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Curbing dog wars in the North End

Posted by Your Town  March 12, 2013 04:32 PM

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If you don’t clean up after your dog, you'll regret it.

That’s the polite version of a message posted on Charter Street in the North End. They are fighting words, any way you say them, in what has become an escalating battle between dog owners and some North End residents.

It’s gotten so bad over the last few years that dog owners and dog walkers claim they’ve had feces thrown at them, water poured on them and threats of violence directed at them.

“There’s definitely growing tension,” says Erin Rinaldi, who’s been walking dogs professionally for eight years. Rinaldi says she had a bag of dog waste thrown at her on one occasion and was threatened with violence on another.

And she’s not alone. Karen Ray, another dog care professional, says when she walked her clients’ dogs she was often chased by an elderly woman on North Street wielding a broom and yelling at her in Italian and “broken English.” Not something Ray was accustomed to, especially since her businesses’ name is The Dogfather.

Part of the problem is sheer numbers of dogs in a neighborhood with limited park space.

The number of known dogs rose by 74 percent in the North End from 162 in 2008 to 282 in 2012, Animal Control records show. But those numbers, drawn from license applications and vaccination records, probably are low, said Boston Animal Control Director Mark Giannangelo.

“The dog population is definitely growing,” he said. “It’s a lot of younger families moving in. You’re definitely getting more pets, more dogs.”

The increased dog population frustrates neighborhood parks committee co-chair Anne Pistorio. She is vehemently opposed to dogs in the North End’s 20 parks, which represents about 20 percent of the neighborhood. She says there aren’t enough parks for the residents, let alone for a booming dog population.

“The consensus should be, ‘No backyard no dogs,’” she insists. “But they’re [dog owners] using our public ways and our parks for toilets for their dogs. Our sidewalks and parks have turned in to a cesspool.”

She estimates the number of dogs to be around 1,000. But it’s not the quantity as much as the waste and noise that bothers her most.

For several years, she said, the city levied no fines for dogs that damaged the historic Copp's Hill Burial Ground tombstones. Then the city implemented a $5,000 fine to protect Copp's Hill, she said, but didn’t impose similar fines for North End parks.

“If they have a $5,000 fine where there are dead people, they should have a higher fine where there are living people,” she reasons.

Marie Simboli, a life-long North End resident and neighborhood committee member, agrees with Pistorio that dogs should not be in the existing parks.

“I think they should try and find an area. Or if we can’t, I think that the dog owners should be more responsible,” Simboli says.

Simboli’s wishes are also the focus of a newly formed dog advocacy group called RUFF. RUFF, Responsible Urbanites For Fido, has about 200 members and hopes to ease simmering tensions between upset residents and dog owners.

Since last June, its members have been cleaning North End parks and trying to educate dog owners and community members alike about ways in which responsible dog care and neighborhood care can coincide.

RUFF organizer Amy Hand agrees somewhat with Pistorio and Simboli that dogs don’t belong in certain parks. Tops on her list are “tot lots,” or children’s playgrounds. But those areas have fences which entice some owners to let their dogs run without a leash and leave their business behind.

She believes some of the problems would go away if a dedicated dog park could be established. Hand says RUFF has been working on a dog park for several months.

“We have to find an area that fits dogs and residents. It's a challenge… [but] positively in progress,” Hand explains.

Progress is what both sides will need to ease tensions and manage the demands of the rising dog population. Without it both sides will, as the saying goes, be all bark and no bite.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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