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Austin parks reconsidering leash law enforcement

Friday, October 27, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

It’s no secret that although many parks around Austin require dogs to remain on leash, there always seem to be free-range dogs chasing Frisbees and splashing around in the greenbelt. Amanda Ross, the natural resources division manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, told the Parks and Recreation Board on Oct. 24, “This is one of our largest concerns and problems. We share a lot of the frustration that people share.”

This frustration experienced by park patrons, park rangers and the Parks and Recreation Department alike has culminated in the department proposing a revision of the current approach to leash law enforcement. From the department’s presentation at the meeting, “Austin’s leash ordinance requires dogs to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet on all City land,” and “a person who brings an animal into a park may not permit the animal to remain unattended or create a disturbance or a hazard,” according to current city code. Unwillingness to follow these regulations can result in a fine of up to $500.

While there is this risk to pet owners of incurring fines, it rarely happens. Instead, “Voluntary compliance is where we spend a lot of time with park rangers and Austin Police Department,” said Ross.

Ross revealed that when she anecdotally asked APD and park rangers for compliance stats about offenders that had been informed of the potential for a fine, she learned that “80 percent of people at that point will put their dog on a leash. However, the joint effort that voluntary compliance requires can become problematic when a ticket does need to be issued.”

The 20 percent who do not comply voluntarily can only be issued a ticket if stopped by a police officer. Since off-leash dogs are a city land issue rather than a parks issue, non-commissioned park rangers are not able to punitively enforce leash laws.

“The number of tickets written each year is pretty minimal,” Ross said.

Recently though, statistics from the department show that the number of incidences has risen steadily since 2015 despite the city having various off-leash areas for those who prefer to allow their dogs to roam free.

Board Member Randy Mann suggested overlaying problem areas with a map of where off-leash parks are to identify where there might be a need for other off-leash areas.

Although Ross confirmed that comparing designated off-leash zones against known problem areas would be valuable, she assured the board that the department is already considering a more multifaceted approach to the issue. “There’s not just one thing that’s going to solve this,” said Ross.

One of the new implementations is informational signage to explain the repercussions of having dogs off leash. According to Ross, these include erosion, adverse waterway impacts and wildlife welfare issues.

Furthermore, there is an 8-foot-tall sign under construction that will be placed in areas where there are large concerns about dogs off leash. “So people see it, and it’s in their face,” explained Parks and Recreation Department Acting Assistant Director Ricardo Soliz.

The idea behind this enormous sign is to create a social campaign. Board Vice Chair Richard DePalma noted, “Our friends from Austin Pets Alive! said if we look at some sort of social media campaign about it, they’re absolutely behind it.”

Ross confirmed that effective enforcement of leash laws will rely heavily on creating social pressures to make it unacceptable to have your dog off leash. She worried about only approaching the problem through increased ticketing: There isn’t enough data to prove its efficacy. “If we write tickets, does that mean that we reduce the number of off-leash dogs in that area, and if so, how long?” she said.

DePalma said, “We know this is an ongoing problem, we know this is trending up.” However, he did caution, “Our main advocates are not extreme on either side. I just don’t want to plan it to death.”

Ross explained, “It’s not that there are bad dogs out there, it’s just that we need to work on responsible pet ownership in our parkland.”

Photo by Ashley Jones made available through a Creative Commons license.

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