CROWN HEIGHTS – Dog owners and neighbors came out in full force Tuesday night to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum for the first Dog Policy Meeting hosted by the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President and Friends of Brower Park.
Longtime Crown Heights resident and Friends of Brower Park President, Robyn Berland, coordinated last night’s meeting in response to the mauling death of her small ten-year-old dog, Ralphie, just outside of the park this summer.
“The reason for us being here is really to come up with solutions that will prevent that type of thing from happening again,” Berland explained at the start of the meeting. “We have very few parks and we have to find a way to share them so no one gets hurt, including our dogs. The goal of this meeting is really to put the community to work to find a way to build policy that can meet everyone’s needs and protect all of us and our pets.”
Ralphie, a ten-pound miniature Poodle mix, had been attacked twice this year in two separate incidents involving off-leash dogs. The first attack occurred in January inside Brower Park at approximately 11am during on-leash hours. The second, fatal attack happened during off-leash hours at approximately 10:30pm on August 29, when a large unleashed dog ran out of the park and viciously attacked Ralphie and Berland as she walked her two dogs on Park Place.
According to NYC Parks rules and regulations, “dogs must be on a leash (no more than six feet long) at all times, except in dog runs and designated off-leash areas at the prescribed times.” Designated off-leash hours are “from the time the park opens until 9:00 a.m. and from 9:00 p.m. until the park closes.”
Berland organized Tuesday’s meeting and brainstorming session as a way to bring neighbors together to discuss dog policies and find a way for all community members to enjoy Brower Park safely. Friends of Brower Park’s proposed changes to current dog policies include eliminating the park’s off-leash hours completely until an enclosed dog run is built in or near the public space.
“When Robyn came to our office and explained what happened to Ralphie we were shocked and we were horrified,” said Eileen Mullaney-Newman, a representative for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “The Borough President is very supportive of this meeting and future meetings around the borough because obviously something’s got to change. It’s not working. The only way it’s going to change is through policy. We have to work with our elected officials, we have to work with our agencies, and we have to find a way that this is not going to happen anymore…. We need your feedback.”
“Robyn is not just a friend of the dog community, she’s been the leader of Friends of Brower Park for some time and spends countless hours with her team to make the park a better place, said Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin Maher. Following the deadly attack in August, Maher said that his agency has been proactive in addressing the situation.
“Three weekends in a row we did some tabling and some surveys, just to see what people are thinking about dogs in Brower Park,” he said. “We’ve had an officer, both night and day, there since the incident happened. During the winter we’re going to continue to spot check and then we’ll have some target enforcement again in the spring.”
“There are 877 parks in Brooklyn and Brower Park is one of the few that I believe needs a conceptual plan to map out [its] future,” Maher added. “I’m very enthusiastic about hearing what people have to say tonight.”
Later in the meeting, Maher explained to attendees the four things that are needed to build a dog run—a “responsible group” or dog organization to maintain it and ensure people are complying with the rules; an appropriate space that can be excavated without damaging trees; support from the community and community board; and funding.
“There are about 12 or so [dog runs] in Brooklyn,” Maher said. “We don’t do the informal dog run where you put up a chicken wire fence and throw some wood chips in there because it gets nasty very quickly,” he noted leading up to the construction cost.
“Hang on to your seats, I’ve been doing this for 34 years, I’m not making these numbers up. The last dog run we did [cost] $850,000.”
“There’s no sort of blanket formula but the essence of it is there’s substantial excavation that happens,” he continued. “Then you put in a gravel bed and there’s a connection to sewers somewhere in there. Then there’s a top layer of a finer gravel and the finished layer” which in recent years has consisted of a “a synthetic turf for dogs.”
Maher added that dog runs also typically require two separate areas, one for all dogs and one for small dogs; a double-gated vestibule area to prevent dogs from running out; both dog and human drinking fountains; and a separate wheelchair accessible entrance.
