Of Dogs and People: City Residents Discuss the Rights of Canines in Hubbard Park

Hubbard Park, as illustrated by Tim Newcomb.

Hubbard Park, as illustrated by Tim Newcomb.

by Ivan Shadis

Questions about the fair use of Hubbard Park have recently been raised, as the drama surrounding a survey concerned with dog aggression in the park, issued by the Parks Commission this winter, continues to unfold. Has one group, specifically dog walkers, grown too large and unruly, and are they in danger of pushing out others who would use the park?

More than 100 residents showed up at the little publicized Parks Commission meeting on Thursday, February 21, to hear the commission’s statement about the survey results and add their comments. The broad interest in this seemingly minor inquiry is, perhaps, indicative of a watchful and questioning relationship between the townspeople over the fate of their park—a relationship that stretches back to the park’s first days.

As the story goes, John Hubbard left 134 acres of land for the park in a final bid to redeem himself in a town that had condemned him. His crime was stealing a fortune left to the city, and in recompense, he gave a fair chunk back upon his death. “Hubbard left a handsome sum … to convey the message that [he] was a man profoundly human and profoundly misunderstood” writes Cynthia Mills in her book Dying Well in Montpelier: The Story of Hubbard Memorial, about the man whose self-commissioned likeness sits cast in bronze in Montpelier’s Green Mountain Cemetery. “They say if you sit on its lap it will take your soul away. That’s what everyone says,” quips Montpelier resident Suzannah Mullikin, indicating that the man, though having left behind a well-loved park, may have, nonetheless, been unable to unruffle all the town’s feathers.

At the February 21 meeting, the question of propriety once again stirred the waters as matters of fair and proper use were raised between a dog-walking majority, who seemed almost surprised to be singled out, and a discontented minority, who begrudged their marginalization. Parks director Geoff Beyer said that there had been a wide range of responses to the survey, from “people attacked by dogs” to “dogs attacked by kids,” before opening the floor to public comment.

“I have a Bernese mountain dog. I am a former parks commissioner. My dog lives for the joy of running with other dogs. Please make the most minimal changes possible,” began Representative Warren F. Kitzmiller in defense of the status quo.

The meeting minutes, available on the Parks Commission website, go on to detail a happy-go-lucky population of dog walkers being brought to task and a measure of self-awareness by an indignant group who, hitherto, could only be heard grumbling on the sidelines while unruly packs of dogs romped to their hearts’ content.

One comment from the meeting’s minutes expressed the discomfort and fear that children, the elderly, the disabled and working animals experience in the face of a, perhaps, too-exuberant community of dog walkers who seem to be unaware: “I experienced two dog-related incidents recently that were very unnerving. I was walking with two friends who are blind and use seeing-eye dogs. A pair of exuberant dogs came barreling down the path. This caused my friends a great deal of fear, because the seeing-eye dog of one of my blind friends had been bitten while on leash on Main Street. Also, I am a grandma, and I can relate to what an earlier commenter said about kids feeling threatened. My grandchildren are fearful of dogs, and that has prevented me from using the park.”

At the end of the meeting, it was decided two volunteer subcommittees would look into amending the parks’ dog policies (Dog Waste Committee and Dog Policy and Communication Committee). Beyer warned, “When people assume, or have the attitude that they have a right to walk their dogs off leash is when we often have problems. More and more often, in public places, leash laws are required. When people understand it is a privilege to walk dogs off leash, we are less likely to have problems. We must have conversations and dog owners taking responsibility to ensure that privilege to walk dogs off leash will continue.”

All Parks Commission meetings are open to the public. The next meeting to organize the volunteer committees is on March 21 at the Montpelier Police Station Conference Room. Following meetings are held on the second Thursday of each month.

OPINION: When Dogs Run Free

by Ivan Shadis

After observing the recent Parks Commission meeting, I could not help but wonder about parks and dogs. They share an interesting paradox in their domestication. A park we think of as a place to contact wilderness, the stuff of our primal origin and unmolested nature, yet it exists at the behest of civic authority to be engaged with per regulation. Likewise, a dog we think of as our friend, another being, whole in itself. But down to the very shape of its body (after centuries of breeding for temperament, use, curiosity), the dog is an expression of our whim.

How much may we regulate before we have sapped our domesticated wildernesses of the spirit that refreshes us? How much will we allow ourselves to develop, police and delineate within the parks boundaries before using the park becomes merely an exercise in following the approved policy, which may include submitting to ordinances that retract earlier privileges? But walking dogs off leash did not use to be a “privilege,” any more than walking in the park is—until the development of municipal leash laws, which created the precedent of leashed dogs in public space.

The Montpelier city ordinance concerning the lawful condition of dogs not on private property requires they be “under control by means of a chain, rope, or cord of sufficient strength to control the action of such dog (or such other personal presence and attention as will reasonably control the conduct of such dog).” Doesn’t the parenthetical addendum suggest that the master’s voice and the chain are interchangeable (so long as they exercise the same ability to maintain order)? But a voice is not a chain. The two methods of control are crucially different in that leashes use physical manipulation while voice commands use language, the same way people communicate with one another. Among dog walkers there is a desire to include dogs as autonomous agents, socializing on equal terms with humans and other dogs.

The park, with its many dogs, faces the same issues as other public spaces that become the gathering places of undesirables and displaced populations. The fact that these dog walkers have assembled here en masse and that there are ensuing safety and control concerns does not necessarily show so much irresponsibility on the part of dog owners as it does a refusal to accommodate the population of dogs and dog owners. Enacting ordinances and regulations to chase the dogs out of the streets and out of the parks may eventually have the effect of making our town completely safe from dogs and solve the problem for everyone involved except one population: the dogs, who will find that their scarce autonomy is a privilege entirely suspended (on a leash).

As local arborist and stone mason Padma Meier chimed upon walking into The Bridge office during a discussion of this topic: “When dogs run free, so will we.”

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