Watch your step in Himmel Park
By Tim Vanderpool
THE STUBBORN August sun is finally going bust as a Great Dane ambles towards a shaded fountain. Displaying measurable supremacy, the huge dog ignores surrounding puddles, and instead just leaps atop the fountain to slop its cool waters.
He's the biggest pooch currently on hand in Himmel Park, the last bastion of mostly unfettered doggie-dom in Pima County. This evening alone, upwards of 50 hounds race happily about, chasing Frisbees, chasing each other, taking craps, licking snouts and sniffing familiar heinies.
Here the pet owners are merely niggling, chuckling, bipedal irritants whose reprimands are muffled by yips of pure, four-legged ecstasy.
For several years now these dog lovers have brought their rambunctious charges to the park, only to defiantly snap off leashes in what has become a thorough snubbing of city, county and state regulations. If the county's Animal Control henchmen show up to clamp down, they're deftly evaded. Reports suggest plain-clothed officers sometimes sneak up from Himmel's bushy perimeter to nail lawbreakers. But only occasionally do they dish out fines, typically in the $80 range.
Himmel's canine convention is already several years in the making, and plenty of solutions have been tossed around, ranging from mini SWAT teams to fenced dog runs. But law-and-order manpower is lacking, and the dog-run notion whimpered into oblivion at a June City Council meeting. Meanwhile, complaints regularly arise, typically from soccer moms weary of scraping well-digested Gravy Train from their kids' Nikes.
Still, the dog owners steadfastly refuse to sequester their pets, choosing to remain in smirking non-compliance. They claim to dutifully scoop their own poop, and carefully keep the animals civil towards other park users.
For its part, the Great Dane certainly seems amiable. A gorgeous gray-and-white monster, it belongs to a guy named Dave. Befitting a true subversive, Dave doesn't reveal his last name. But he does say he's been coming here for several months, and sports a few ideas of his own:
"What makes the most sense is to give dog owners three hours every evening. I mean, if you look at the park, there's hardly anybody using it."
That's not exactly true. At the moment, Himmel is actually a bustling grassland, chock-full of swimmers, sports teams, baby-strollers, even one white-robed couple quietly practicing karate. However, most folks stay well away from the dogs' turf.
Dave isn't deterred. "We're here the same three hours just about every day," he says. "It wouldn't have to cost the city any money. All they need to do is put up signs, and we could probably even raise the money to pay for them if we have to."
He says he's not particularly worried about facing a fine, describing Animal Control officers as "not what you'd call pro-active."
"Listen," he continues, "people are bringing their dogs out here because they have a sense of responsibility. If you watch, everybody keeps an eye on their own dog, and on everybody else's dogs. Letting your dog run loose doesn't eliminate all the other laws that exist. If your dog bites somebody, you're still responsible."
No disagreement there, says Jody Burns, public services supervisor for Animal Control. "It's against the law. The law clearly says you must have a dog contained or constrained on a leash when you're off your own property. We've been through there on several occasions because of the complaints we get.
"We get calls saying the kids are slipping in dog poop, and dogs are getting in their soccer games," she says. "Still, we can't station somebody over there. And when we get there, people leave. There's only one of us and 50 of them."
Even with a mere 17 officers covering the entire county, her office has managed to issue eight leash-law citations in Himmel since early July, she says.
At the same time, she harbors a grain of sympathy: "There's no place in the City of Tucson or Pima County where you can allow your animal to run at large, except in your backyard. As you know, many people in Pima County don't live in homes with huge backyards. So I have to go along with what (the dog owners) are saying. That's the truth."
Two months ago the City Council tabled a proposal to install dog runs in Tucson parks. The idea had been floated by Councilwoman Molly McKasson, whose Ward 6 includes Himmel Park. But McKasson wanted runs in several spots, and when the discussion narrowed to Himmel alone, she backed off, calling it too small for a 5,000 square-feet enclosure envisioned by the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department. She suggested Reid Park as compromise, saying one central-city run could fit nicely onto baseball fields when the Colorado Rockies were away.
That didn't sit well with City Parks Director Jim Ronstadt, who apparently aims to keep minor leaguers out of the doggie doo.
As a result, the notion is now squirreled away on city planners' charts. Glenn Dixon, Parks Department deputy administrative manager, says he's scouting for solutions in Tucson's other "regional" recreation areas--those spanning more than 100 acres--but hasn't found an answer.
McKasson calls it an issue of open space aesthetics, saying Himmel shouldn't be quartered-off for dogs. She says she walks her own dog there--on a leash, mind you--and understands the situation, but she can't get her fellow council members to see the big picture.
"I'm in favor of having an entire park just for dogs," she says. "But as it stands right now, because city leaders aren't doing anything, people are being pitted against each other. We even get letters saying, 'If people have a right to bring their kids there, I have a right to bring my dog.' That's what it's coming to."
Back at the park, Jerry Miller remains firmly in the canine camp. He's busy chatting up his malamute-black lab mix named Selene when a woman interrupts, seeking baggies for a major poop retrieval. Somebody else waves to her, and Miller continues.
He agrees city politicians need to get off their duffs and lend a hand to these otherwise generally law-abiding folks. Until then, his crowd will continue the canine caucus, and when cops show up, "Basically, we'll just run like hell."
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