According to Maher, the full timeline for creating a dog run takes roughly four years, from receiving the funding (from NYC Parks or elected officials) through to the completion of construction.
A large contingent of neighborhood dog-owners adamant about keeping Brower Park’s current off-leash policy as is did not hold back their opinions at the meeting, often speaking out of turn and longer than the designated two-minute limit. They argued that their dogs need the off-leash hours for socializing and exercise.
Resident Uri Nazryan said he takes his dog to Brower Park every morning for about an hour. “Not everyone feels the policy needs to change,” he said. “Everybody sympathizes with Robyn. What happened to Ralphie was a horrible thing that no one should ever have to go through. No dog owner should have an out of control dog and no dog owner should walk away from the attack. That being said, what happened was the negligent act of a dog owner who couldn’t control his or her dog. It’s no reflection on a poor policy of the park.”
“Morning at Brower is the highlight of many people’s day. It’s a chance for the dogs to get socialization and exercise which every dog owner, trainer, and behaviorist will tell you is critical to good behavior,” he continued. “We look out for each other’s dogs. We make sure they don’t run out into the street, we make sure everyone cleans up for each other. So the story of these dangerous dogs coming out of the dark and attacking people is by far the exception.”
“We want to work with the Parks Department and with Robyn,” Nazryan said. “We’ve talked about erecting a simple fence, like what existed last year around the perimeter [of the park]. That would solve virtually every nuisance issue between unleashed dogs and people passing by in the few hours that dogs are allowed off leash. I don’t know why that compromise isn’t being considered more.”
A local who walks her dog Penelope daily at Brower Park agreed. “Penelope’s favorite thing in the whole world is going to Brower Park every morning to see her friends where they can run, chew sticks, wrestle, and chase balls,” she said. “It’s also my favorite part of the day. I get to spend the time chatting with my neighbors while we walk our dogs. It would be devastating to us if it were taken away.”
None of the panelists participating in Tuesday’s meeting were able to provide any data when asked how many reported dog bites happen during off leash hours. “I don’t have a number. Dog-on-dog incidents are fairly common in dog parks and dog runs where they allow off-leash and they allow different breeds [dog sizes] to mix,” replied Mario Merlino, Assistant Commissioner of Veterinary and Pest Control Services for the NYC Health Department (DOH).
Several attendees argued that dogs are almost outnumbering people at Brower Park. “I have had dogs all my life but I think we need to find a way that dogs don’t take over the park,” said a Friends of Brower Park member who has lived in the area for 36 years. “We are not saying ‘no dogs in the park.’” She added that she and Berland work with the library reading books to children outside at the park during warmer months. She explained that they’ve had to purchase a tarp for the kids to sit on “because there is dog poo everywhere.”
“A lot of people have come to me and said, ‘I no longer go into the park because the dogs take over the park,'” she noted. “Very often, dogs are off leash at 11 o’clock in the morning,” she added, which was met with calls for enforcement from the crowd.
Deputy Inspector John Buttacavoli of the NYPD’s 77th Precinct insisted that park-goers keep the precinct apprised of what’s happening in the park and call 311 or 911 to report any attacks, however Shirley Mondesir, President of the St. Marks Avenue Block Association, pointed out that police do not file dog-on-dog attack reports since dogs are considered property.
“In the first attack the police refused to take a report and the second time, it was not because Ralphie was killed, it was because I was bit,” Berland confirmed to Bklyner following the meeting.
“It’s not necessarily a criminal matter,” said Merlino of the DOH. His department, Veterinary and Pest Control Services, investigates animal attacks, animal bites, and dangerous dogs. He stressed the importance of calling 311 for dog-on-dog bites and 911 for dog-on-human bites. The reports are sent to DOH who then “make a determination on the dangerousness of the dog.”
