pets, with video: The civility of dog owners' civil infractions on Ann Arbor's Old West Side
Chris Asadian | AnnArbor.com
- Related video: Dog days at Ann Arbor's Slauson Middle School
Every Saturday in the schoolyard behind Slauson Middle School, a group of Ann Arbor residents gather for the specific purpose of breaking the law.
No formal documentation ties the individuals together, and the only way to find out about their illegal meetings is word of mouth. Forget about corralling the group. Just as soon as they come together, they’ve dispersed every which way down the city’s streets.
Covering their tracks is their foremost expertise.
Before you get too worried about some rogue criminal organization, meet the dog owners of the Old West Side.
Their "crime" — if you want to call it that — has been victimless, and is barely even illegal. There's even a conflicting message on the signs that surround the park as "No pets allowed" signs are posted right next to signs explaining how pets should be handled when on the grounds.
"It seemed to me that (the city) gave up on the 'No pets allowed,' " said Rowena Gross, who was visiting from New Jersey and walking her dog, Max, on a leash past the park on Saturday. "You can't say 'no pets allowed' and then say, 'if your dog is here, it needs to be on a leash.' That sort of implies your dog's allowed to be (here)."
Confusing signs or not, the fact is the dogs aren't allowed off their leashes. Every Saturday, owners let their dogs off their leashes for an hour in the unauthorized area, a civil infraction punishable by a $25 to $500 fine.
Good luck finding an officer who will write that ticket. Really, there’s no need. The owners know they're technically breaking the law, so they self-police.
What's better than having one dog owner making sure his dog is cleaned up after? Thirty or 40 watching like hawks, with extra plastic bags in tow, just in case.
“The dog owners here appreciate having a big, wide open space for their dogs, and we're all very conscientious about picking up after our pets it won’t work if we’re not careful,” said Jackie Freeman as her foot-high terrier with a Napoleon complex, Goblin, mixed it up with some dogs five times his size.
“This running around is more exercise than I can give him He goes home with a smile on his face and I go home with an even bigger smile.”
The city’s stance on the unofficial gathering is exactly what the “No Pets Allowed” signs and city ordinance postings that surround the schoolyard suggest.
The gatherings, no matter how civil, are illegal.
"If it's a violation of the ordinance, it’s a violation of the ordinance,” said Kristen Larcom, senior assistant city attorney.
Enforcement of the violation isn’t exactly a high priority, though, Larcom concedes. Since budget cuts did away with an animal control officer years ago, that responsibility falls on city police, who, quite frankly, have bigger fish to fry.
“That doesn’t mean that the city finds it OK to violate the ordinance, but inevitably, the city has to respond to complaints,” Larcom said.
Not everyone is thrilled about the unleashed hour. Jonathan Flowers, one of several beach volleyball players who play at Slauson’s sand courts on Saturdays, said the dogs have used his volleyballs as chew toys and made a mess of the courts in the past.
“I wouldn’t mind if it was just like one or two dogs, but it ends up being like 30, 40 dogs that are just going crazy with no leashes,” Flowers said. “It’s not something that should be going on.”
On Saturday, a dog came onto a court and took a player’s sandal — much to the amusement of the sandal’s owner and Flowers as well.
“I’m fine with that; it’s a dog,” said Jerry Fulton, after successfully retrieving his sandal. “I think it’s funny.”
Harold Kirchen, who lives nearby and was there with his dog, herded the group further away from the courts shortly thereafter, aware the unofficial gatherings could go away if the dog owners aren’t careful.
“We try to be good neighbors, and we know it’s officially illegal to be here, so the whole thing is no harm no foul (and) we want to keep everybody happy,” Kirchen said. “Everybody’s got eyes in the back of their head.”
Police have been to Slauson to break up the party in the past, and all leash their dogs up and go on their merry way. It’s not exactly a problem, but some owners said they wished they didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing.
“We were trying to get a dog park somewhere in this neighborhood, and we’re down to just asking for an hour a day,” said Beth Biederman who has been bringing her golden retriever/lab mix, Odin, to Slauson for the unleashed hour for 4 1/2 years. “It’s just a really cool group of people no one really organizes it, it just happens.”
John Lawter — who frequents Slauson on Saturdays with his 100-plus pound Irish Wolfhounds and tiny Highland West Terrier — is vice chair of the Park Advisory Commission and has been championing for a legal alternative to the weekly Slauson speakeasy.
“Seeing how popular this is says to me there’s a need,” said Lawter,. “Police have been out here before, so the days for (gathering at Slauson) are probably numbered, but if the city is going to enforce (the ordinance), there needs to be an alternative.”