July 18, 2003 -- Dogs are being poisoned in Portland, Ore., as a turf war over the city's parks has turned ugly.
Eight dogs have died and a total of at least 16 have gotten sick since July 4, believed to be poisoned by someone leaving contaminated meat or sausage in Laurelhurst Park, an area popular with dog owners who want to let their pets run, police said.
The poison that was used has not yet been determined, Portland Police Detective William Crockett said, but doctors who treated the dogs said it caused a slow, lingering death. The last dog who appeared to have fallen victim to the poisoning was admitted to Dove Lewis Emergency Animal Hospital on July 12 and died five days later, hospital spokeswoman Devon Zahn said.
There had been no new cases since that dog, but on Thursday evening just before a fund-raiser for a reward and a medical fund was set to begin at a Portland bar, the Lucky Lab, a waitress took a call from a man who she said told her he was going to target another park popular with dog owners.
"He said he was moving his campaign to Mount Tabor," Annette Hunt told ABC affiliate KATU, referring to a large Southeast Portland park with wooded areas and a reservoir. "He sounded like an old man. He wouldn't tell me who he was. He told me he was moving his campaign and he hung up."
Police said they were investigating the call and warned dog owners to watch their dogs closely when they take them out.
The poisonings have increased tensions between those who like to see their dogs roaming free, and people who feel the city's leash law should be enforced.
"I don't know if this is related, but it certainly does stir up some bad blood," said Marychris Maas, president of Citizens for Safe Parks with Off-Leash Territory, a group that has been fighting to get the city to designate more areas in the city's parks for dogs to be allowed to run.
The city's Parks & Recreation bureau said it does not use any pesticide that could cause the poisoning. It urged dog owners to keep their pets leashed and prevent them from eating anything off the ground. Any dog that gets sick after a visit to a park should be taken to a veterinarian right away.
"We all want to get to the bottom of this disturbing news," Parks & Recreation Director Zari Santner said in a statement.
Overrun by Dogs?
People have stopped taking their dogs to Laurelhurst, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods on the east side of the city, and some who have led the fight to crack down on scofflaw dog owners fear that they will be suspects. Police say they believe the off-leash issue is the motive for the poisonings.
"We don't have anything that is pointing to anybody, but we're convinced that the cause is going to be over the leashing animal issue," Crockett said. "It's been a hot-point issue."
Hot enough that the man who runs leashyourdog.com, a Web site that posts photographs of people who walk their dogs off leads, goes by a pseudonym and says he does not let anyone know he operates the site, because of threats sent to it. And that was long before the poisonings.
On the site there is a statement condemning the killings. The site operator said he is horrified and disgusted by them, but even he said he suspects that whoever is behind the poisonings was prompted by a belief that too many dogs have been allowed to run free for too long.
"I think the guy who did this is probably somebody who lives near the park, uses it all the time and got sick of having strange dogs running at him, barking at him," he said.
The site operator said that like most of the city's larger parks, Laurelhurst was "overrun" by dogs, many of them running in packs, making it unusable by anyone with children, anyone who wanted to follow the law and keep their dog on a leash, or anyone who simply did not want to worry about whether the unleashed, uncontrolled dog running up to them was going to jump up on them, bite them or just try to make friends.
The city has a leash law, passed this spring, which carries the threat of a fine of up to $150, but it is not enforced, he said.
Dog owners say there's a better solution.
"It's a problem, but I think it's more easily solved by creating more dog parks than by running around trying to catch people who have their dogs off-leash," Kim Ellett told ABC affiliate KATU in Portland after the get-tough measure was passed.
‘We Want a Fair Share’
Maas also said the city could put an end to the problem by creating more off-leash areas where dogs can run and socialize.
There are only four off-leash areas in the entire city, roughly 25 acres, to accommodate the nearly 67,000 licensed dogs who live in Portland. Roughly 40 percent of the city's households have dogs.
"It's not like as dog owners we want to take over the parks, but we want a fair share," Maas said. "We don't want to be in anyone's face, but we pay for the parks, too, and we should have a fair share of them."
She lives in the Sellwood neighborhood, within walking distance of three large parks, but because she can not let her dog off the leash anywhere in any of them she has to drive to one where she can.
"And that's in a city where they're supposed to be discouraging car use," she said.
The problem is not unique to Portland, but other cities have done much more to satisfy the needs of dogs and their owners, while respecting that not everyone wants to have to deal with unleashed dogs while taking a walk in the park.
Seattle, for example, has eight areas for unleashed dogs in the city, and there is a 35-acre park in suburban Redmond where dogs can run, Maas said.
In New York, many of the city's small neighborhood parks have small fenced dog runs, where people can let their dogs loose to socialize with others of the canine kind.
In the city's Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, an informal agreement has been reached to allow people to let their dogs run loose in the mornings before 9 a.m. and in the evenings at dusk, said Mary McInerney, president of the Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners.
That kind of "time-share" arrangement is one that Maas said has been proposed in Portland, but she said city leaders haven't done anything to try to work out a solution.