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June/July 2004
Taking the Bite Out of Bark Parks
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews

The call for dog runs dates back more than two decades, when battles raged between guardians who let their furry companions scamper off their leash, and the authorities who slapped them with tickets for doing so.

As enforcement was stepped up in the ‘80s, so did lobbying from dog guardians who demanded a place for their pooches. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said turf battles over dog runs showcase “New York City politics in a nutshell.” His department oversees 36 of the city’s 40 dog runs, which require community board approval.

The fact is off-leash recreation is still one of the biggest imbroglios in park management, and one of the most politically challenging and hotly debated items for local legislators. It’s inspiring participatory democracy at its finest, with off-leash advocates, many of them political novices, pulling out all stops to earn the right to exercise their dogs—and it also has local politicians running for the hills.

In the documentary, The Run, director Erica Isaac offers a snapshot of her own vibrant East Village community through the prism of the small-enclosed dog run in Tompkins Square Park.

The city’s first dog run—aptly named First Run—has sparked controversy since it opened in 1990 in the park sandwiched between Avenues A and B. What some neighbors consider the pride of the park, others deride as an open sewer.

Even in New York, one of our nation’s most progressive cities, any unleashed dog (with or without a guardian) seen sniffing his way around would be met with the disdainful look of the humans using the park. We all know that there are leash laws; no matter how well trained or well mannered our canine might be, it is only proper that we, the dog’s guardian, respect the rights of others who use our parks and leash our companion. But what about a dog’s rights? Do they not have the inalienable right to sniff at every tree and bush? To dart and dash through grass and mud? To meet, greet and bond with other dogs?

We all strive to give our dogs a happy life and enough stimulation so they poop out (in more ways than one). Unfortunately, strictly enforced leash laws can really rip the joy out of this harmless activity, and turn many of us into lawbreakers. No matter how vigilant the authorities are—in New York they’re furnishing citizen-snitches with cell phones!—dog people are united in their desire to get their pooch a piece of the green!

Kymberlie Adams Matthews is an animal activist living in Brooklyn. For information on “The Run,” see To see a list of ‘Legal’ Dog Parks in NYC, visit


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