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Valley Perspective

Finally a Leash Law With Teeth

Dogs need a place to run, but park-goers' safety comes first

August 18, 1996

For more than a decade, dog owners were allowed to let their pets frolic free and unleashed in the wilder areas of Wilacre Park in Studio City. But this weekend the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is for the first time enforcing the park's leash law, which for years was winked at by rangers and totally unknown to most visitors. All dogs at the park must now be on a leash. The reason: Six people in the last five months have been bitten by dogs at Wilacre.

Dog owners were understandably angered by the policy switch, which was made after community talks hit an impasse. There are precious few places left in Southern California where a dog can romp and play or just mope lazily alongside its owner. State-run parks such as Malibu Creek and Topanga ban dogs altogether. Parks run by the National Park Service require dogs be leashed. Some dog owners have threatened to sue in order to prevent the conservancy from enforcing the leash law at Wilacre.

Yet as easy as it is to sympathize with the dog owners, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy did the right thing. When the agency took over Wilacre in 1984, the park was used regularly by only a handful of people--most to walk their dogs. So the agency turned a blind eye to unleashed dogs. Although all other conservancy-run parks required dogs be leashed, a sign at Wilacre asked only that they be leashed or "under control."

But as the park became more popular and word spread that dogs could run free, the number of run-ins between unleashed dogs and hikers began to climb.

Fearing liability, the conservancy and City Councilman Mike Feuer, who represents the area, tried to hammer out a compromise that would limit potential conflicts between dogs and hikers. That effort fell apart, though, and the conservancy began notifying park visitors of the new restrictions last week. They began enforcing the rule Saturday.

Despite protests to the contrary, the change does not eliminate opportunities for dogs to run free. Laurel Canyon Park, which allows dogs off leashes during certain hours, is less than a mile from Wilacre. More places like the city-run Laurel Canyon Park are needed. On busy days, the park is jammed with pups from mutts to pedigrees. But the city's Department of Recreation and Parks is better equipped than the conservation- and education-oriented conservancy to provide single-purpose recreation facilities such as dog parks.

Dog owners should understand that the restrictions imposed at Wilacre are both reasonable and responsible.

Visitors to mountain parks assume certain risks such as bug bites and twisted ankles; being snapped at by an unleashed dog generally is not among them. To be sure, dogs are still welcome at Wilacre. Now, so is everyone else.

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