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Canine Chaos: Why Dogs Don't Belong in Downtown Santa Cruz


Written by Tara Leonard

La Vida Local

SANTA CRUZ (March, 2010) - I’m a dog person. My house is littered with slobbery tennis balls, my car stocked with extra leashes and dog treats. Sometimes the very best part of my day is spent tossing a stick for my ridiculously enthusiastic pets who are ceaselessly entertained by the joy of retrieval. It’s impossible not to share their delight in the everyday routine of walks, play and meals (Food? For me? I LOVE you!). In short, I think everyone should have a dog.
Just not downtown.
This past week Santa Cruz merchants introduced a proposal to allow leashed dogs downtown after a 35-year ban. They believe that pooches on Pacific will be good for business, bringing animal lovers and their dollars to the downtown corridor. While their hearts may be in the right place, I wonder about their eyes and ears.
Downtown Santa Cruz is loud and crowded. The streets are filled with traffic. The sidewalks are bustling with people of all ages, many of them eating or drinking as they move about. Even the most well-behaved dogs can react to such stimuli in unexpected ways. Seeing a young child running down the sidewalk, some dogs, particularly those from a herding breed, will playfully take chase, causing fear or anger in startled parents. Greeting other dogs, our canine friends engage in a ritual of dominance that, while perfectly understood by the participants, can at times appear threatening to observers. And all that food! What dog wouldn’t be tempted to take a bite out of that eye-level hot dog, swaying so enticingly in a young child’s hand? Imagine distracted tourists tripping over tangled leashes, unattended dogs (friendly? not friendly?) tethered outside coffee shops, and rambunctious canine pals wrestling on the sidewalk.
Dogs pee. They poop. They throw up all that delicious sweetgrass they just ate. And while most responsible dog owners religiously clean up after their pets, others do not. On more than a few occasions, I have watched, dumbfounded, while a dog owner pretends not to notice his dog’s recent contribution. “Do you need a bag?” I’ll ask politely. Sometimes the owner responds with gratitude and springs into action. Other times, I’ve been glared at, cursed, or ignored.
Look at Carmel, people argue. People go there just because they can bring their dogs! Think of the business it will attract! Ironically, these are exactly the arguments that reasonable dog owners used, unsuccessfully, to fight for continued off-leash dog hours at Lighthouse Field and Its Beach. But while Lighthouse Field is vast and open, downtown Santa Cruz is not. While there are dozens of dog-free Santa Cruz beaches from which to choose, there is only one Pacific Avenue. And, while a core group of daily users self-policed canine behavior at Its Beach, the ever-changing population downtown is less likely to do so successfully.
And let’s face it, Santa Cruz is not Carmel. Our community’s tolerance level for “weird” behavior is continually challenged and defended, appreciated and attacked. I’ve seen grown men pee on the sidewalk with no apparent consequences, so who will act as the canine potty patrol? How will we know which dogs are licensed and vaccinated? Will every aggressive pan-handler now be accompanied by an equally aggressive mutt? Who will decide which dogs are behaving appropriately and which aren’t? Don’t downtown police have enough on their plates already dealing with poorly behaved two-legged residents?  
Which gets to the heart of the matter. Irresponsible dog owners tend to screw things up for the rest of us. There are plenty of well-behaved dogs that would be a positive addition to downtown. (If your pooch fits in your purse, who will even notice?) But just as poorly behaved bicyclists reflect badly on all two-wheeled commuters, the presence of out-of-control dogs downtown might generate a backlash that further restricts dogs' access to open space throughout Santa Cruz County. That would be a dog-gone shame for everyone.
So here’s what I propose. Give us back off-leash hours at Lighthouse Field and Its Beach. Let dogs be dogs at appropriate times in appropriate places. Then leave Pacific Avenue to the people. Because frankly, we’re already dealing with enough doo-doo down there as it is.