Dog Park Outlaw
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep Dallas dog owners out of their pups’ favorite watering hole—even if it is illegal.
As soon as I got home after two weeks away for work, the first thing I did was hit the White Rock Lake dog park at Mockingbird Point. It was closed, of course. It had stormed while I was away, and the muddy park always seems to be shuttered for days after a good rainfall.
Closed, but not empty. A man with a shaved head and tight t-shirt ignored the padlocked gate and “CLOSED” sign, hopped inside, and exclaimed, “That’s what you call easy access!” His shaggy Jack Russell was named “Idol.” Like American Idol? I asked. “More like Ryan Idol, the gay early-’90s porn star.”
We weren’t alone. Later on, a man I’ll call Biceps settled onto the shady bench near the doggie mud spa. “This is better than happy hour,” he said. “This place totally changes my mood.” Biceps was wearing a lime-green tank top, shorts, and dark aviator glasses. He easily heaved his 75-pound bearded collie over the fence, as well as a squirming oversized Labradoodle and whatever other dogs wanted in. (This is not unusual. During that recent visit to the padlocked park I saw several dogs two or three times the 30-pound weight limit for the small dog area being hoisted over the fence, their owners hurdling after them with help from a couple of busted green plastic chairs.) I don’t know if he was hitting on me or just going Zen, but Biceps said, “The dog park restores my sense of innocence. It’s unpolluted, there’s no politics, no strategy.”
But there are lawbreakers, apparently. And I’m one of them. I know dog park scofflaws aren’t bad people. They take their civic duties seriously, judging by the deserted dog park I saw on primary election day. So what is the magnetic pull of the first sunny afternoon following a drench? Why is it that on most days when the park is closed, no matter how mud- and mosquito-infested it is following a gully-washer, dozens of dogs—pugs and whippets, poodles and teacup Chihuahuas—romp in tongue-lolling nirvana over soggy ground, while their shifty-eyed owners scan the perimeter for bicycle cops?
Because the choice between our dogs and the law is an easy one. The mutt wins.
I first joined the guilty two years ago. I am ashamed to admit that while I pay my taxes and eschew illicit substances, when it comes to a certain rat terrier named Lola, a particularly stunning example of canine perfection, no padlocked gate will deprive us.
I say “us” because after questioning other dog park scofflaws, it’s hard to say who enjoys it more: the unleashed dogs locked in butt-sniffing circles or their human escorts.
I will never forget the day I saw Lola, a timid former stray, gather the courage to leave my lap and frolic with the other dogs. I didn’t even know what a rat terrier was until three dogs with identical tan and white markings, bald spotted bellies, and radar-like ears pranced into the White Rock dog park wagging their tails at her. When I watch Lola break free of apartment-induced somnolence, ears pressed flat against her dainty head for aerodynamic efficiency, all four paws flying off the ground until she launches into orbit around the grassy knoll of Dallas dog lovers’ lore, there’s no other place in this city I’d rather be.
One Saturday evening this spring, I quizzed a group of at least 17 dog owners gathered in the locked park. Many said they didn’t know it was closed until they arrived, a lame excuse since the dog park information line, 214-671-8001, tells you. (As does the website, www.whiterockdogpark.com.) The mother of a fluffy black spitz named Lizzie justified her behavior, saying, “She’s a puppy and socialization is really important. There’s normally a lot of people here already when I arrive. It’s peer pressure.”
She was in mid-sentence, complaining that park officials “don’t seem to see how wet it is before they actually close it,” when Lizzie headed straight for the mud puddle. “Lizzie no!” she screamed, to no effect.
The sun was starting to set when Titan, a chocolate blue Chihuahua sporting a black vest, appeared. His owner, a medical salesman and Hurricane Katrina refugee, pulled a crumpled reward flier out of his pocket. Titan had been dognapped from day care, he told the lingering crowd. His four pounds of fluff are so cute it’s dangerous, but Titan was finally returned with help from a dog detective, a dog psychic, and a Fox TV news spot. (After a prank caller muttered, “Your dog’s dead!”) After all they’d been through, Titan’s dad couldn’t care less if the park was closed. If the cops came, “I’d run,” he said.
Whether you could have put a teen through college for the amount you paid the breeder, or you snatched your dog from the train tracks before he was run over by a steaming locomotive of rabid cats, everyone at the dog park agrees that their mutts deserve the best. “This is doggie Six Flags,” Biceps said, while his dog Asa rested affectionately on my foot, and Lola did her best potbelly pig impression in the mud. “This is the highlight of his day.”
And mine, I was saying, when a little dog park karma started trickling in a warm stream down my leg.
“What the—?” I said, just in time to see a pre-teen boy slinking away with his black Lab/pit mix. I marched after them, clods of mud flinging into the air as I slid through the muck. “Your dog just peed on me!” I said. “Oh, sorry,” the boy replied. The dog’s name was Trouble. Of course.
