Doggy-doo blues: Barking up the wrong park

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

A few columns back, I made a name for myself as a cat hater. I wrote about the damage that domestic cats can do to native bird and mammal populations.

Cat lovers did not like this. Now, people stop me in the grocery aisle to berate me for being so heartless and obviously misunderstanding their sweet little Fluffykins, who’d never eat a bird — well, not more than one a day.

I guess I’d better buckle up, because the topic today is dogs and by column’s end, I could be banned from PetsMart and kicked to the curb by my veterinarian.

I am a dog person. I’ve had dogs my entire life, and currently own two lovable, though highly neurotic mutts. While I like to take my dogs for walks in the local parks, I know that not all parks are suitable for dogs.

Some dog owners, however, resist that concept.

Case in point is our own West Hylebos Wetlands, a 120-acre wetlands preserve with a 1.1-mile-long boardwalk. It’s a wonderful place for quiet, contemplative walks, bird watching, nature enjoyment and family strolls. It’s no place for dogs, though.

The West Hylebos Wetlands has always been closed to dogs in order to protect the sensitive wetland environment. Even assuming owners are keeping their dogs leashed and on the park’s boardwalk, dogs present a significant water quality problem. Dog feces are a prime source of fecal coliform bacteria, which is a major pollutant of Puget Sound and its tributaries.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know that dog poop is a fact of life with dogs, often a frequent and voluminous one at that.

Unfortunately, not all pet owners are responsible in cleaning up their dog’s waste. Allowing dogs in the park would inevitably mean that the wetlands’ water quality would suffer from the inaction of irresponsible dog owners.

A subtle but profound impact from dogs comes from their mere presence. Dogs on the boardwalk scare off many of the park’s species. While my dogs are lovable pooches that would never hurt a fly let alone a Douglas squirrel (largely because of their sheer incompetence in hunting), the squirrels don’t know that.

The top predator in our urban area is the coyote. To the uninformed birds and mammals of the West Hylebos, medium-sized dogs and larger probably look like a coyote on steroids.

Scaring off the critters that people come to observe detracts from others’ enjoyment of the park. Critters aren’t the only things being scared; many people are not comfortable with dogs. For those folks, encountering a dog on the close quarters of the boardwalk would be an unsettling, even frightening experience.

In the past, dogs weren’t much of an issue at the wetlands. Most people who were familiar with the park knew the sensitive wetlands environment wasn’t a place to bring dogs.

Now that the new boardwalk has been completed, it’s attracting a lot of first-time visitors, many of whom don’t realize it’s a dog-free zone. Unfortunately, some of these dog owners are the type that don’t clean up after their dogs. Some have even become belligerent when asked to remove their dogs.

Obviously, the problem here is not the dogs so much as it is the owners who are walking their dogs past the “No Dogs” signs. In my column on cats, I noted that cats weren’t the real problem. It was the owners who let the cats outdoors, where they could assault, maim and lunch on native birds.

So, fair is fair. Just as I called on cat owners to be responsible and keep their cats indoors, dog owners should be just as responsible and walk their pooches in the appropriate parks — and clean up after their pets.

Federal Way even has a leash-free dog park at French Lake for dog lovers to frequent.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have to worry about the environmental impact of our pets. I grew up in a house where dogs and cats were allowed to roam outdoors without a second thought. We weren’t worried about Puget Sound then, least of all, how a little dog poop could affect it. And we seemed to have an endless supply of birds and mice. Who was going to worry about Tabby getting a free lunch now and again.

That was a different time, indeed. Federal Way has grown from a backwater burb to a major city. The Puget Sound now suffers the impacts of having 3.5 million people living around it and flushing their toilets, let alone what their pets do. And many of our native songbirds are facing multiple threats without having cats to deal with.

Call me a dog or cat hater, if you must, but we just don’t have the luxury of being ignorant about the environmental impact of our pets anymore.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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