by Evan Sernoffsky

Eugene, Ore– Moments of loss shape the human character, and how we overcome our most stringent emotional hardships often defines who we are. Early last fall, while at the Amazon dog park in South Eugene, Renee Hart took her eight-month-old Havenese named Lola for a walk. After snapping on her leash and getting ready to leave, a Bullmastif came from behind, grabbed Lola by the stomach, and mauled her to death.

Grief speaks volumes about the human experience, and for Renee, losing Lola was almost too much to handle. Something had to be done. “There needs to be some kind of segregation between sizes because even if a small dog tried to do something they’re not going to kill another dog,” says Renee at Amazon Park close to where Lola was killed. “I started researching and found out that they are all over. Many other cities have small dog parks.”

Renee Hart is now working with a group of community members and petitioning the City of Eugene to build a dog park for small dogs. The group recognizes the financial constraints that the city is under and is working alongside Parks and Open Space planners to make their project happen.

“It could be as little as five or ten thousand dollars,” says Lauren Chouinard, a member of Renee’s organization. “If you are going to take a new park and put it in a new place, it could run as much as twenty-five thousand dollars.”

Renee Hart and Lauren Chouinard relax at Amazon Park in South Eugene

Neil Bjorklund, Parks and Open Space planning manager for the City of Eugene, handles new park proposals. “There isn’t funding to build much of anything now…it’s very directly related to the state of the economy.” He goes on to point out that when it comes to changing or building a new public parks things aren’t always simple. “Any proposal that gets made needs to go through a process to vet it with the current users of the park.” While the initial funding for a small dog parks may be nominal, there are costs that are often omitted from initial estimates. Long-term maintenance and drainage costs are closely examined by the city and factored into the cost of any new park project. Something that drives up early estimates in cost considerably.

Austin Shepard, who years ago lost his pup  in a dog attack while camping, points our how simple the project could be. “I think that its definitely a good idea to have a dog park for small dogs because all they really need to do is just put a fence up through a regular dog park.” For now he plays with his three small dogs at home but would visit a small dog park if it were built.

Renee has received a lot of local media attention after the events surrounding Lola’s death. She was interviewed on KVAL News, Eugene’s CBS affiliate, and an article was recently published in the Register-Guard detailing Renee’s efforts to have a dog park for small dogs.

In order to raise awareness for her cause, Renee set up an online petition where more than 700 visitors have signed and left comments. She hopes to transform the emotional support she is receiving into financial support for her project with a website where supporters can pledge money electronically.

Almost all of the large metropolitan areas on the West Coast have dog parks for small dogs, and Eugene hopes to be among them. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all have parks specifically for small dogs, or a separate area fenced off within an existing park.

A Recession Proof Industry

Even though the economy was dealt a crushing blow last year, the pet industry is still thriving. Ellen Warren, senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune writes, “Instead of investing in a human baby (and his college education), we’re getting started with dogs, cats, birds, fish.” Pets also cost very little compared with the amount of affection they have for their owners—something that is warmly welcomed in times of financial woe.

According to American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) statistics, $2.21 billion was spent on live animal purchases in the United States this year. This does not factor in shelter dogs, or dogs given away for free.

As the number of pet owners continues to rise, the money coming into the city has ebbed to little more than a drip. This means that more dogs are using existing public dog parks with no plans from the City of Eugene to add new ones. Little dogs are encountering more big dogs when they visit the park, and pet owners opt to just stay home.

Aggressive Breeds

Dog parks are places where dogs with a lot of energy get to let it all out. Unfortunately, dogs that need to run the most are often the most aggressive breeds. Pit bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Dobermans  frequent off leash dog parks because of their high levels of energy.

A Bullmastiff, the breed that killed Lola, can be aggressive and because of their enormous size the results of attacks are devastating.

Cities across the United States have even gone so far as to ban citizens from owning certain breeds of dog. In Denver it is illegal to own Pit Bulls because of the increasing number of attacks on people (the State of Oregon has considered a similar ban). Pit Bulls are frequently seen at off leash dog parks and inspire a feeling of unease among large and small dog owners alike.

With the peer group at the dog park being mostly large breeds, and some very aggressive, small dog owners like Renee, Lauren and Austin feel that dog parks are really just for big dogs.

A Future for Small Dogs

While funding continues to be an obstacle for getting a park for small dogs built, the City of Eugene is very supportive and helping Renee and Lauren with a clear process to get their park built. Neil Bjorklund feels optimistic. “There are options. There are things that we will be able to approve for them to be able to move forward.”

Recently, Renee has been exploring options to generate funding for her project including an online contest through the Purina dog food website. Whether she decides to enter it does not have much bearing on her attitude for her park. “I’m excited. I think the Eugene has a lot of good energy for creating a safe place for small dogs.”