Luckily I was wearing my ratty flip-flops, the ones Lola gnawed on to punish me for leaving her home alone. The yellow rivulets down my calf washed away easily after a dunk in the lake. But the cops who once chewed me out for breaking into the park would undoubtedly consider this poetic justice.
Yes, I’ve been busted. They caught me the first time I broke in, two years ago. The sign said closed, but there were lots of people inside, so I squeezed past the loosely padlocked gates and into the big dog pen. When the 5-0 pedaled up, Lola ignored my frantically whispered calls. Dog owners with more obedient charges darted for the bushes. Lola did a few more leisurely laps, until the police approached the fence and glared at me.
“Ohhhh, I see, so it’s closed and you just go in there anyway, huh! How’d you get in?” one officer demanded.
I mumbled, “I’m sorry, we live in an apartment and terriers need lots of exercise.” He wasn’t appeased. “I should write you a ticket,” the cop huffed as I scurried to my car.
I tried to obey the rules after that. But it didn’t last. Waterlogged or baked dry, the White Rock Lake dog park has been a victim of its own success since it opened in 2001. Police sometimes hustle people away who try to park on the grass when the lot is full. Fights have broken out. For dog lovers like me, when the park is closed, it’s painful. No, it’s downright criminal.
The alternatives aren’t attractive. Forget the downtown Bark Park hidden under a canopy of freeway overpasses. The White Rock dog park, with its doggie vending machine, splash pool and water fountains, tall shade trees, and lakefront view, can’t be beat. Like the bloggers with Back Talk Lake Highlands/East Dallas have pointed out, the “Dog Bog” is relentlessly popular when it’s not doing its “lost city of Atlantis impersonation.”
True, not every dog park visit has been so enjoyable. There was my encounter with that, um, “female dog” who yelled at me to get a life after I kicked her mutt away as it tore my shirt and gnashed its teeth, jumping up for a bite of Lola hiding in my arms. There was the little dog ripped open and bleeding after an attack from a young boxer whose owner had insisted, “He’s just playing.” And the time Lola escaped from the swimming area through the broken gate and ran right in front of an SUV on Mockingbird Lane, while I shrieked and my arms pin-wheeled in helpless slow-motion horror. But the bad times are few.
My personal feelings, though, mean little to those who try to enforce the rules. Animal control officers could ticket those who refuse to obey park closings, subjecting them to fines of up to $2,000. But city officials and police said they didn’t know of anyone who’d been punished recently for breaking in. A sergeant in the northeast patrol division said, “It would be under criminal trespass laws. They would arrest people.” But I knew he was all bark.
Dog owners have been sassing the cops who try to clear them out of the closed park, he admitted, “fussing and arguing.” They complain to City Council members and the parks department. The parents of two huskies, Wookie and Alice, said they had a stand-off with a city code officer. “He pulled up in a van and then came over and kind of pulled his pants up. He said, ‘Hey, it’s closed.’ And I said, ‘Yeah I know.’ He stared us down like we were evil villains.” Their response was, “Hey, man, we pay for this place.”
Chris Hinds was one of the early volunteers who helped maintain the dog park and an informational website. He’s since moved to Boulder, Colorado, but he used to go to the White Rock dog park twice a day. Hinds remembers one person being ticketed a few years ago for unsanctioned dog park use. “The idea behind closing the park is to preserve the ground,” he says, but “there really isn’t much ground to be saved anymore.” When park officials fenced off a portion of the big dog side so it could lay fallow, dog park people quickly rolled the fence back. Some felt betrayed that the entire peninsula hadn’t been devoted to the dog park, Hinds says.
Since then Dallas doggie owners have continued to lift their collective hind leg to show the parks department exactly what they think about the frequent closures. The good news is that city parks officials have heard their howl.
The reason the dog park is so often closed, they say, is because it’s in a flood plain. The pattering of a million muddy paws compacts the ground, mashing it to the consistency of cement. “People are very upset with us. They’re getting rough,” says Carolyn Bray, an assistant director for Dallas Parks and Recreation.
She knows that Dallas dog owners are “passionate” about running their dogs off-leash. When they break into the park, that just makes the problem worse. “It compacts the ground even more, it presses the mud down,” she says, which aside from creating another lake, also kills the grass and stunts tree growth. “Just when we think we’ve gotten all the water drained out, another big rain comes through,” she says, sighing. “We have to start all over.”
But wait, they have a plan! As of late April, Bray says that after the ground dries they will start a new maintenance routine of frequent aeration for better drainage and quicker opening of the park.
So there you have it, Dallas dog owners: they close the park for our own good, so our dogs won’t need to bring snorkels to play. Now that I know the true consequences of my actions, how my careless behavior only prolongs the pain, will I promise never to jump the fence?
I’ll try to behave, honest. But they might have to drag us out by our hind legs. Because whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.
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