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The crowd gathered at Newark Park in McLean Gardens had battled the January cold to rally for an important purpose: liberty and justice for dogs. Men and women had swathed themselves in thick sweaters and heavy coats. Their canine doppelgängers wore sweaters, too, plaid ones, and colorful scarves around their short necks.

The event, Bark for a Park, was organized by the D.C. Dog Owner’s Group (DCDOG), a collection of residents from Wards 3 and 4 lobbying for the creation of dog-exercise areas in the District. Participants listened to representatives from the Washington Humane Society, the Washington Animal Rescue League, and the offices of Councilmembers Kathy Patterson and Adrian Fenty as they outlined the importance of establishing off-leash dog parks in the city.

While the speakers spoke, the four-legged part of the audience ignored them in favor of interesting smells and sights. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry!” said one woman, turning red and struggling to winch her large dog away from the Jack Russell terrier it was sniffing. A tiny dog started barking in the middle of the program, and the owner swooped it off the ground and cradled it in her arms, as one would a baby. “Shhh, honey,” she said. “Be quiet!”

After the speeches, there was literature available on a small folding table at the rear. There was also a tin filled with cookies shaped like dog bones. There was much discussion over whether the treats were meant for human or canine consumption; in the end, both groups ended up eating them.

On the front lines of dog activism, the distinction between human and dog has a way of getting blurred. These are the sort of dog owners who treat their pets as family members rather than property—sending them to doggie-day-care centers and doggie bed-and-breakfasts.

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So when DCDOG heard Mayor Anthony A. Williams announce, during his second inaugural speech, a pledge to attract 100,000 new residents over the next 10 years, they saw an opportunity. The mayor believes the District can lure this new wave of Washingtonians by creating safe streets and exemplary schools. The dog people ask, What’s in it for the pooches?

“We want to be supportive of the mayor’s efforts to make D.C. a more attractive place to live,” says Kathy Silva, one of the founders of DCDOG, which was formed this past fall. “In urban areas, it’s wonderful to be able to have dogs. In so many cities, like New York, they’re hard to have. If this is a city that accommodates dogs, it would be very helpful in attracting new residents.”

Step One is dog parks. Dog owners let their dogs run off-leash on several parcels of city-owned property, but they’re technically in violation of the law.

But by the end of March, the Department of Parks and Recreation aims to present the D.C. Council with legislation that would give the department the power to designate off-leash areas in the city. If the law passes, community groups such as DCDOG will be able to lobby for particular patches of land as potential dog-park sites and, upon receiving approval, start using them.

That’s great, if you love dogs. Some of us don’t. Places like Manhattan, which seem so inhospitable to dog activists, have the right idea. The sidewalks are free of urine and fecal matter, and there are no cold noses snuffling at our crotches. Dogs on New York City streets are controlled by professional dog-walkers—it’s all very civilized.

There’s a dearth of both public space and funding in the city—why would anyone devote time, money, and energy to establishing playgrounds for dogs? The only way the dog parks will make my life better is if they create a dog ghetto, confining the animals to their own fenced-in spaces where they interact only with each other and the people who love them. That, DCDOG admits, is actually the source of some of their movement’s support.

“We’ve had people sign our petition that are non-dog owners,” says Silva. “Some feel it’s necessary, and it also takes [the dogs] from underneath their windows. It can’t be mandated that people use the parks, but it’s a big option. If someone sees a dog off-leash, they may be more likely to enforce the off-leash law on sidewalks, which would make non-dog people happier.”

But they won’t stay happier if DCDOG is correct in its assumption. If adding canine amenities will actually draw new residents to the District, we current residents need to ask ourselves: Do we want to attract the sort of people who would decide where to live based on dog-friendliness? And do we want their dogs?

It’s one thing to provide public space for our existing dogs. It’s quite another to fling open the gates and announce that D.C. stands for Dog City.

The hopes and dreams of dog lovers city-wide are already being realized. Dog bakeries serve up treats that rival human ones: birthday cakes, cookies, and biscotti. When temperatures drop and the coat drives begin, dogs are not forgotten—the Washington Humane Society gives out tiny sweaters.

Although D.C. has more than its fair share, Denver is ground zero for indulgent dog treatments. That city has done everything in its power to become as pet-friendly as possible: It boasts one veterinarian for every 1,200 pets and a low flea population, and it’s just established its first off-leash dog park. In its ranking of America’s Pet Healthiest Cities, the Purina Pet Institute rated Denver No. 1.

But the dogs—and their enabling owners—aren’t satisfied. The dog-devoted segment of the state of Colorado now wants enhanced legal status for the animals, so that they are defined as companions rather than mere property. If pending legislation passes, owners will win the right to sue veterinarians for malpractice and to take home settlements of up to $100,000 for the loss of their pets.

The last thing this divided city needs is another class of self-interested inhabitants. We’re already fighting among ourselves for access to services; we sure aren’t ready to cut off another slice of the pie and drop it on the floor for Fido. They’ll come for a piece of the park system, and then start asking for more. How about reserved dog beds on Red Line cars? Charter-school funds for obedience training?

Dogs already live better than lots of folks in the District. Trinidad residents have battled for years to get a full-sized swimming facility for their community center. Meanwhile, the Capitol Hill dog day-care center Dog-ma boasts its own paddling pool. Sleet wilts women’s hairdos at the bus stop, while shuttles carry dogs to and from the groomers. When they come out, coiffed and dry, they can survive being hooked to a leash. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Fred Harper.