(Note: This is not the history of the current iteration of DogPAC of SF. This was SF DogPAC that existed from 2000-2004. There was as much contention as there is now but the players have changed and so have the politics. Also, the DogPAC in this article ended up supporting Matt Gonzalez for Mayor in 2003 and not Gavin Newsom who didn't show any concern.)
What’s Hounding San Francisco
Never mind police scandals, run-down schools, and a huge budget deficit. The issue that has the whole city yapping is whether or not Rex can run off-leash.
Leslie Crawford, SanFranMag.com
Trim, bespectacled, and white-bearded, 62-year-old David Looman is smiling. But then, Looman—an erudite man whose easygoing manner belies an intractable nature—is always smiling. His bemused grin suggests that no matter how mad he is, and Looman is mad, he's confident he'll win.
It's a hazy Saturday afternoon, and he's out for a walk with his dogs, Rimbaud and Tuche. He keeps a firm grip on their leashes. "They tend to get into trouble," he explains. "Rimbaud was a wild dog." Again, the grin.
Looman is leading me up a pathway that winds through the grassy slopes of Bernal Heights' Holly Park. Finally, we arrive at the spot where his crusade began. "See," he says sardonically. "They locked up my park."
Actually, we're looking at an empty athletic field that's surrounded by a chain-link fence. Looman says he's been coming here to toss balls to his dogs for 25 years; for that matter, San Franciscans have been letting their dogs run free in city parks for generations. He was incensed when the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department began treating dog owners citywide like criminals. Three years ago, it closed his field to everything but organized ball games. At which point, Looman became downright rabid.
So he fought back. A career political consultant and self-described old leftie, Looman has become leader of the pack—which is not just a metaphor. He is chairman of the political action committee DogPAC, which raises money for dog-friendly candidates and lobbies for San Francisco's numerous canine organizations, determined to overturn the city's leash laws and make it legal for dogs to run free in most parks. These firebrand groups include Dolores Park Dogs, Fort Funston Dog Walkers Association, and the San Francisco Dog Owners Group (SFDOG), whose tagline reads, "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Leash."
"I was always actively involved in politics," Looman says with a teeth-baring smile. "But I never thought I'd be actively involved in an issue about dogs." Looman stretches out the word as if we're both in on a great joke. A joke that goes like this: "A dog walks into a park; no, make that tens of thousands of dogs, and they're running, digging, and taking care of business in San Francisco's 230 parks." The punch line, no knee-slapper, has left the city's citizens seething, practically at one another's throats, over whether their charges should be on a leash or off.
As the movement's Ralph Nader, Looman harbors a sense of righteous indignation. "What we're really talking about here is people's rights," he tells me. "We're taxpayers, we're citizens. Who has a right to say that I must be attached to a rope? That's evil."
Isn't he being a bit dramatic? We're not talking about throwing a lasso around people, only putting dogs on a leash.
"It may be dramatic," Looman says, "but let's get clear on the point." He says Rec and Park general manager Elizabeth Goldstein, whom he calls Lizzie Borden, "wants to restrict people's freedom, their healthful activities. By not being able to get out there and throw a ball to my dogs, I've lost upper-body muscle mass and tone. All because of other people's fears and anxieties about dogs. When did the government pass laws restricting behavior because some people are worried? Well, if you're worried, go talk to your therapist."
San Francisco's law to keep dogs on leashes in all but 18 of the city's parks is not exactly new. It's been on the books for well over 40 years. But never mind. The truth about dogs in San Francisco is that no matter how many leash law signs are posted, it's wink, nod, and fetch.
Yet in the wake of the horrific dog-mauling death of Diane Whipple two years ago, the growing concern of children's advocates, and increasing sensitivity to parks' natural plants and animals, city officials have grown more strict in keeping parks off-limits to dogs off leashes. As one high-ranking city official puts it, "It's like we've been allowing everyone to smoke pot for years. Now we're taking away their dope pipes." The official asked not to be named for fear of unleashing the wrath of "the dog people" on him.
It's too late. Led by Looman, the dog people have City Hall surrounded and can smell the fear of the inhabitants inside. "We have an incredible amount of influence," claims SFDOG cochair Wendy McClure. "We're middle- to upper-middle class, and we have the time and money to fight."
Supervisor Aaron Peskin says he has to agree. "The dog advocates have become very well organized," he admits. "They have a phenomenal ability to show up in large numbers and have become a political force. They are now a player on the scene."
