Megan Burney

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The gates to the dog run at Maria Hernandez Park remain locked even as the city begins to reopen other facilities to outdoor recreation.  Over the weekend Mayor Bill de Blasio spontaneously announced that in addition to the various industries reopening in Phase Two, children’s playgrounds would also open.  So while children are now allowed to climb their jungle gyms and adults are allowed to dine and drink at their favorite outdoors spots, open space meant for the enjoyment of our four-legged neighbors is still off limits. 

“I think a lot of people don’t think about the comparison between playgrounds and dog runs,” says Amy Willard, Volunteer Director for Maria Hernandez Dog Run Pack.  

“I think about it like this: I see a playground and I think OK that’s a fun place for kids, parents take their kids to playgrounds to run around, to socialize with other kids, to burn off some of that kid-energy, and so that they can come home and take a nap and not bother their parents until dinner.  I see a dog run and think of the same thing.  We take our dogs there, they see their doggy friends, tire themselves out and come home and take a nap.  If you’re able to get your dog out and get him tired he won’t bother anyone, he won’t bark at anyone.  Dogs that are well exercised are just better dogs.  I call them better canine-citizens.”

Bushwick dog owners, like Willard, see the closure of dog runs as unacceptable, so she and her Pack had to take the issue into their own hands when dog runs were initially closed in early April.  

“By end of April, the City and State were in talks of reopening the city in phases and it was at this time that myself and other Dog Run Volunteers throughout the city got together on a facebook group and laid out the logistics,” Willard explains.  “We outlined the safety concerns and how we can make the reopening as seamless as possible.  We pointed out the importance of dog runs and set rules.”

The letter that dog owners sent to elected officials on April 24, 2020.

Willard says the group sent the above letter to local officials, including the Mayor and the NYC Parks Department, on April 24.  The letter, which specifically asked for the reopening of dog runs to be included in phase one and also “pointed out that state park dog runs stayed open without any issues,” received no response until June 5.

“After following up, we finally heard back from the Parks Dept. who said ‘our reopening directions come directly from the Office of the Mayor and writing to us doesn’t do anything’,”  Willard explained.

But she says that open, dog-friendly space is paramount when it comes to her dog’s wellbeing.

“We are city dog owners and most of us live in apartments, the majority of us do not have access to a backyard, especially in Bushwick.  The dog run is the number one entity used to get a dog out for exercise, it’s a safe place for dogs to get their exercise.  It’s the number one resource,” she says, adding that she’d previously bring her 3-year-old Beagle-Collie mix, Binkley, to the dog run “at least once a day.”

“There is over 5,000 square feet of park space and people can spread out six feet apart quite easily,” She added. “And if it got to a point where that couldn’t happen, no dog owner in their right mind would enter the dog run because there are too many people and too many dogs.”

And the CDC has been pretty clear about the likelihood, or lack-there-of, of transmission of the virus via pets:

Corinne Wight, a Bushwick resident and graphic designer-illustrator, says she used to take her 1-year-old Siberian Husky, Klaus, to the dog run as frequently as three times a day.

“With Klaus being a Siberian Husky, he needs a lot of outdoor play to get his energy out, otherwise he destroys the apartment,” she says.  Despite the fortune of a driveway that Wight can close off and let Klaus play in, she says it’s not sufficient.

Wight and her dog Klaus at Maria Hernandez Park.

“Even though I take him on four or more walks a day, it’s not the same.  And it’s so hot now that I can’t take him on long walks and runs, so if I don’t take him out in early hours it’s at the loss of my apartment.  He gets into everything, chewing on cables, the ends of tables, eating plants and destroying chairs, once he even found scissors!”  She explained that this was not the case when Klaus was able to enjoy the dog run at Maria Hernandez Park.  

Klaus up to no good.

“He’s not a bad dog, he’s just trying to show his frustration,” she says.  “Him being in the dog park, he’d run, exert and play with other dogs, and it would tire him a lot faster.  We’d go to the dog park for 20 minutes and he’d be good for eight hours.”

Some city residents are so upset with the Mayor over his policy towards dog runs, that there’s even a twitter account dedicated to calling him out:

And, as Willard sees it, the closure of dog runs has actually put her at a heightened risk for contracting COVID.

“When the city shut down, all dog owners were forced to mask up and take dogs for walks.  For me that’s up to a 45 minute walk that I risk exposing myself,” she says.  “I was passing way more strangers than I would in the dog run, where I’d typically sit six feet or more from people and keep to myself.”

Willard also noted that, due to an auto-immune disorder, she is even more at-risk than the average person and is very aware of taking the necessary safety precautions to prevent infection.

“If I felt that dog runs were unsafe or implausible for social distancing, I wouldn’t be for it,” She explains, highlighting her role as a pet owner.  “We’re not going to break social distancing because we all have to stay healthy to care for our dogs.”

Thankfully there is now a reopening in sight.

“Our parks are hubs for active recreation and we’re excited to welcome all New Yorkers, both human and canine alike, back onto sports courts and dog runs for another safe and fun summer,” de Blasio said earlier today when he announced that dog runs will reopen on July 6 as part of Phase Three.

But Willard says this isn’t the end of it.

“The thing that I really want people to understand about dog runs is that while they are on city property, the city does not care for dog runs.  They rely entirely on volunteers to maintain them.  Every dog run has a community association behind it and we are the ones who care for the space.”

Cover photo by Amy Willard, follow her and Binkley @BinkleytheBeagle.

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