How a conflict over an off-leash dog run in Baird Park created a gang of neighbourhood vigilantes.
We hear a lot about Toronto being a city divided: cars versus bikes, suburbs versus city, Ford Nation versus the downtown elite. But if you really want evidence of an unbridgeable divide, head to an off-leash area for dogs at a local park. There, you’ll find the fiercest neighbour-versus-neighbour civil wars.
Take, for example, sleepy little Baird Park on Keele Street south of Annette. The half-block green space is defined by the manicured, century-old lawn-bowling club at its south end, and by the towering leafy trees that hang over fenced playground structures and the wading pool. Since 2011, it’s also been notable for the triangular, 100-meter-long off-leash dog run situated along its east side, facing the semi-detached homes of a quiet street called Indian Grove.
That dog run made headlines in April when an early-morning dog walker found pieces of chocolate scattered among the wood chips. Dogs are attracted to its smell, but chocolate can be toxic to them—it can cause vomiting or seizures, and sometimes even induce lethal heart attacks. Soon, the gates of the park were covered in police tape, and an investigation was launched.
Though Detective Trudy Hughes told reporters she saw no reason to suspect this was an intentional attempt to poison pets, dog owners felt certain it was. “The police shouldn’t have any trouble finding suspects,” posted one local resident on Facebook.
The suspicions were discussed on social media, over the phone, and in person in the park, where dog owners tell me about a long history of harassment from residents, who have been fighting with the city to have the enclosure removed.
“Conflict. That’s one way of putting it,” says MacKenzie (who asked that I not use his last name), as he keeps an eye on his year-old schnauzer, Rooster. “The dog owners here are fairly responsible. But some people are highly critical of having to share the public park.” One person has been particularly vocal, he says. “If a dog is barking for 30 seconds, she’ll be out on her porch yelling at us to keep them quiet.” The others nod. Johnathan Burgess, here with Spitfire, adds, “I’ve heard her shouting things that are really rude. ‘Go away and don’t come back,’ things like that.”
Once they get started, a lively set of anecdotes rolls out. A number say they have been photographed and had their license plates recorded. There are stories about tires being slashed, of the gates being padlocked, of cars flyered with notices that read, “This is our park, you’re disrupting the peace.”
And now the chocolate. Was it actually possible that someone would try to poison pets? Dog owners think so—when describing their opponents, the word that pops up constantly is “crazy.”
But when I talk to members of the well-organized group of Indian Grove residents, they seem entirely rational. They say the dog people are the ones harassing them: I am told of belligerent owners breaking park rules, of unprovoked obscenities, of a bag of poop left on someone’s lawn. I hear about a couple with a bedroom window overlooking the park who divorced because of the strife caused by the noise; other people moved off the street to escape the drama. Police, parks-department staff, and politicians have been overwhelmed by complaints about Baird Park. It occupied the full-time efforts of an employee in one government office for months.
The battle at Baird Park is echoed all over the city. At High Park, someone recently scattered glass shards along the dog paths and slashed tires in the nearby parking lot. Poisoned hot dogs and other food items have been found there and in green spaces in the King West area, Riverdale, Leslieville, Flemingdon Park, and Danforth Village. A dog run at uptown Ledbury Park was removed after years of rancor in 2011; an off-leash area at Rennie Park in Swansea was closed just this year.
The huge irony is that fenced dog runs are a strategy specifically intended to minimize conflict—to ensure pets who need exercise have a place to run around that won’t threaten or interfere with other people. It’s part of a bigger municipal dog strategy that has been worked on and tweaked for almost a decade. But while the city has erected fences and passed bylaws meant to keep everyone happy, they don’t have enough staff to enforce the rules and act as referees. As a result, some locals have cast themselves as green-space vigilantes, advising people of rules, asking for compliance, and patrolling with clipboards and cameras. Responsible dog owners, who simply want a place to let their animals run around, feel attacked. The situation gets nutty in a hurry.
The conflict over dog runs is exactly the kind of volatile issue that typifies the challenges of city life: a lot of people with differing lifestyles living in a contained area and sharing resources like streets, tax revenues, parks. Figuring out how to do that peacefully and fairly is the raison d’être of municipal government. “We have competing demands for park space as the population increases in the downtown area,” says Peter White, the general supervisor of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation for the central area of Toronto. “It’s going to cause some conflict. I don’t think it’s unique to off-leash areas. I think that’s one flashpoint, but I don’t think it’s unique.”
Still, if they aren’t exactly unique, dog runs are different from most community fights because the feelings run so deep. There are people whose first experience of a dog was as their best friend, and others whose first experience was to be growled at or bitten.
Peter Brewer runs the community conflict-resolution program at St. Stephen’s Community House, where some of the parties involved in the Baird Park tensions have unsuccessfully attempted to resolve their differences. He ventures that in fights over off-leash areas, the sheer number of people involved and all the emotions—“those with pets see them as an extension of their family”—combine with health and safety concerns to create especially charged debates. What’s more, the people in conflict are neighbours, who run into each other every day. Over time, petty resentments fester into full-on wars.
I’ve heard that politicians advise each other to avoid getting involved in these disputes. “No matter how sensitively you try to finesse a compromise, no matter which side you take in the argument…you become the lifelong enemy of somebody,” then-Councillor Adam Vaughan told the Globe and Mail in 2010 when new dog park laws were passed. Councillor Gord Perks, who represents the area around Baird Park, didn’t want to talk about the issue in detail because it has been so contentious. “I will say that of all the parks use issues that city councillors deal with, this one seems to have the highest personal stakes.”