San Francisco has approximately 120,000 dogs, whose owners make up a hefty portion of the city's voting population. Given the growing political might of off-leash advocates, it's not too far-fetched to imagine the dog issue deciding the city's next mayor. It's already shaped the makeup of the Board of Supervisors. This past November, three out of four winning supervisors—Fiona Ma, Sophie Maxwell, and Gavin Newsom—sought and won the DogPAC stamp of approval. While the fourth winner, Bevan Dufty, wasn't endorsed by DogPAC, he did his best to lick the hand that feeds him. One of his campaign ads, picturing him kneeling in a field flanked by two dogs and a little girl, is captioned, "Bevan Dufty: The Top Dog for Dogs in District 8."
At the time, Newsom went even further, declaring, "I think in the near future, dog rights will even eclipse homelessness. It will become the single most important issue in San Francisco."
Right now it's becoming the single most contentious issue in San Francisco. Controversy over whether Fido should be kept on a leash has pitted singles against families, dogs against birds, politicians against politicians. From his post as president of the San Francisco SPCA, Ed Sayres sums up the debate as, "No, you shut up!"
The spark that lit the bonfire can be traced to Ocean Beach. In 1997, the federally run Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) closed off several acres along Ocean Beach to off-leash dogs. An effort, officials said,
to protect an endangered bird called the snowy plover. People united in a frenzy of protest, writing letters by the hundreds. Environmental concerns also put other federal lands like Lands End, Crissy Field, and Fort Funston—an off-leash haven for decades—under tight restrictions. Many who had been using the beaches for dog walking immigrated to city parks.
Meanwhile, the high-tech economy was booming, and neighborhoods like the Mission and Noe Valley were undergoing rapid gentrification. A fresh wave of relatively affluent young people was moving in, converging on the city's parks. Soon, a pointed conflict arose between single dog owners—gay and straight—and "breeders."
No park better exemplifies this clash than Noe Courts. A one-acre stretch of land down the street from where I live in Noe Valley, Noe Courts is in the heart of District 8, which boasts the highest density of dogs in the city. "Noe Courts is our Stonewall," says SFDOG spokesperson Laura Cavaluzzo, alluding to the 1969 uprising at New York's Stonewall Inn that signaled the beginning of the gay rights movement. The battle over the tiny park, says Cavaluzzo, marked the turning point that helped transform a fairly benign group of dog lovers into spirited activists.
Which was news to me. I have a cat and have always liked dogs, but in the eight years I've lived in Noe Valley, I've had a vague notion that our park was at the heart of a rancorous struggle between neighbors illegally walking dogs off-leash and those wanting to keep dogs from tearing up the grass and running into the children's playground. Although one morning a few months ago, I stepped right into it myself.
I was walking with my five-year-old son, Sam, and our three-year-old neighbor, Beatrice, to their preschool. As usual, we took a shortcut through Noe Courts. Just as we passed through the gate, a large dog was suddenly upon Beatrice, his paws on her shoulders, making a play for her cinnamon toast. While Beatrice screamed and I vainly attempted to separate the dog and the girl, I yelled at a clique of dog owners, "Someone get this dog!" A woman arrived and pulled her dog away from Beatrice. "He's just a puppy and doesn't know better," she said with a smile. "He wouldn't hurt anyone." In this case, it was true. No one was hurt. Beatrice, shaken, sniffled up her tears. The woman and I were miffed that we'd been drawn into an unpleasant scene. The only one who appeared untroubled was the culprit himself, who stood scratching his ear.
Later, when I recount my dog-bites-toast story to Looman, he says, "Oh, that's anecdotal. How many people are knocked down by joggers?"
That's just the attitude that has inflamed the controversy, says Marybeth Wallace, board member of Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, the influential nonprofit group. "Their attitude is: ‘My dog is my child and you should love him.'"
Coleman Advocates itself fueled the fire in 1998, when it came out with a report card on San Francisco parks, which looked at, among other issues, how dogs have become "a problem for families," says Wallace. She says the conflict became so ugly that at one public meeting she heard a dog lover suggest that because San Francisco has more dogs than children (general consensus pegs both groups at about 120,000), dogs deserve at least equal rights. "The first time I heard someone say there are more dogs than children," says Margaret Brodkin, Coleman's executive director, "I said, ‘There are more rats than dogs; so what?'"
In 2000, Rec and Park general manager Goldstein, newly appointed by Mayor Willie Brown, set out to create a formalized pet policy that rendered the majority of parks on-leash. "It seemed to me that there weren't any guidelines for the development of off-leash areas," Goldstein says. "We thought if we could set citywide policy that we'd have more than likely success. That was our hope."
The off-leash brigade cried foul, claiming they were being ghettoized and unfairly penalized. Most off-leash areas, they said, were cramped dog runs that were too difficult to reach, too unsanitary, or too dangerous to use. The more marginalized dog owners felt, the more galvanized they became. The web enabled SFDOG to rally the troops: They filed petitions, phoned supervisors, and attended public meetings. It wasn't long until SFDOG, following in the footsteps of prior activists, marched on City Hall (the Critical Mutt Parade) and printed bumper stickers ("I Own a Dog and I Vote").
