Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dogs on Leash or Running Free - Who Decides?

There's nothing like a quiet walk on the beach to settle nerves jangled by the daily commute, office politics, disturbing news of far-off political intrigue. The rhythmic swoosh of the waves, the cries of seagulls, the gentle ocean breezes. 

           But wait. What's that smell? Eeeeeew!

All too often, idyllic walks along our local beaches are disrupted by loud barking, the threatening rush of bright teeth and furry bodies, the unexpected presence of smelly dog droppings underfoot. Our beaches have become playgrounds and toilets for unleashed dogs, turning a treasure for all into an exclusive domain for the few.

Santa Cruz County Animal Services has recently started enforcing County leash laws, much to the consternation of local residents who have grown used to letting their dogs run free on local beaches, in the absence of County enforcement. This has resulted in a lobbying campaign by dog owners to encourage Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to provide off-leash hours at the Live Oak beach between 20th Avenue and Moran Lagoon. Proponents claim that their animals need freedom to run unfettered and that limited off-leash hours would not infringe on others' enjoyment of the beach.

Santa Cruz County has strict leash laws, Section 6.12 of County Code, directing residents to keep all dogs on leash on public property and facilities at all times, and prohibiting animal defecation on any public property or improved private property, other than that of the owner. These laws would have to be amended in order to allow off-leash hours at local beaches. 

But County leash laws are not the only consideration.

Dogs running free not only pose a threat to people but also drive off shorebirds and other wildlife on local beaches, which are governed by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Harassment of "any marine mammal, sea turtle, or bird within or above the Sanctuary" is prohibited by United States Code of Federal Regulations, Title 15, Part 92.132 - Prohibited or otherwise regulated activities. MBNMS works in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to assist with enforcement.

At a recent constituent meeting by Supervisor John Leopold, opponents and proponents of off-leash hours at County beaches presented their cases. In response to a suggestion that the County provide off-leash dog parks where dog-owners can let their dogs run free in fenced enclosures, Supervisor Leopold pointed out that a dog park has been built at the new Chanticleer Avenue Park, on the West side of Chanticleer Avenue, about 1/4 mile north of Capitola Road in Live Oak. However, the signs at the Chanticleer Park indicate that dogs are required to be on leash at all times in the Pet Exercise Area, as the split rail fence is inadequate to keep off-leash dogs contained within the park.

Rather than flouting existing leash laws and lobbying for special consideration by federal, state and County officials, local dog owners would do well to organize and help the County upgrade the Chanticleer Park facility to allow off-leash dogs, and to build and maintain additional dedicated off-leash facilities on County parks away from sensitive beaches. These areas would provide needed exercise and socialization for dogs and an opportunity for dog owners to gather and socialize, without threatening sensitive species or infringing on others who prefer their recreational opportunities dog-free.

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