CROWN HEIGHTS – When Crown Heights resident Robyn Berland took her two small dogs out for a walk one night in late August, she did not expect to return home with only one.
At approximately 10:30pm on Wednesday, August 29, Berland took Ralphie, a ten-year-old, ten-pound miniature Poodle mix, and Beau, a 14-pound Havanese mix, out for a walk around Brower Park. Since her local park is “often inundated with off-leash dogs in the evening,” she had made a point to walk on the sidewalks surrounding the park to “avoid any altercations with roaming dogs.”
Even taking this extra precaution was not enough to protect Berland, Ralphie, and Beau. Just as she led her two leashed dogs past one of the park’s entrances on Park Place, she told BKLYNER over the phone, she heard a rustling sound approach from behind. The five-foot-tall Berland instinctively scooped up the smaller of her dogs, Ralphie, and held him up to her chest, only to have a large, unleashed dog leap up and clamp his teeth around Ralphie’s tiny body and Berland’s arm.
Berland screamed and tried to get the dog to let go. The dog’s owner, a young woman, eventually caught up to them but did not know how to control her dog and get it to release its grip on Berland and Ralphie.
Berland insisted that the woman lift the larger dog’s hind legs, forcing it to release its bite. Once separated, the younger woman leashed her dog and began to walk away despite the fact that Berland was covered in blood and Ralphie’s body was limp.
Robert Johnson, who lives nearby, happened to be walking his two dogs inside the park just before the attack. He told BKLYNER over the phone that he and his off-leash dogs were walking around the park when they encountered a young woman with a young male brindle pit bull mix on a leash. He noticed that her dog was “super rambunctious” pulling on its leash and ignoring the woman’s commands. Johnson and the woman exchanged a few friendly words and the woman apologized for her dog’s behavior, blaming it on “pit bull energy.”
Johnson and his dogs continued their walk, making it to the opposite side of the lawn when the woman’s dog—now off leash—came charging toward them. Her dog tried mounting Johnson’s dogs but they “rebuffed” him and he left. The dog returned and repeated his “dominate posturing” a second time, only to be rejected again by Johnson’s dogs.
A short while later, Johnson noticed the dog “bolt straight through the park,” running across the lawn and out of the park with the woman chasing after him in a panic. Johnson then heard a woman’s screams and a dog howl in pain. He immediately leashed up his dogs and went toward the commotion. As he exited the park on the Park Place side, he saw the young woman and her dog—now leashed—a few feet away heading east toward Kingston Avenue. He then saw Berland “crying, covered in blood, and holding Ralphie.”
Johnson immediately asked Berland, whom he recognized from the neighborhood, how he could help—either pursue the woman and her dog or drive Berland and Ralphie to the vet. She asked that he take them to an emergency vet. Before leaving, Johnson asked a group of men who live across from the park and who witnessed the attack to try to stop the woman from leaving the scene. Johnson then took his dogs home and drove Berland and her dogs to VERG, a 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital on 4th Avenue, where Ralphie was pronounced dead.
According to Berland, the woman refused to stop for the neighbors, though one of the men somehow convinced the woman to have her roommate call Berland while she was at the vet. The roommate provided Berland with the attacking dog’s name, Cinna, as well as its veterinarian’s information. She did not, however, provide the dog owner’s name nor any other details about her.
The attack happened so quickly Berland did not get a good look at the woman, saying only that she thinks she was young and white, and that her dog was either black or brindle.
Johnson describes the woman as thin, approximately 5’7″ to 5’8″, with short black hair, possibly of mixed Asian descent. She was wearing a baseball cap and baggy jeans. He says her dog was a young dark brindle male pit bull mix. He does not recall seeing either of them at Brower Park before.
He has not seen Berland since the August incident, though he does remember seeing at least two lacerations on her arm after the attack. Berland went to Methodist Hospital for her injuries and says she still has some pain in her elbow.
Sadly, this was not the first time Ralphie was the victim of a brutal attack by an off-leash dog. Berland recalls a morning in January inside Brower Park, when another large dog snuck up on her and her dogs from behind and, again, went right for Ralphie. This attack occurred at 11am, during on-leash hours.
That owner, a young white woman, was able to call her dog off, but as Berland attended to her badly injured dog, the woman disappeared. When asked if it might have been the same woman and dog in both incidents, Berland thought for a moment and remembered that the dog in the first attack had a white head.