From New York to St. Louis to Santa Barbara—and certainly throughout the Bay Area—to leash or not to leash has been a back-burner question for decades. But as urban centers have grown more crowded with people and pooches, open spaces have become preciously rare commodities. Perhaps no more so than in San Francisco, a geographically small and densely populated city. Toss in a history of spirited activism and a heightened obsession with our children and pets, and you've got a potent brew for civic unrest.
A watershed event swept San Francisco's dog movement into deep political waters. It took place during a rain-soaked GGNRA advisory meeting at the Presidio Golden Gate Club on the evening of January 23, 2001. An overflow crowd of nearly 2,000 protesters showed up, most forced to stand, Stella Dallas-like, out in the rain.
Already, GGNRA had prohibited all off-leash dogs at Ocean Beach and closed off large sections of Fort Funston to off-leash walkers. The dog lovers had come en masse to decry GGNRA's proposal to rescind its 1979 pet policy, which had made provisions for off-leash park use in all of San Francisco's federal recreation areas. Never had a San Francisco public meeting drawn such a mob.
By now, local politicians had pricked up their ears, or at least driven behind enough "I Own a Dog and I Vote" bumper stickers to get the message. "As politicians are wont to do, we all dragged down to the Presidio and said the self-serving things politicians are supposed to say, gave empty platitudes," says a supervisor who asked to remain anonymous.
Given that San Francisco supervisors have no jurisdiction to change GGNRA's policies, they had nothing to lose by appearing to be in the off-leash camp. And no one was more effusive than Newsom. Addressing GGNRA officials, he said, "I believe very strongly that any decision you'll make tonight, short of making a decision not to make a decision to reverse the 1979 policy, would be an extraordinary mistake." The audience burst into applause. For several minutes Newsom commandeered the soapbox, finishing off with an irresistible pun. "Do not wake this sleeping dog!" By the time he was finished, the crowd was chanting, "Gavin, Gavin, Gavin."
"When I saw a thousand people show up on a pouring, rainy night to talk about dogs, I thought the planet is going to hell in a handbasket," says Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a nonprofit coalition of 100 park groups. "You couldn't get 100 people to show up to talk about global warming."
But show up they do. In May 2002, having reached an impasse with Rec and Park, dog advocates saw their only recourse as going over the heads of Rec and Park and taking their case to city government. They found a champion in former supervisor Leland Yee, who helped draft the Yee Ordinance, which, contrary to Rec and Park's current regulations, would allow dogs to run off-leash in far more city parks than they can now (see page 52). It's also known as the "voice-control ordinance," although no one on either side is entirely sure what "voice control" means, given the muddy language of the ordinance. Most agree, as Cavaluzzo says, that voice control is "interchangeable with ‘well-trained,' and it's as much about the owner as about the dog." While the ordinance is presently stalled in the city's planning department, public meetings about leash laws continue to drag on.
Along with GGNRA meetings, there are innumerable ones for individual parks, plus supervisors' hearings and confabs for the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee. The meetings are long, riveting, and seething with vicious personal attacks. Members of SFDOG refer to the "antidog" regulars who show up as "cranks" and "beady-eyed loons." They dismiss representatives from the Native Plant Society and the Golden Gate Audubon Society as "plant Nazis." Dog lovers, in turn, are called "selfish fringe lunatics."
"Nationally, I think people are looking at us and saying, ‘You've got to be kidding,'" says Coleman Advocates' Wallace. "We're the laughingstock of the country." Adds her colleague Brodkin: "This has literally become the tail that wagged the dog. It's the combination of Leland Yee's polarizing politics and the posturing of the most extreme dog owners that allowed this to get out of hand. We have left the realm of rational policy making and entered the realm of the absurd."
At a recent planning commission meeting about Stern Grove, tempers flare in all directions. A mother stands up to express concern that the grove's open-dog area is so close to the children's day camp. "You'd think we were talking about wolves," the woman sitting next to me says. "Bitch," hisses one of the so-called beady-eyed loons when an SFDOG member rises to speak.
Those steeped in the canine contretemps are wary of anyone who could belong to the other side. Many barely accept my phone calls, and when they do, they suspect that I am siding with the enemy. SFDOG wouldn't allow me to attend a picnic at which Yee would be present. Grudgingly, the group agreed to let me attend one of their regular meetings, but only if I arrived an hour late, after they had discussed their private business.