Discussions about creating an off-leash area in Baird Park began in 2009. Battles erupted over where it should be located. Many felt bitter when it was finally installed on the east side, in a scenic, peaceful, and heavily treed area. The complaints began immediately. Dog owners say that they were shouted at and harassed by some residents from the start.
“They’ve taken pictures, they’ve screamed at the people, threatened them that they’re going to call the police,” says Corrine Humphreys, who owns three dogs and has lived in the area her entire life. She tells me that neighbour from Indian Grove moved away after the dog park was installed because the constant ruckus was unbearable.
Samantha Moens, who lives across from the park, wants the off-leash area removed or moved. She says the street has been overtaken by traffic as dog owners arrive by car, and is inundated by noise. “We’re very emotional about it—it affects your daily life. You can’t have a nap in the middle of the day because there’s too much barking. At the time [the off-leash area was created], we had newborn children, and the dogs in the park would wake them up.”
Moens—a dog owner herself—provided me with a 164-page document she and her neighbours sent to the parks department last year. Much of it deals with potential damage to the large trees on the east side of the park (increased foot traffic over their root systems threatens to vastly shorten their lives). The package also documents 14 “Incidents of Police Involvement and Incidents of Harassment” over a one-year period, mostly outlining arguments where dog walkers shouted profanities—and in some cases homophobic obscenities—in response to requests that they quiet their dogs or observe the park’s posted hours.
An appendix details a “violations log” recorded over nine months in 2012, which includes more than 700 incidents of after-hours use of the park, dogs off-leash outside the fence, traffic violations, and excessive barking—complete with descriptions of the offenders. Moens says residents had been told by authorities to keep records (which might account for the owners’ complaints about being photographed), but when they submitted them, no action was taken.
This freelance detective work sounds like the premise for a Saturday Night Live sketch—Dirty Harry Comes to the Dog Park, maybe. But these vigilantes appear to have few other options. Most of the dog owners I spoke to felt they had made great efforts to be respectful and self-regulating. But in cases where rules are broken, the city does next to nothing. The animal-services department—which handles some complaints—has only four enforcement officers, and the other bylaw-enforcement departments are similarly understaffed as they try to cover Toronto’s 1,500 parks.
I can’t help but wonder if having a single park supervisor—not even a police officer, just a staff member in an orange vest—to remind people of rules would defuse much of the tension. After all, most people instinctively defer to the authority of teenaged lifeguards at wading pools, or to drivers on the TTC. Deploying an official authority to patrol parks might depersonalize conflicts. Instead of frustrated neighbours screaming at one another, there would be a neutral arbitrator deciding whether rules had been broken.
Moens acknowledges that it is not all, or even most, of the dog owners who cause problems. She says there is a responsible dog owners’ group that has tried to negotiate, and to help set and enforce the rules. Trouble is, “they’re not the ones causing the problems,” she says. And rules are useless if even a few people refuse to obey them—unless you have a method of enforcement. So far, vocal residents haven’t done the trick.
After Baird Park was closed due to the chocolate incident, parks staff cleaned the off-leash area. About 20 dog owners showed up the next day when it re-opened. MacKenzie says he never considered staying away. “That would be letting them win,” he says.
Toxicology reports on the chocolate came back negative, and Detective Hughes says that she isn’t actively seeking more evidence. Parks supervisor Peter White adds that the matter seems to have been dealt with. “We didn’t find anything else, and haven’t found anything else,” he says.
Moens and the other residents I interviewed are not surprised—they don’t believe their neighbours would sabotage the park. But many dog owners aren’t buying it. “I think that’s ridiculous,” Humphries says of the police investigation. “Someone did it, and they know they’re endangering the dogs, and they’re just trying to stir up some shit.”
This is how high tensions have risen in this neighbourhood over the simple matter of a little fenced-in area for dogs: Two groups of apparently reasonable people view each other as enemies. No one—not the local councillor, not the parks department or animal services, not even conflict-resolution experts—has been able to broker peace.
The matter is in a stalemate. The off-leash area will remain as is and city staff have been told to enforce the bylaws. Dog walkers say they won’t stop using the park and residents say they won’t stop complaining about it. White says in cases like this, good solutions are “very much about compromising for all concerned.” But sometimes, even after a long, good-faith effort, some people will still be unhappy.
Unhappy, and in this case, mistrustful. So much so that even though police say the chocolate incident was innocent, everyone still assumes the worst about each other. “You continue to take information as it comes in,” Detective Hughes told me when I asked if her investigation into the case of the Baird Park Dog Park was closed. “You never really conclude matters like that.”
DOG-EAT-DOG OR PUPPY LOVE?
A survey of human-animal relations in Trinity Bellwoods Park.—Luc Rinaldi
(Photographs: Christie Vuong/The Grid.)
Dana (with Pablo)
Are you a fan of Toronto’s off-leash dog parks?
Absolutely. The dogs get to socialize and play, and it’s fun for the owners. I’ve [met] people who don’t own dogs coming to dog parks just to watch.
Adam (with Max)
Have you had any dog park run-ins or issues?
No. They’re dogs. They’re going to fight and grumble with the other dogs. It’s fine.
Do you prefer fenced or non-fenced dog parks?
I think non-fenced parks are better. If you can’t control your dog, or if it can’t control itself, you shouldn’t be bringing it to a dog park in the first place.
Ray (with Rosa)
Have you had any dog park run-ins or issues?
Rose doesn’t bark, so people don’t complain. I’ve never even seen a dog fight. In New York City, where I’m from, dog fights last 20 minutes. I’m serious.
Have you had any dog park run-ins or issues?
I live beside a dog park near Ossington. The dogs can bark pretty loudly in the morning. When you’re hungover and want to sleep in, it’s unfortunate.