would be unruly away,” she said. “Owners don’t want to bring their dogs here if they’re the kind of dog that would run off.”

For anyone still thinking of taking his or her dog to the park, Dr. Sheldon Gerstenfeld, of Chestnut Hill Veterinary Hospital, offered advice. He said in order to ensure safety at dog parks – for both dogs and humans – the animals should have all proper shots and already have undergone training and socialization.

“You don’t want them running in a park before 17 or 18 weeks of age,” he said. “By the time you get everything done and they’re trained, you can say six-to-nine months would be a good time to take them to a place.”

But even so, Gerstenfeld said any dog owner should be keeping an eye on their furry friend.

“Nobody can be on their iPhone or iPads when they have their dogs off leash,” he said. “You’ve got to be fully committed and mindful.”

He added: “You have to know when dogs look like they’re getting aggressive or don’t like another dog. It’s like kids on a playground.“

Several dog owners said the community commonly outlaws certain unruly dogs.

“We also self-police each other’s behavior,” Richard said. “We sort of mean-grill them and they leave.”

And while some may have problems with dog waste, two women being interviewed, Jackie and an unidentified woman, actually picked up waste they stumbled upon in the park. The women both agreed that while fencing in the park would not be ideal, they’d be OK with it if they had to be.

“It wouldn’t be the same, but it would be something,” Jackie said of the fence idea.

Another dog owner, Susan, suggested a fenced-in area for those who don’t want to be near dogs.

Although opinions on fencing differed, all dog people agreed on one thing: the dog community is essential.

“I think Pastorius Park is just one of the happiest places around,” Anne said. “I meet people here and form friendships with neighbors.”