Pet Project

Hear the snarling and snapping and growling coming from the normally tranquil town of Fountain Hills? Get ready. The great dog-park debate has hit the Valley.

So far, the dogs of Fountain Hills have exhibited model behavior. It's the people who are foaming at the mouth, turning a simple concept into a sniveling, high-pitched fight. And from what I hear, Fountain Hills is just the first local community to consider a dog park; Mesa and Ahwatukee aren't far behind. So dig in your claws, Valley of the Sun, for a long scuffle.

Phoenix is one of the last metropolitan areas in the country to go through it, this quest for the perfect public pooch playground. For years, several Valley cities have devoted small patches of their parks to dog runs, but until now, there hasn't been a community push for a bonafide dog park. The concept is simple: Just fence off a few grassy acres in a public park for dogs to run around off leash, provide fountains and poop bags and maintenance, and you've got a dog park. Nirvana.

But then the questions start. Which acres, and how many? Who will pay to maintain the park? Who will ensure that the dogs don't fight? That no one will be bitten or knocked down? And who's gonna see to it that the poop gets picked up?

Politics and pets are a hairy combination. Anyone who thinks the Clinton impeachment proceedings are the ugliest episode in American political history has never been to a meeting of the Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council. People are passionate about their pets, and that passion rears up all the time in public policy debates. Getting a pet-sterilization program approved or land for a dog park set aside can be tantamount to getting a multinational treaty signed.

Even so, there are successful dog parks all over the country. From Eugene, Oregon, to Coral Springs, Florida, and in dozens of cities in between, dog owners have convinced civic leaders to create canine recreational facilities.

Of course, none of those cities had Susan Neuhart.
Neuhart is, to put it kindly, obsessed. She spearheaded the push for a Fountain Hills dog park, but in the end, she's the biggest reason the town may never have a park.

Instead of settling for a simple gated park with requirements that dogs be tagged and poop be picked up, Neuhart is insisting upon an elaborate card-key entrance system, a $150 membership fee and an audition--she calls it a "debut"--for each dog. No dog park in the country I've heard of has such a system, but Neuhart is convinced the park will be dangerous without it; and she is spreading that word through town.

Coached by her daughter, a staffer on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Neuhart has launched an initiative campaign to get her fancy version of the dog park on the Fountain Hills ballot in spring 2000.

She needs 1,600 signatures to qualify, but she may not get more than two--her own and her husband's. Neuhart says she has more supporters, but they're unwilling to come forward.

It seems that Neuhart's zeal has alienated just about every dog lover in Fountain Hills, and, as with so many public policy issues, personalities and emotion have eclipsed reasonable discourse.

Kimberly Marshburn, a Fountain Hills dog owner and co-author of the simpler dog-park proposal, claims Neuhart has an ulterior motive, that she wants to market her card-key system nationally. Neuhart's causing such a fuss, Marshburn says, she could ultimately bury the Fountain Hills dog park entirely.

"If I didn't want this park," Marshburn says, "I'd be rootin' for Susan."
Neuhart is definitely eccentric. One of her signature lines: "Wake up and smell the irresponsible pet stools." Another favorite: "I'm not an animal behaviorist, I'm just a lady," just before she adds, "Some dogs are not fit to be in the facility. I mean, it's readily apparent."

Marshburn, while mellower, isn't so easy to take, either. Marshburn goes as far as to accuse Neuhart of trying to brainwash Fountain Hills with her access-control rhetoric. But then Marshburn opens her own mouth and she sounds nutty, too.

"By the way," she says, "instead of 'dog park,' would you mind calling it 'off leash'? Because this is for humans. This is one of the silly arguments. Is this a park for dogs? No. It's a park for dog-owning families."

But even Marshburn sees the proposed park for what it is, and, she admits wryly, "the PTA is so jealous," at all the attention dogs are getting. Susan Neuhart, however, is a different story. She doesn't see the irony at all. Instead, she gets more and more excited, talking about how her daughter's got her all fired up.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at