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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    New effort underway to open a dog park in Hartford

    As downtown apartments have opened and filled up, Hartford’s dog population has also grown, prompting a new effort to open a dog park in the city. Shown are dogs at a park in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

    As downtown apartments have opened and filled up, the city’s dog population has also grown, prompting a new effort to open a dog park in Hartford.

    “There’s over 100 dogs in my building alone in downtown Hartford. I confirmed that with my landlord,” said Micah Kerr, who recently started a Facebook group to advocate for a dog park in the city. “As more people move into the city, more dogs are also making Hartford their home, and I think there is a real need for a dog park. Walking around downtown, there’s so much dog poop everywhere. People don’t know where to take their dogs. I think it’s something we really need.”

    Some Hartford residents head to Wethersfield or West Hartford to allow their furry canines to roam off-leash for a chance to play, socialize, and get some exercise.

    Kerr would like something closer. He said that he envisions a place where residents can go to bring their dogs that creates a “community for pet owners” in the city. The Facebook group, which was created only a few weeks ago, now has a couple dozen members.

    Kerr’s plan targets a small vacant lot over the I-84 tunnel across from Heaven Skate Park. The plot of land, right off Main Street, has some benches but is a mostly vacant space devoid of any monuments.

    To realize his plan, Kerr must build a coalition of supporters to form a “friends group,” before he can present a statement of intent to the city. A friends group must contain a board of directors and bylaws that oversee the use of the park. Each of the city’s major parks has a friends group comprised of dedicated volunteers.

    “My goal is to build a community first and then get a friends group together, since that’s the process,” Kerr said. “To me it’s about building a close-knit community, so that if one of us moves away, it’s still sustainable. I want this to be persistent and long lasting. I know downtown is transient and people tend to come and go. But I want the dog park to stay.”

    Dog parks are often free and rely on a dedicated group of volunteers. Kerr said he would like to see the cost of the park paid for either by donations, corporate sponsors or built into the cost of obtaining a dog license in the city. In addition, he envisions the space as a local gathering place for dog owners to get resources, local veterinarian groups to hold free vaccine days and clinics to offer services throughout the year.

    “Why not have a Travelers Dog Park? Everything today has a sponsor, why not a dog park?” Kerr said. “Or why not have the cost built into getting your dog licensed? I think there are several different funding avenues to consider. But we should make the park available to everybody.”

    But Kerr admits that if he can’t build a strong coalition, the idea may just fall apart.

    A History of Failure

    The idea of a dog park has been floated in Hartford for nearly a decade, but those plans have never materialized due to a lack of widespread support.

    “Parks and recreation has held many community outreach meetings with residents about what they desire in our parks — dog parks just do not come up,” said Donna Swarr, Hartford’s parks and recreation advisory commissioner. “There is just not a good fit in our existing park infrastructure for one.”

    Swarr said that she personally looked at all options for a dog park downtown, but could not find anything viable. Hartford’s historic Bushnell Park, which is heavily trafficked, would not be a good candidate because it is already at capacity, according to Swarr. Other areas are considered dangerous or unsafe due to traffic volume.

    “Keney Park in the North End makes the most sense to put a dog park, but that’s nowhere near downtown. Do I think you can find a space at Keney? Sure. But the people who live around there have not asked for one,” Swarr said. “Pope Park I also thought was a good option, but people screamed against a dog park a few years back. They planted flowers there instead on the western end of the park. Time and again, a dog park just doesn’t gain traction.”

    Former Hartford resident Robert Marshall, who owned the pet supply store Naturally Dogs and Cats on Trumbull Street, tried for years to build a coalition for a dog park. But Marshall, who closed his business in 2022 and has since moved out of the city, was not successful.

    “There’s a whole lot of chatter out there about wanting a park, but it’s another thing to actually get people on board,” Marshall said. “We tried two times to organize a dog park friends group. We first held a meeting for all of my customers who claimed they wanted one, but no one came. We had one meeting where two people showed up. That completely failed. We had another one a year later and no one showed up again. The problem is that the downtown is extremely transient and most people aren’t really attached to the idea of a dog park.”

    Marshall, who now resides in Enfield, sits on the board of director’s for Enfield’s Dog Park Action Committee. He helped establish a dog park in the town a few years back. The committee rents the space from the town for $1 per year with all the funds to maintain the park coming from private donations. The park is run entirely by volunteers.

    “In Enfield last year, we actually had to close the park for a week, because we had no volunteers to help maintain it,” Marshall said. “We had over 40 people who first volunteered to help, but now we’re down to less than 20. It’s a real challenge getting volunteers. The problem with Hartford is that most people downtown are just not there long enough to really commit to taking care of a dog park. Over my 10 years as a business owner in Hartford, I just didn’t see the commitment to put a dog park together.”

    Fraught with controversy

    Dog parks, while touted by some for their social benefits to dogs, are labeled as dangerous liabilities by critics.

    “A dog significantly increases exposure to disease due to the dog waste, it is a biohazard. Dogs become infected through their feet. This is one of my main concerns.”

    Swarr said it would be virtually impossible to ensure that all dogs entering the dog park are properly vaccinated and licensed, increasing health risks for both the dogs and the handlers. In addition, dogs may become violent or anxious and can cause a liability if the park is on city property.

    “The area that Micah is referencing is loud and noisy. It can cause anxiety in dogs. If you look at Hartford, most of the dogs here are rescues with a history of previous trauma,” Swarr said. “So what if a dog becomes agitated and is now in a confined area? Also, what if a dog escapes and runs out into busy traffic or even onto the highway below? The city would have to contend with this.”

    According to the CT Humane Society, dogs should be spayed or neutered, up-to-date on all vaccines, over 6 months old and healthy without any symptoms to enter a dog park. In addition, dogs displaying any signs of stress should be removed immediately. But Marshall said those rules may not always be followed, leaving some dogs vulnerable. In cities like Hartford, many dogs don’t have proper vaccination records, further complicating recommendations.

    “There’s plenty of dogs in Hartford, but if you take a look, there’s only a few hundred actually licensed,” Marshall said. “I’ve had dog owners come up to me and say they didn’t license their dog. A dog park relies on good faith. No one is really checking to see what dogs are vaccinated or licensed. I’m not against dog parks at all. But personally, I don’t take my dogs to one for this reason.”

    In a social media post on Hartford Dwellers, many residents said they want to see the city focus on bigger issues such as homelessness and crime.

    “To those worried about building a damn dog park instead of handling the real issue out here, I don’t want to hear no crying about homeless people seeking shelter there … Because instead of helping them we built a dog park,” said one Hartford resident.

    Others criticized the idea of a dog park as helping to further gentrification in the city.

    “A dog park will attract suburbanites and gentrification,” said Ivelisse Correa with Black Lives Matter 860. “Invest in current residents, families and housing inspectors in the city before a dog park. The last thing people need is a place for their pit bulls to fight.”

    But despite the blowback Kerr has faced, he said he intends to push ahead with his vision.

    “To some degree it’s correct, but to some degree incorrect, to look at a dog park as a nonvalid use of space, time and energy. While that’s all fine and good, I can’t solve homelessness, mental health issues, income disparity or racial inequality. But I can affect something that matters to me personally and I’m going to try to. While I do that, if I can incorporate some social good, then I’m doing some good in the community. It may not be the good that someone else wants, but it’s still doing good. I think any good in the community is a net positive.”

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