When I call Jake Sigg, the conservation chair for the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, he asks me if this article is going to be pro-dog. When I insist I am impartial, he lets down his guard. "The ‘doggers' can be so aggressive, so selfish," he tells me. "They don't have lives; this is their life. We're at an extreme disadvantage. We tend to be nice people."
Sigg argues he's never been against dogs but is only defending a delicate ecosystem at risk. "I personally love dogs. I'd love to accommodate them," he says. "But there's no question that heavy-duty dog running is very detrimental to native plants. Dogs add nitrogen to the soil, which encourages weeds. And wherever they dig, only weeds come back. Native plants are destroyed."
The dog people counter that they, too, want to protect local ecosystems and foster community life. They meet daily in neighborhood parks, they explain, watch their dogs play, form friendships, and become emotionally connected. Singles alone in the city with no family to rely on, especially, have found a surrogate family, rare in an urban setting.
"When I get out in the park with these people, I'm no longer alone in a big city," says SFDOG's McClure. "That's what I'm fighting for, to have a sense of my community."
What's more, she says, SFDOG people are good citizens. They clean up their parks and admonish masters who fail to control unruly pooches. They are paying for the sins of a few scofflaws who don't carry a "doggie bag" when they walk in the park and aren't responsible enough to control a dog who jumps on children, knocks down elderly women, or on the rare occasion attacks.
SFDOG's Cavaluzzo wants me to see for myself. She takes me to Corona Heights Park near the Randall Museum, where she walks her dog off-leash, not in the fenced-in, muddy, and smelly dog run but on the surrounding hills. It's as if she called central casting to make sure the finest of the dog-walking community are there when I arrive.
I meet a senior citizen who came to depend on her fellow doggers when she fell ill. A single man in his mid-'30s is voluntarily lugging around a Hefty bag and stuffing it with waste—not just from dogs but from the homeless who camp out at night. There are gay couples with dogs, a mother with two children and a dog. While their masters look on proudly, a pack of about four large dogs run in wide circles and twice crash into me so my knees buckle. I also manage to plant my foot in a recent deposit of dog waste. "Great," says Cavaluzzo. "People are so good about cleaning up after their dogs here. But the one time I bring a reporter, she steps in it."
SPCA president Sayres sighs when I ask him how the dog issue has gotten so far out of hand. After all, we're talking about a coterie of do-gooder organizations, representing the best interests of children, dogs, plants, and birds. You would think they would all respect one another, rather than creating a web of mayhem.
"Animals are a very emotional issue," says Sayres of San Francisco SPCA, which celebrates its 135th anniversary this year. "In our generation, dogs have gone from the backyard to the bedroom to the bed. Before they were an adjunct; now they are part of the family." So close is this bond that once again San Francisco has led the charge by recently passing an ordinance allowing dog owners to call themselves guardians, which elevates a dog's status from property to close companion.
Sayres explains that 95 percent of dog owners are responsible. It's the remaining 5 percent who don't control their dogs who ruin it for others.
Of course, many dog owners have children and consider themselves environmentalists. But politics is a rabble-rouser's game. "The advocacy position is very passionate," Sayres says. "You have to get to the table." Unfortunately, he says, Rec and Park officials have not handled the controversy well. Instead of dealing with the few irresponsible dog owners, "they've made a blanket rule to make most parks on-leash."
In January, Looman has a bit of cheery news for me. The gardener at Holly Park had been out sick, and in her absence, someone cut the locks on the ball field's gate. "It's amazing what's happening," he says. "An utter explosion of activity. Kids playing, a guy flying a kite. Like after the Taliban left Afghanistan."
To many local politicians, Looman and the controversy have become a nuisance, one that, to their shame, trumps other concerns. "I hate this issue," says one high-ranking official. "I think it's stupid. I know it's important to a lot of people. The last thing I want for me and my colleagues to deal with is this issue. I'd rather deal with homelessness." But of course Looman has an answer to that: "There aren't that many people directly impacted by the homeless issue; a lot more are directly impacted by the dog issue." So local politicians remain in the doghouse.
Which leaves Looman and company in control. And they know it. "Now that we've been through these supervisor campaigns and actively contributed and raised volunteers, we're ready to begin the mayor's race," Looman says.
The dog people aren't saying who they'll back in November. But they're not crazy about Ammiano, who, Looman insists, "hasn't compiled a very dog-friendly record so far." So will DogPAC go for Newsom?
Looman weighs the question as if DogPAC holds Newsom's fate in its hands. "We'll have to look at him," allows Looman. "He's a strong candidate and has treated us well in the past; he's promised to treat us well in the future. I think there's a real likelihood that we'll endorse him. And he likes weimaraners. That's a real mark of intelligence. They're wonderful dogs. They're smart. They don't shed. Just a great dog."