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Off Leash Outlaws: War Declared on Unleashed Dogs in NYC
by Adrienne Rayski

Is it the end of off-leash hours for dogs in New York City? One community group's lawsuit challenges the way New York City dog owners use public parks and whether dogs should be in the parks at all. City dog owners want to curb this debate.

If one outspoken community leader in Queens has his way, off-leash hours may become a thing of the past for dogs throughout New York City. But let's start from the beginning.

Juniper Park, in Middle Village, Queens, is an extraordinarily active public park. With 55 acres of baseball and soccer fields, a track, a roller-hockey rink, playgrounds, and courts for tennis, handball, and bocce ball, the park is attentive to nearly anyone's interest.

"If dogs are off-leash, there is always a risk of an 'attack'".
    - Bob Holden, Juniper Park Civic Association

Nearly, that is, but not all. The park is missing one thing that's become somewhat of a public staple in New York City parks - a dog run. And if Bob Holden, the aforementioned Queens community leader has his way, it never will. This is a problem, because urban dog owners--representing the interests of over one million dogs in the city--have come to depend on public dog parks as a means to exercise and socialize their furry family members. "Socializing a dog makes them a better neighbor because they become accustomed to being around people and other dogs," says Terri Sullivan, representative for the now-embattled Juniper Park Dog Association.

Bark At the Moon

To compensate for Juniper's lack of four-legged play space, the NYC Parks Department has unofficially allowed dog owners to let their dogs off-leash in Juniper Park between the hours of 9 PM and 9 AM--as is the practice in many large parks throughout New York's five boroughs. But it looks like this practice may be ending soon, not only in Juniper Park, but in other parks throughout the five boroughs as well.

In response to what Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden calls "numerous reports of attack by off-leash dogs," Holden is suing the Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation for allowing dog owners to let their dogs off-leash, a practice he says violates a NYC law requiring dogs to be on a leash at all times in public places.

When Dogs 'Attack'

"Robert Holden claims that people are being 'attacked' on a daily basis, but to him an 'attack' includes a dog running up to people or jumping up on them. These things aren't documented cases by the Parks Department," says Sullivan.

Holden, however, claims off-leash dogs have hindered people from visiting Juniper Park at all out of fear of an 'attack'. "If dogs are off-leash there is always a risk of attack. This past summer I was cutting grass in the ball field, and I saw a kid about 8 years old trapped against a fence with a large dog in his face barking at him," he says. "We [The Civic Association] are not anti-dog or anti-animal, we do things to find stray dogs. I'm an animal lover. I have two cats. I'm responding to people getting attacked."

This argument has brought forward the idea of building an official dog run in Juniper Park so that both dog owners and park visitors are pleased. In theory this solution sounds best-fitting and simple, particularly because the Parks Department is willing to cooperate with the building and maintenance of a dog run in Juniper Park. But political influence and personal beliefs also seem to be weighing in.

On Dog 'Fights' and Dog Rights

Holden and a few other members of the Civic Association, including Holden's sister-in-law, Lorraine Sciulli, the association's Vice President, have been adamant about keeping a dog run out of Juniper Park. Both have responded to articles written on the filing of their law suit, including a Queens TimesLedger story entitled "Sit, Robert, Sit" which considers making a decision about leash laws via a ballot. (Civic Association members retaliated by canceling their subscriptions to the newspaper.)

Holden and Sciulli have referred to dog parks as "dog toilets," ""unsanitary" and "hazards." Holden claims that this notion comes from the dog parks he's visited in Queens.

"I did my homework. The parks department doesn't know how to build them [dog runs] and maintain them. No other group has come forward to maintain them. I certainly have the right to say, based on what I've seen and know, that unless they [the Parks Department] can prove that this dog run will be managed and built correctly, that I challenge anyone to disprove me about the condition of dog runs in Queens. Even Robert Marino (President of NYC Dog Owners Group) agrees," he says.

Marino remembers the conversation differently. "Bob Holden misunderstood some of my comments but this is understandable given the length of our one conversation. I said that some of the dog runs he was citing are in poor condition. He has since made claims, published elsewhere, that he has been to every dog run and that none are good. This, too, is incorrect. He could not have been to some of the outstanding dog parks that operate throughout the city."

The Wrong Side of the Tracks?

Resisting a dog run within Juniper Park's boundaries, Holden has suggested a piece of land by the Long Island Rail Road tracks, "5 blocks away from Juniper Park," would better serve as a dog run for those demanding a solution, as this would not infiltrate Juniper park." "There's a lot of unused land adjacent to the highways. Dogs don't care where they go. Who says park space has to be given to dogs? The park is for people," he fixedly notes. However, pro-dog park people point out the Parks Department does not own the land that Holden has been proposing as a space for a dog run, which would delay the process of getting it up and running, if it could be done at all.

"The parks department would have to purchase the land and get it ready for a dog park. The timing [they cited] was 2 years," says Terri Sullivan. "There's a reason why dog owners want the dog run inside Juniper. Besides, a dog park is for people. After all, the dogs don't bring themselves there."

NYC DOG's Marino also comments on Holden's proposal for a dog run near the Long Island Rail Road, "Bob Holden wants a dog run located more than a half mile away from Juniper Park. This NIMBY principle (Not In My Back Yard) does not work well with other issues; and not here either. The site is virtually an embankment of the LIE. It is steeply sloped, has no access to water or electricity, and is uninviting to dogs or their owners. Juniper Park has 55 acres. There is more than enough land for a 1+ acre sized dog park within the park."

In response to questioning by dog owners as to why he's so against a dog run in Juniper Park, Holden says, "Why am I being attacked for this? The civic association is only exercising constitutional rights. How can I stop a dog run? Juniper Park Civic Association represents residents and home owners surrounding the park. I'm not part of the city charter mandating where parks go.""

But avid dog park supporters like Terri Sullivan seem to think there's more to it; "Holden is a strong member of the Civic Association and has incestuous relations with board members, including local Councilman Dennis Gallagher. Getting this [dog run proposal] to pass will be a hard thing."

"We can share," Bob Marino says. "We have to respect one another and work towards making all citizens welcomed in public facilities. I believe that if Bob Holden accepted our invitation to visit some of our dog parks such as Tompkins Square, Riverside Park, and the off-leash areas of Prospect Park that he would return to his association and become the greatest advocate of dog parks."

At press time, the Juniper Park Dog Association was still actively looking for new members in support of their efforts, while Robert Holden's lawsuit against the Parks Commissioner continued.

When asked to comment on the situation, The Parks Department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Editor's Online Note:   Since this story was filed for the Summer 2006 print edition of New York Tails several developments have taken place. On June 1st, FIDO of Prospect Park ( reported the Juniper Park Civic Association's initial suit was rejected by the judge "with the stipulation that they would be able to refile the suit if they could better show that the city is negligent in allowing off-leash privileges." "Unbelievably," the FIDO report continued, "they [the Civic Association] have requested a new date to pursue the suit." A hearing has been scheduled for June 27th for the Civic Association to "show cause." For more up-to-the-minute information visit and scroll to "Off-Leash Privileges Under Attack."


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