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S.F. hot under the dog collar

In a city where the canine lobby has plenty of bite, the debate over leash laws and park `petiquette' is at a particularly high pitch.

February 17, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — One supervisor calls it the political version of a pit bull attack. The mayor says grimly he'll probably solve the homeless problem first.

Often-rabid opponents face off in city parks, public meetings and on the Internet, and sometimes resort to shoving matches and name-calling.

Canine politics here can be dog-eat-dog.

In this city named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the 120,000 dogs outnumber children. And while the debates are not unique -- leash or no leash, dog parks or people parks -- San Francisco's arguments are particularly high-pitched.

The dog lobby is a political tour de force, with a network to make even the GOP proud. Most parks have pro-dog groups. The leash debate draws huge crowds at hearings, which go on forever and require overflow rooms.

Canine political action committees hold Q&A's with would-be officeholders. In the last mayoral race, candidate Matt Gonzales even inspired a group called "Mutts for Matt."

Blogs rail against "dog haters." One dog group's motto is "Speak up now or forever hold your leash!" Bumper stickers say: "I'm a dog owner and I vote."

And woe to those who want those furry wards tethered. Take Arnold Levine: He loves dogs. It's their owners he fears.

Levine, 56, who has no pets, sits on the 12-member Dog Advisory Committee, which consults with city parks officials. He's been shouted down at meetings for, as he says, "having the audacity to take a stand against people who feel their dogs should run free at every park and beach in San Francisco."

Dog owners, he says, have turned local Sunnyside Park into "a toilet." But when he suggested that they leash and clean up after their pets, he felt their wrath.

He found dog feces inside his car and on his lawn. "One woman repeatedly screamed, 'You're not human!' " he said. Finally, he sold his home and moved. Caroline Murphy, who regularly walks Laika, a beagle-terrier mix, says Sunnyside dog owners have made a big effort, circulating "petiquette" guides and holding park cleanups.

She described Levine as part of "a fringe element of very intolerant people." Officials say they feel caught in the middle.

"It's the third rail of San Francisco politics," said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. "There is no middle ground. City officials know that if they touch the issue, they're going to get hurt."

Even Matt Gonzales, backed by "Mutts for Matt," says "the dog lobby has a Tammany Hall reality. Someone walks into your office and says 'I got 30 votes here, what can you do for me?' They walk precincts. It's the way the religious right does politics."

All dog owners want is to be left alone, insists Sally Stephens, head of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group.

She says opponents mischaracterize the issue as one pitting children against dogs. Many families have both, she reasons. Opponents have overblown the acts of the irresponsible few who do not curb their pets, she said.

"We're not saying we want everything," said Stephens, whose dog, Skates, is a border collie mix. "We just don't want the wholesale banning of dogs."

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San Francisco is home to some of America's first dog day-care centers, as well as dog hotels, holistic veterinarians and restaurants that allow pets to eat alongside their owners.

The city has one of the nation's lowest animal shelter kill rates, with 82% of dogs and cats saved, according to animal welfare statistics.

Its 225 parks feature 29 off-leash dog play areas, the most per square mile nationwide -- more than Sacramento, Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles combined, officials say.

City rules, following those in L.A., require owners to provide dogs with palatable and nutritious food, as well as water that is changed at least once a day and placed in a non-tipping bowl.

Advocates persuaded officials to add the designation "guardian" any time the phrase "pet owner" is mentioned in city code. West Hollywood followed suit.

"Every city has pet lovers; this one has pet fanatics," said Warren Eckstein, host of the L.A.-based syndicated radio show "The Pet Show." "If I were running for office there, I'd run my campaign out of the dog parks."

As in Los Angeles, the drive to allow dogs off leash is waged at both parks and beaches. Activists have gone to court to challenge leash restrictions at several beaches maintained by the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

Though federal law bans unleashed dogs from the beaches, pet owners say their dogs have run free there since before the National Park Service took control of the area in 1974. When the recreational area imposed new rules in 2002, the activists sued, saying officials had acted without public input.

In 2005, a judge agreed -- and the park service now is negotiating with several groups, including dog owners.

Activists say recent battles with parks officials were key to organizing the canine lobby.

"We were minding our own business when suddenly people declared war," said David Looman, who in 2000 created SF Dog PAC, a political action committee.

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