The incident in January left Ralphie’s body riddled with puncture wounds requiring three surgeries and six months of rehabilitation, leaving Berland, a retiree, with a $16,000 vet bill which she is still working to pay off. When Berland tried reporting this incident to the 77th Precinct, she says officers refused to file the report because it was a “dog on dog” attack.
This designation has been a source of frustration for owners of dogs who have been attacked, as reported previously following incidents in South Slope and Greenpoint, leaving dog owners with little recourse. The city accepts reports of animals biting, threatening or endangering people, BKLYNER reported in November 2017, however the public “cannot file a complaint about animals that have bitten other animals.”
Magnifying the precinct’s lack of response, Berland says that following the deadly August attack, a neighbor said he heard her screams and saw the attack in progress, so he ran to a NYPD patrol car parked by the basketball courts on the Brooklyn Avenue side of the park, but the two officers inside refused to help. “The officers simply sat in their car both during and after the attack,” Berland noted.
On August 30, Berland was able to successfully file a report on the second incident at the precinct. When the NYC Health Department’s dog bite unit followed up with her over the phone, they informed her that Ralphie’s killer, Cinna, could remain in the care of her owner since the dog was vaccinated and had no previous incidents on record.
Aside from the fenced-in playground, Brower Park is an open space. The Park follows the NYC Parks standard off-leash policy—no dogs off leash from 9am to 9pm daily. Berland claims that she and some of her neighbors have become increasingly concerned over the “off-leash dog situation in Brower Park” becoming “extremely dangerous and out of control,” adding that the open design of the park, the lack of enforcement of on-leash hours, and Ralphie’s recent death, have caused locals to worry about their safety and that of their children.
Even though Berland has been part of Friends of Brower Park since 2014 and a member of the Community Board 8 Parks Committee for two years, she says she has felt “powerless” in changing park rules that might have helped prevent Ralphie’s death. The heartbroken Berland hopes that “Ralphie’s brutal death will not be in vain,” and is taking steps to ensure that other dog owners do not have to endure what she has gone through. She has organized a community brainstorming session for neighbors to discuss “the need for an appropriate and safe off-leash policy for the Brower Park Community,” where the issue can be addressed in a “reasonable manner,” she says.
“One size does not fit all,” she adds. “What works in Prospect Park does not work in a much smaller local park such as Brower.” Among some of the changes Berland would like to address include building more dog runs; prominently posting rules regarding dogs in parks; requiring police to enforce dog policies; filing all dog attacks (whether involving a human or another dog) for accurate records; and enforcing penalties for dog owners who do not obey leash laws and other dog policies.
“I think we need more dog runs,” Berland told BKLYNER, “so dogs and people can feel safe.”
Johnson has been taking his dogs to Brower Park periodically over the years. He says he personally likes that the open layout of the park allows dogs to run freely, but notes if the community decides to install an enclosed dog run, that he’d accept that solution.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams heard about Ralphie’s tragic incident and phoned Berland, telling her that he’d like to get involved with her efforts to improve the city’s current off-leash policy in parks by opening up the topic for a borough-wide discussion.
The first event is scheduled for Tuesday, November 27 at 6pm at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (145 Brooklyn Avenue), just around the corner from where Ralphie was killed.
“Pets are part of our families,” Adams said in a statement to BKLYNER. “When family is killed, we grieve. In addition to the efforts of Friends of Brower Park, I am working to convene a series of meetings around the borough to explore better protections for these members of our families.”
Adams’ office will coordinate subsequent forums in other neighborhoods to discuss changes to the off-leash dog policy as well as the need for more dog runs. Brooklynites who would like to share their ideas or experiences with unleashed dogs prior to the November event can do so at friendsofbrowerpark.org.
Johnson plans to attend the meeting in November and voice his opinions on the topic. He believes that dog rescues should only allow experienced dog owners to adopt breeds known for aggressive behavior, such as pit bulls, and adds that he is disappointed that Cinna’s owner has not come forward and taken responsibility for what happened. “That’s part of owning a dog and living in a community,” he said, adding that in the years that he’s been going to Brower Park, he has “never seen anything like this.”
After Ralphie’s death, Berland says she has learned that other dog owners who frequent Brower Park were aware of Cinna’s aggressive behavior. If she were able to locate Cinna’s owner, she would tell her, “You killed Ralphie. You killed my friend, the bravest, happiest and most loving animal I have ever known. You have deprived us all of his joy, his tap dancing, and his love of life.”