Pets in parks debate continues

A sign posted at Flora Park in Dubuque.

More than 40 people filled the Dubuque City Council boardroom Tuesday night to speak on a proposed ordinance to allow leashed pets in most city parks.

More than half of those who spoke during the meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission were in favor of the proposal. Seven, including some pet owners, spoke in opposition.

Any changes to existing ordinance ultimately will be determined by the City Council.

Comments during the meeting largely echoed those made roughly five years ago, when council members opposed making sweeping changes, stating more time was needed to see how people and dogs coexist in public places.

Rather, council members chose to scale back Dubuque’s pet-free parks policy, opening some trails and six of 48 city parks — notably A.Y. McDonald park — to leashed dogs and cats.

In 2018, council members identified becoming a “pet-friendly community” as a high priority, forming a working group of city officials, residents and businesses to assess options.

Proponents argued dogs are part and parcel of family life for locals and visitors alike, with dog-friendly recreation opportunities increasingly seen as an expected city and quality-of-life amenity.

“Dogs are more than a pet,” said Christiana Schmitt, who has a 2-year-old pug. “They’re part of the family, and in a family nobody should be left behind, even on a trip to the park.”

Opponents, including Arthur Gilloon, argued city parks should continue to be “maintained as treasures to enjoy without fear of confrontation with unknown animals held by an unknown stranger and the biohazard of unfettered defecation and urination.”

Gilloon argued the proposal lacks a mechanism to keep “dangerous, unvaccinated or untagged dogs” out of city parks.

“The last rule in our dog park is this: Enter at your own risk,” he said. “That would certainly be appropriate for the proposed ordinance.”

Mary Strom said she still cringes when she remembers being bitten by a dog, an incident that caused a “serious” injury.

“I am fearful in walking or passing in the vicinity of a dog, even if there is a leash,” Strom said. “Animals are unpredictable, easily aroused or frightened, especially in a strange environment where there are strange humans, strange sounds and unfamiliar scents.”

Strom suggested adding another dog park as an alternative.

Dubuque resident and dog owner Richard Kirkendall contends the city now has five years of data from allowing leashed pets in select city parks. And that data shows “dogs don’t attack people in public very often.”

“In fact, I’m not aware of any reported dog bites by leashed pets in parks,” Kirkendall said. “The dog-pocalypse has not come to fruition. … Look at every other major city in the United States and see that dogs and people coexist peacefully in parks.”

He argues opposition to the ordinance is being driven by fear.

Using statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the pet-friendly working group estimates that 8,735 Dubuque households own dogs and 7,883 own cats. More than 10,000 pets are licensed in the city.