“There’s no one-bite law. It’s not about how many bites,” he added. “It depends on the seriousness of the bite and the circumstances. That’s why it’s important that everybody report everything. If we find out that multiple bites occurred, that’s important to know. That’s a sign that a dog is aggressive.” His department can send warning letters to owners of dangerous dogs, mandate that an owner have his/her dog trained, mandate better containment of a dog, and take a dog away from an owner if circumstances warrant it.
He noted that both bite victims and owners of dogs should be aware that owners of dangerous dogs are “exposed to civil penalties.”
“You can be sued,” he explained. “We have loads of requests for our bite records from lawyers and people who are pursuing legal claims against dog owners [whose dogs] have bitten.”
Bailey Topper who lives in the area with her husband and one and a half year old Dalmation, Lucy, addressed the importance of dog training. “The dog park is very, very important to us as is training our dog,” she said. “I think that training is the most important thing that’s not being discussed.”
“I don’t want to point fingers or be controversial,” she continued, “but Robyn’s dogs were the first dogs that my dog met when I moved into the neighborhood and they actually were very aggressive and started growling, barking, and lunging at my dog when she was only four months old. It was kind of scary for me even though they were little and on leash. They obviously were not under control.”
“This is something that’s come across as a totally one-victim incident but really what we’re talking about is two aggressive dogs—one that was off-leash and one that was on,” she added. “There have been other instances of people with dogs in the neighborhood that know that the dog that was killed was aggressive. I think that’s important to note that it’s not just one dog that was a problem. The more important thing is people need to train and be able to control their dogs. Just because your dog is on a leash does not mean it is not a threat to the neighborhood.”
“I know Ralphie, I have spent time with Robyn, and her dogs are not aggressive,” said a neighbor named Cindy. (Berland told Bklyner following the meeting that Ralphie was not aggressive and, like her other dog Beau, was afraid of large dogs. “Little dogs tend to bark when they see big dogs,” she said.)
“One of the things with Brower Park is I stopped going [there] because the dogs just took over the park. Like it’s all about the dogs,” Cindy added. “I understand that as a dog owner you love your dog, but as people who don’t own dogs and have children, your dogs are scary,” she continued. “Especially when they’re running towards you and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re fine. They love people.’ I don’t want your dog to jump on me…. As a human being sometimes that can be scary having a dog running toward you,” she said to a round of applause.
“We are trying to protect the very limited off-leash hours before 9am, after 9pm,” another neighbor named Stefan responded. “No one’s saying dogs should be off leash during the day. Nobody wants that…. That’s the only time and only place these dogs can be off leash and play with other dogs.”
“I expected a certain amount of focus on the taking away of off-leash hours. Our focus was to get people to talk about how we can resolve the off-leash [hours] with the other enjoyments of the park and that’s difficult to do,” Berland said after the meeting.
“I think the big issue is that we need safe places for dogs to be off leash and that not every environment is suitable for that,” she added. “Brower Park has become a center for dog socialization. It has pushed other uses out because of the numbers.”
Her ideal solution would be to have a dog run built somewhere in the area. “There’s a large park on Atlantic Avenue between Kingston and Brooklyn that’s scheduled for rehabilitation. It has an area, a full block, that could be turned into a beautiful dog run. We need to get all of this power pushing for that to happen.” She also suggests that two other nearby parks, St. John’s Rec Center and St. Andrews, are big enough “for a real dog run that’s two, three blocks away.”
“I think the safest thing for everyone, for dogs and for people, is that people have one space and dogs have a beautifully designed space,” she notes. However, until that happens, she believes that all dogs should be leashed. “Because Brower Park is such a small space with so many people using it, I think dogs should be allowed in the park all the time on-leash.”
Following the question/comment portion of the meeting, which took much longer than scheduled, a roundtable session took place to collect attendees’ ideas on how to change policies to make Brower Park safe for all. Friends of Brower Park plans to post all responses on the group’s website some time next week.
The Borough President’s Office also plans to continue hosting similar meetings in different neighborhoods across Brooklyn. If you’d like his office to host a session in your area, go to Ask Eric at brooklyn-usa.org.