News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.


home | metro santa cruz index | currents

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
THE LEASH OF OUR PROBLEMS: Too often, Pandy the Beagle gets all dressed up and has nowhere to go.

Downtown Dogfight

It's a tug-of-war over canine rightsin Santa Cruz

By Kelly Luker

OLIVER loves to visit downtown Carmel. He and his chauffeur enjoy great service at restaurants and freedom to run the town's white sand beach untethered. Oliver also enjoys Los Gatos, with its water bowls on the sidewalk, welcoming stores and a main street full of other people and their dogs.

Santa Cruz? That's a different matter. The little white dog cannot accompany me to Pacific Avenue, most of the city beaches, the Santa Cruz Wharf or San Lorenzo Park or hang out anywhere along the San Lorenzo river inside the city limits. The rest of the county isn't exactly a bowl of kibble either, what with leashes required at county beaches and all parks except a quarter-mile trail in DeLaveaga Park. (Dog parks don't count. They're sort of like minimum-security prisons; you can roam around, just not outside the fence.)

The politics of a dog's place in the community is a hot-button topic. Like screaming toddlers, their near proximity is either loved, tolerated or despised. Whitney Wilde is leading her pack toward creating a more dog-friendly attitude. "I love this town and I hate that it's so unfriendly towards the other thing I love—my dog," she says. Wilde started Woofers and Walkers, a social club for dog lovers, three years ago. People and their canine buddies can join weekly hikes and lunches as well as other periodic activities like Doggy-Drive-In, Burning Dog, Rails and Tails and so on.

"The whole reason I started [Woofers and Walkers] was to make Santa Cruz more dog-friendly and to create a view of responsible dog owners," Wilde says. One of the ways to do that was to abolish the 34-year-old ban on dogs downtown. She's posted an online petition to the Santa Cruz City Council in support of lifting the ban. To date, it has fetched 385 signatures.

Dumping Ground

To understand Pacific Avenue's pup prohibition, it helps to revisit the era and consciousness of when it was passed in 1976. Like UC-Berkeley, Santa Cruz's university attracted a certain "element" along with its decidedly nontraditional students: dropouts, hippies and panhandlers. Like fleas on a dog, they gravitated to what was once known as the Pacific Garden Mall. Diane Cohan, therapist, private investigator and passionate dog lover, lived in Santa Cruz through the '70s. When asked if the dog ban had anything to do with discouraging unattractive nonconsumers away from businesses, she replies, "Absolutely."

One of the councilmembers who approved the ban, Carol DePalma, has another explanation. "People had a different attitude towards dogs back then," she says. Leash laws, mandatory spay-and-neuter laws and poop-bags with their convenient dispensers had not yet surfaced.

Earlier this year, the Downtown Association voted 8-1 to overturn the ban. The reason? Money, of course. An increasing number of shoppers appear to enjoy walking on Pacific Avenue about as much as Oliver likes that thermometer shoved up him at the vet's. In response, the Downtown Association has desperately sought ways to get shoppers back.

According to Downtown Association board member Emily Bernard Coonerty, allowing dogs downtown may help to generate more business. "We considered different ways of making downtown more friendly," Coonerty says. The Board took a poll of all businesses in the banned area and found "the majority said they'd be interested in dogs downtown," according to Coonerty. She recalls that several shop owners were told by their customers that they would shop downtown more often if they could bring their dog. The Board agreed on several stipulations that would accompany the proposal: no panhandling with dogs, no more than three dogs gathered together and a whopping fine for anyone who did not pick up after their dog.

Though the proposal hasn't even made it to City Council, dogs are already showing up on Pacific Avenue. Some are being accompanied by tourists and shoppers. Then there are dogs that have had the misfortune to be stuck hanging out all day begging and hanging out on the sidewalk. "Panhandlers have learned to say [their dog] is a 'service dog,'" says DePalma. She is referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a person who claims his or her dog is a service dog cannot be asked to prove it.

This is one of the reasons the proposal has not made headway. "The laws are all mixed up," Coonerty says, referring to the ADA's policy. "We need to get them straightened out first."

Disobedience School

Lighthouse Field and It's Beach have also been in a tug-of-war with authorities. While controlled by the city of Santa Cruz, it had been the province of off-leash dogs before 10am and after 4pm for 30 years until the State Parks system took control back in 2007. Dogs are not allowed off-leash at any time in any of California's state parks. Angry dog owners, perhaps sniffing the ban down the road, formed Friends of Lighthouse Field (FOLF) in 2002.

FOLF board member Zee Zaballos wants to shed those leashes once again, saying the ban has torn apart a once-vibrant community of dog people who met mornings and afternoons. "It was a chance for people to socialize," Zaballos says. "[The ban] has driven a really responsible group away, so now you have homeless camps, drug use—an element you really don't want."

The FOLF gang will not give up their leashless ways without howls of protest. Every Saturday morning from 8:30am to 10am, dogs and their people gather at It's Beach (or, if the tide is too high, Lighthouse Field) and frolic unfettered. Donuts, coffee and petitions to sign are provided each week along with a lookout stationed above the beach to warn the group of approaching State Rangers. If spotted, a warning goes down to the owners, who quickly leash their dogs.

I've volunteered to bring donuts several times and been told the Saturday morning romp is really an act of civil disobedience. No, I explain, it doesn't count unless you are willing to get arrested—perhaps go limp and make the cops drag you (and presumably your dog) up the stairs. Otherwise it's just disobedience. Still, FOLF has clearly marked its territory and continues to challenge the authorities to do something about it. The city and state, in response, remain in their Sit-Stay positions.

Paws for Lunch

Although downtown and Lighthouse Field are the most visible battlegrounds for the right to run free, a not-so-quiet-revolution is taking place elsewhere around the county. Like the Downtown Association, Woofers and Walkers also found that the prospect of more business can convince cafes to go dog-friendly.

"I pick a restaurant in the county with a patio," explains Wilde. "I then call and ask if I can bring a dog. If the answer is yes, I ask if I can bring a lot of dogs." Some restaurateurs tell Wilde the California Health Code bans dogs on the patio. Actually, it doesn't. Dogs are allowed in outdoor dining areas as long as they don't have to walk through the dining room to get there. Since Wilde's first conversion, Seabright Brewery, 23 more cafes have rolled out the water dishes. Asked if the dog-friendly patio is working, Seabright Brewery owner Charlie Meehan replies, "People are loving it. It's made people so happy to come into our restaurant [patio] with their dogs. He adds, "The dogs, for the most part, have been so well-behaved. They act nicer than the people."

Freelance writer Kelly Luker operates Little Pup Lodge (, which provides kennel-free boarding and day care exclusively for small dogs. For more dog-related articles, visit, find the top navigation bar and click on "news."/

Send letters to the editor here.