Longform

A Dispute Over Leash Laws Starts a Neighborhood Battle

It was not as though Lulu lacked manners.

However!

It was Cinco de Mayo, and sometimes a girl just . . . loses all self-control.

When the front door swung open, Lulu took one look at the chaos inside the home and threw herself into the party. She went straight to the couch and knocked a beer out of the hand of an attorney sitting there. Lulu then drank in the scene.

She scanned the 20 or so dogs in the living room.

Surrounded by her own kind, and inside a home, she was free and pleased with her canine self. Lulu looked back at the man who'd let her off her leash.

"This is who I am . . . Do you see me, finally?"

I'd seen that look before. It was the look Maria Conchita Alonso, all ratted hair and gang makeup, gave Sean Penn's cop in the movie Colors.

How you like me now . . . bay-bee?

The party was for dog owners who let their mutts off leash at Los Olivos, a city park. These dog walkers had been targeted by police for allowing their pets to chase a ball, to catch a Frisbee, to, you know, run with the big dogs.

So, a year ago, they gathered to commiserate on Cinco de Mayo. The host, Francine Hardaway, invited everyone to bring their dogs to her home.

She threw the party again, last month.

At last year's party, everyone was up in arms about city cops taking the time and money to ticket people who let their dogs run loose in city parks.

These folks aren't layabouts lingering near the basketball hoop that hasn't had a net in years. These are the people drawn in the architectural renderings of parks, the people who turn a greenscape into a neighborhood.

This year, the Los Olivos people are not just resigned; they are demoralized.

From 2010 to 2013, the city issued 2,489 tickets to owners of off-leash dogs, according to the Phoenix Court Management System.

The Phoenix Police Department's Desert Horizon police station was a whirlwind of enforcement last year.

Officers on bikes, squad cars, and unmarked vehicles hit three parks 13 times between April and July, according to a citizen survey. Both uniformed officers and undercover cops participated in raids using as many as six squad cars or bikes per incident, says a nearby resident who kept a tally with her neighbors. (When asked, the police department said it had no records available.)

The police sweeps originating in the Desert Horizon precinct involved Sand Piper, Jack Rabbit, Crossed Arrows, and Sereno parks in North Phoenix.

If you have a dog, and you let the dog run around while you walk in the local park, your neighbors are going to call the cops — and the cops are going to take action.

Why, you might ask?

Over a 20-year period, one study documented that 16 people a year die in dog attacks across the entire country. This puts the risk at somewhat higher than the number of Americans lost to the Ebola virus annually. Yet these scant numbers have inspired legislators, law enforcement, do-gooders, the readers of newspapers, school crossing guards, and stay-at-home mothers to pen strongly worded letters to the editor.

You know something's afoot when lawyers sniff a billable hour.

Attorneys now offer services to victims of bites. The issue of loose dogs is not merely part of a civil discourse; it is a part of some law firms' cash flow.

In Arizona, you easily can find representation. Take, for example, lawyers like Larry H. Parker or Mark Breyer.

Parker's website says 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs every year and that 800,000 seek medical attention (meaning 3.9 million manage to live full and meaningful lives without a nurse's intervention).

Parker goes on to inform victims what must be done promptly:

"Seek immediate medical attention; call the police and animal control; insist the police make a report; insist the dog be quarantined; have the dog examined for rabies; write down a description of the dog, especially if the dog cannot be located or captured; write down the name and address of the dog's owner; write down the name and address of witnesses; take pictures and notes of your injuries; preserve clothing and other evidence carefully."

Dance the hokey-pokey?

Attorney Breyer notes that insurance policies have limits of up to $100,000 per incident, but the rub, he says, is that dog owners often are not willing to part with the money.

We do know that the Maricopa County's Animal Care and Control said 4,878 bites were reported last year. No information on funeral services as we went to press.

The Arizona Department of Health marshaled data to promote 12 safety steps when confronted with a dog. Having abandoned efforts to get all of us under our school desks in case of a nuclear attack, dogs are a reasonable threat replacement.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey