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Off-leash! Berkeley’s Dog Storm

by Alexander Cockburn

“Every dog has his day. A good dog might just have two days.”

— Johnny Copeland

Barbara had that coy, breathless, somewhat defiant way of coming into the house that told me the whole story. I knew she was about to tell me she’d just bought a dog, just found a dog, just caught sight of the One and Only. Actually Barbara, aka Barbara Yaley, was good about it. She said she was about to get a dog and that my inevitably favorable opinion would be duly taken into account. Jasper was at that point in time on display in the de by the Milo Foundation of likely dogs rescued from the shelters before they get the needle. In Berkeley the Milo Foundation musters the dogs on Fourth St a couple of blocks north of University Avenue every other weekend.

We headed off to Fourth St, and in short order headed back with 40 lbs of dog, a stray from up north in Laytonville where the ranchers dump whole litters of border collies by the side of the road. By the look of him Jasper was part border, part lab, plus those self-important whiskers that tell you that terrier is in the genetic splice. Okay, I think he’s a terrific dog, and well aware that he’d been nose to nose with the Reaper, Jasper thinks we’re terrific too. Who says endless gratitude becomes cloying?

These days, when we’re in Berkeley, we load up Jasper and head down University, over I-80 and onto what was once a proud garbage dump, then North Waterfront Park and now Cesar Chaavez Park. It’s one of the most beautiful vantage points in the Bay Area. Due west across the water is the Golden Gate Bridge, then swinging one’s gaze south, the towers of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and due east the Berkeley hills.

Seventeen acres of this pleasing expanse are available to off-leash dogs, an incredible achievement of Berkeley dog lovers who spent about seven years of delicate political maneuvering to secure, last year, “pilot project status” for the off-leash area. To win it they had to surmount fierce opposition from the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Citizens for an East Shore State Park, eager to seize the acreage of Cesdar Chavez Park and add it to their domain. State parks in California have never yet held off-leash areas.

The whole off-leash thing cranked up nationally about five years ago. I can’t verify my instinct here, but I think it has been at least in part the consequence of organizing work of mid-life radicals bringing the war home, discovering that winning a little leg room for Fido is one cause whose fruition is something we might see in our own lifetimes.

Across the country dog lovers are beginning to flex their political muscles. We’re talking big potential clout here. Claudia Kawczynska edits The Bark, formerly the Berkeley Bark, now a national quarterly with a circulation of 60,000. She tells me it’s hard to be sure, but somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of the nation’s households have dogs. City after city has acknowledged their new organizing power. In Seattle COLA (Citizens for an Offleash Area) trounced UNCOLA and got their canine-friendly acreage. Portland, Oregon is off-leash friendly too. Chicago has Wiggly Field. (I know, dogdom has a terrible tendency to cuteness.) Los Angeles is a nightmare. Last week San Francisco dog lovers went up against the fearsome might of the National Park Service and the Audubon Society, challenging an edict closing a portion of the delightful 300-acre Fort Funston park in south-west San Francisco because of the nesting bank swallow. The US District Court judge lent SF DOG a friendly ear and told the contending parties to come back with fresh briefs.

Claudia Kawczynska’s voice softened in admiration of the organizing prowess of the dog lovers of Brooklyn, victorious in their cause for off-leash liberty in Prospect Park. Then her tones became acrid as the hated name of Henry Stern, NYC parks commissioner and foe of all free creatures, most particularly in Riverside Park, came under review.

The usual gripes of the anti-offleash forces? They try to seize the high moral ground by giving us the old Either/Or. Why should we be seeking playgrounds for dogs when we aren’t giving them to children? Answer: Civilization is not a zero sum game. Let’s have both. Kids and dogs. Dog poop? Dogs on leashes do it as much as dogs running free, and surveys show that, once they win their off-leash area, dog lovers self-police with all the vigilance of a neighborhood committee of public safety in the Paris of Robespierre and St Just. The off-leash area in Cesar Chavez is probably the cleanest acreage in the East Bay.

Another ugly slur. Off-leash dogs are dangerous. Cities would face big liability exposure. To the contrary. Most dog biting occurs in the home, and there’s never been such a liability suit. A dog that can run free is a happy dog, uplifter of domestic morale. Owners are healthier too, dashing along after dogs like Jasper.

