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Here Boy Dogs sometimes roam Lincoln's dog park without a leash, which has sparked heated exchanges between school officials and canine owners.

Dogged Determination

Words and barbs are traded when hounds run free

By Najeeb Hasan

SHORTLY AFTER SUNSET on a Wednesday night some weeks ago, the media center at Lincoln High School on Dana Avenue was jam-packed with about 70 people who had come to talk, not about standards of education or any such tedious matter, but about dogs. San Jose Councilmember Ken Yeager, who lives nearby, welcomed the overwhelmingly white crowd as they squeezed into plastic chairs clustered around tables normally reserved for study time. A banner affixed to the wood-paneled walls read: "I always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."

The meeting was highly anticipated by dog-owning residents of both the Rose Garden and the Sashta/Hanchett Park neighborhoods, many of who have, for the past 20 years, been running their dogs unleashed in Lincoln High's athletic fields--a blatantly illegal activity. But, the subject of the meeting--whether the city should allow a dog park on a fenced-in sliver of Lincoln High's athletic fields--was also expected to cause friction. "I'm going to leave early," sighed a top official from the city's parks department as he made his way into the media center. "These people will just go on and on. Dog-park meetings are always emotional."

Indeed, during his welcoming statements, Yeager, a former president of the Rose Garden neighborhood association, treated the event as if he were brokering a Middle East peace dialogue. He spoke of the need for an "open process" and of coming into the meeting with the intention of hearing what the citizens "want," adding that the city has "no official position." He also showed great concern about the need to "work together" and the dangers of people becoming "suspicious" about "who [is] talking to whom."

The onlookers, meanwhile, looked on edgily and remained calm enough to allow successive presentations by Yeager, Lincoln High principal Chris Funk, Jon Cicirelli, from the city's Animal Care division, and Steve Roemer, a parks manager with the city.

Funk, inspired no doubt by Yeager, continued with the council member's approach, informing the listeners that there are "myths" that the dog park is a "done deal" and that "no money" is being passed to anyone "behind the scenes."

It was the tall, goateed Funk who, after Measure F passed, had the idea of an official dog park on Lincoln High property. (Measure F allowed the San Jose Unified School District to redo its athletic fields.) Already, $1 million has been pumped into a sparkling new football stadium for Lincoln High. The stadium boasts turf and an eight-lane, all-weather track. In the coming years, new softball and baseball fields will also be created. Funk, playing realist--"We already have dogs on our campus," he admitted to the audience--and wanting to protect the football turf from dog waste, decided there was about a half-acre of unused space in the corner of the high school's athletic grounds that could be leased (probably cheaply) to the city to create a legal dog park.

During the tail-end of Roemer's presentation, however, the audience could no longer restrain itself and began peppering him with questions. "Why can't we use the Rose Garden?" asked one women, referring to the neighborhood's ornament, an 80-year-old park where dogs are verboten. The question provoked cheers and hoots. Roemer fidgeted uncomfortably before mumbling something about attempting to keep the Rose Garden in "pristine condition."

Another person asked, "How do you prevent students from getting bitten?" Another contributed that she counted 500 students per day that crossed the intersection near the planned dog park and extrapolated that more than 200,000 people walk through the intersection each year. Somebody else asked Funk if the planned softball fields could be rotated to create better space for the dog park.

A dog walker claimed that in all her years of walking her dogs at Lincoln, she had never came across "dog garbage, only people garbage," which she disposed of as a favor for the school. Yet another person tried to corner Funk into admitting he was only opening his prized fields to those who obtain a permit. Funk vigorously defended his case, but the audience wasn't swayed. "He's trying to keep them locked from the community," somebody muttered.

The city parks official who planned to leave early, meanwhile, leaned back on his chair impassively, as if watching a play unfold he had watched many times before.

Dog Tired

To be a dog owner in San Jose, especially a dog owner with little or no yard, is to be constantly on edge. It is illegal for dogs to run without leashes in the city, as it is in most municipalities. Yet there are only two dog parks, enclosed areas where dogs can legally run free, within the limits of the sprawling city--and one of the dog parks is less than one-third of an acre, while the other, larger park is chronically overcrowded. By contrast, San Francisco boasts at least 17 dog parks inside the six square miles of its city border.