In fact, just the other day Jasper and I were dashing along, pondering the tentative but probably fallacious guess of Paul Klein, one of Cesar Chavez Park’s prime off-leash area organizers, that Jasper might not be a mere mutt, but a Portuguese water dog. (Later, at Campus Vet, Dr Charlie Berger disagreed.) But Paul imparted darker news. Foes of freedom are prowling round our off-leash area, readying themselves for a deadly pounce. The trouble really started when Cesar Chavez died. All over California city councils voted to rename streets, parks, bridges and other features of the landscape after the great organizer of farm workers. San Francisco got Cesar Chavez instead of Army St. In Berkeley they wanted to rename University Ave, but the Indian merchants down at the lower end raised a fuss. It’s expensive for storekeepers when a street gets renamed. So North Waterfront Park was duly converted into Cesar ChavezPark, and all the Hispanic factions took this as an invitation to adopt a proprietary attitude, as if the new name meant that the old landfill surfaced with three feet of topsoil was somehow theirs.

Enter Santiago Casal, who describes himself as an artist, though I’ve as yet been unable to find anyone who has actually seen a work by Casal. Last year, just when the off-leashers were about to win 20 acres in Cesar Chavez Park, Casal rose up in the city council and said he wanted to build an “Aztec calendar” on the western ridge. It was all a plot. As soon as the off-leashers had quit the council meeting after a favorable vote ? presumably to give their dogs a final amble, the Council double=backed at the eleventh hour and kow-towed to Casal, denying the off-leashers this exceptionally desirable ridge, and the battle was on.

First Casal wanted a circle thirty feet in diameter for his project, then fifty feet. His latest model presumes the city will give him a circle ninety feet in diameter, with bermed walls eight feet high. In it, on the evidence of some provisional sticks in the ground I saw earlier this year, will be sculptural indications of where the sun rises and sets on the spring and fall equinoxes. Casal wants all off-leash dogs banned since freely moving canines, even adjacent to his great work, might discommode “meditation”. And, fully aware that he is addressing the city council of Berkeley, he’s been playing the race card disgracefully and claims that any opposition to his plans is disrespectful to all people of Hispanic origin and that the off-leash area “desecrates” the memory of Cesar Chavez(who in fact loved dogs and whose Berkeley-based nephew, owner of Pinto the dog, supports the off-leash area.)

For reasons entirely to do with the political geography of Berkeley, the council has treated the arrogant Casal and his demented project with respect, and may this week deny the off-leash area promotion from “pilot project” to “program”, which would be a serious bureacratic set-back for us off-leashers.

One of the great things about Cesar Chavez Park is that it lacks pretension. It doesn’t have costly monuments or statues asking to be noticed. It has people and dogs having a good time. Amidst this communal enjoyment (known in bureaucratese as “multiple use”) of joggers, kite fliers, dog owners, dogs, a Berkeley Muni Court judge with a Dalmatian called Bonnie, there’s plenty to meditate about. As Paul Klein puts it, “What do meditators on that ridge see, apart from dogs? A bay so polluted that no sane person would swim in it, and no sane fisherman would eat from it. A city where most can’t afford to live. Congested freeways full of commuters trying to keep up with the treadmills of their lives. An oil refinery that fouls the air and water, catches on fire intermittently, and portends one of the great disasters of all time, come the Hayward quake. Amidst all this, dogs are upsetting? Cesar ChavezPark is not Glacier National Park. That’s where meditators need to go if they need unspoiled quiet. It’s an urban park where we all need to get along.”

There are plenty of practical problems with Casal’s vision. He hasn’t made any substantive progress, beyond posturing maneuvers. He hasn’t gone through any form of city agency review or environmental analysis. In short he hasn’t done any of the things the off-leashers did for years. Meantime, the city of Berkeley has allowed him to stake a private reservation on a public resource, without a timetable, without a qualification. This is unprecedented in land management, with the possible exception of mining claim law dating from the 19th century, not an analogy that should be appetizing to the Berkeley city council.

And, let us not forget, as Paul Klein points out, we are talking about a structure to be placed on a four-foot clay cap over millions of tons of garbage generating methane with a vengeance.

Six am on a misty morning. The Golden Gate Bridge is a spectral skeleton in the distance. Jasper rambles about, oblivious to, ignorant of the menace to his hours of pleasure. We off-leashers feel very strongly. I expect all major political candidates across the country to make their positions clear, for Al Gore, Ralph Nader and George W. Bush to seek the endorsement of off-leashers and for Berkeley City Council to do the right thing and give the off-leash area its much deserved green light.

If you’re in the area, try and make it to the Berkeley city council meeting at 7.30pm Tuesday night at City Hall on Martin Luther King. Let your bark be heard.

CounterPunch is a pro-dog newsletter, edited and managed, without exception, by dog owners.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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