As a result, the perspectives of some San Jose dog owners could seem a bit radical for everyday people.

"It would seem to me that every park should have a dog park in it," says Bob Walker, who unleashes his Italian greyhound, Lovejoy, at Lincoln High. "About 50 percent of the community is associated with dogs. If they give 50 percent of the budget, then it would be reasonable to have a dog park in every park."

The former director of De Anza's planetarium, Walker, now retired, is a leading member of the Lincoln Hound Society, a neighborhood group dedicated to establishing a dog park in the area. For Walker, the problem with Funk's offer to the city is that there are no assurances the city will take the land. In fact, already numbers like $100,000 are being bandied about as the estimate of how much it would take to convert Lincoln High's land into a functioning dog park.

"In the past, when I was a kid, if you had to take your dog out, you went down the street," explains Walker gloomily. "And we went down the street, no problem. That world is gone."

Lincoln Hound Society members like to say that their current relationship with the school is mutually beneficial. The school has historically looked the other way when they unleash their dogs on school property, and the dog owners, by and large a responsible lot, claim they help keep the school's grounds clean by picking up debris and shooing away vandals. Last year, the Hound Society gave $600 dollars to the school's athletic fund. "For 20 years, there have been no problems," says Rob Hugger, one of the dog owners to visit the park early on. "Four years ago, there was some trouble with the baseball coach--some dog peed on second base. But it's the old spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law. The principal has historically not enforced the leashing rules. He told one of the neighbors against us--a soccer mom--that he was not going to report us. He recognizes that campus is community property."

Lately, however, leashing rules have been enforced at Lincoln High. Mysterious tipsters have apparently called Animal Care with reports of dogs running unleashed in the parks. Members of the Lincoln Hound Society, themselves, have ended up with $100 tickets. For six weeks last summer, Animal Care beefed up surveillance of the high school. "They were there seven days a week," Hugger remembers about the city's counter tactics. "Night-time, holidays, during the 4th of July, they were out there. One poor guy had just bought a puppy, and he got a ticket."

An acerbic principal Funk, is less trusting of the Hound Society than the society's members are of him. During an interview, Funk, playing cloak-and-dagger, demanded a tape recorder be turned off during the interview about the dog park--"Did I give you my permission," he asked sternly. He acknowledges he has told his Lincoln staff they could call Animal Care if they deem it necessary. "No one has been formally bitten," says Funk. "But have there been dog fights? Yes. Have people walked through dog doo? Yes."

Funk looks like a man who has found himself in a predicament he wished he could have avoided. Contrary to what the Hound Society believes, Funk doesn't like the fact that dogs run unleashed on his fields. The problem is, there's nothing he can do to stop it. "The prior principal had a working arrangement that allowed dogs as long as dog don't interfere with practice," Funk says. "I don't want the dogs running free. That's why I want them contained in the park. And they are a nuisance. Not all dog owners have complete control of their dogs. It amazes me that we live in the Rose Garden area, and dogs aren't allowed to come into that park, and yet, they think they can come on campus and let their dogs run free."

Meanwhile, the Lincoln dog park does not even have the support of the neighborhood association. The Shasta/Hanchett Park association prefers that money invested in a leased dog park be diverted to buying land for another park in the area. The neighborhood association, in a letter to Yeager, declared, with a straight face, that having a dog park on school property "would compromise the quality of life in the neighborhood" and may even create safety issues.

Those who run their dogs at Lincoln, however, are hardly convinced. Bobbie Coleman, a loyal dog walker, huffs at the thought of a dog park being too dangerous: "If your little kid hits somebody with a baseball bat, does that mean no little kids are allowed to play baseball again?" she asks rhetorically. "Our society is getting so that nobody is responsible for themselves, but society is responsible for everybody. I remember when the kids sued the school after falling through the skylight. It's the deep-pocket theory. Pretty soon we're going to have a society with no kids, no pets, no fun."

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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