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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.”


by Evan Sernoffsky

Neil Bjorklund, Parks and Open Space planning manager for the City of Eugene, is no stranger to proposals from citizens of Eugene for new projects, and has seen an influx of them in recent months. Few people however, realize what it takes to move forward with a proposed plan, and Bjorklund spends a lot of his time outlining the necessary steps involved in public land allocation.

When any proposal is made to the City of Eugene it must go through a process that requires city managers to vet it with the current users of the park, and to find outside funding for building and maintenance.

Renee Hart and other community members who are proposing an off leash dog park for small dogs introduced their idea to Bjorklund and are hoping it can be approved. “We will be getting back to them with the results of our discussion about their proposal with what we’ve considered and what we recommend” says Bjorklund in an interview at his office. “The big question is how do we fund the construction and how do we fund the maintenance for this park.”

Neil Bjorklund at his office in Eugene

With the economy struggling, the City of Eugene has no money to give to any new public parks projects. “There isn’t funding to build a new dog park, (and) there isn’t funding to build much of anything.” Bjorklund points out, but he tries to remain optimistic. “There are options. There are things that we will be able to approve for them to be able to move forward.”

Renee knows the realities of finding funding for her project, and is taking the initiative to raise money so that her park can be built. “I’m excited. I think the Eugene has a lot of good energy for creating a safe place for small dogs.” she says. She is even planning on entering a contest online, put on by Purina dog food, where the winner gets $500,000 for a dog park to be built on their community. “I think that this (potential) influx of financial support can be extremely beneficial and encouraging.” Renee says.

Renee is now in the process of developing a concept for her submission, and is trying to find help with production. If all goes well, she will have a video submitted by the deadline of June 18th, and can use it to leverage support for her cause whether she wins the contest or not.

by Evan Sernoffsky

It was early fall 2009, and Renee Hart had just moved to Eugene, Oregon. She decided to take her 8-month-old Havenese named Lola, an adorable black and white fluff ball, to the community dog park. The events that were to follow have inspired more anguish than should be humanly allowed. “As I went to pick her up a Bullmastiff came from behind me, grabbed her by the belly, and mauled her to death,” Renee painfully recalls. “I held her as she died in my arms.”

Renee Hart does not want other small dog owners to experience the grief she has suffered, and is trying to create community support for a public dog park for small dogs only. She hopes that she can get enough support through donations and volunteering to have a park built by this summer.

Since the unfortunate events that led to Lola’s passing, Renee Hart has gained a lot of attention in the Eugene news media. During the past six months, Renee has done an interview with KVAL news, Fox, and most recently the Register-Guard. She has been able to use all the attention from the media to raise community awareness and support for her plan.

Renee realizes the financial constraints that the city of Eugene is under, and is taking a more community based approach to getting a park built. “A lot of people have stepped forth and shown so much support” she says, “it needs to be a community project. I want it for the community not just for me.”

Renee has collected more than six hundred signatures on her online petition and is planning on further expanding her work online. “We are looking for someone to help us design a web site,” she explains. On her future website, Renee plans to set up a PayPal account where donors can privately contribute to a fund that will go toward building a park for small dogs.

For the months ahead Renee has her work cut out for her. She has a new dog that she rescued from a shelter that closely resembles Lola, and hopes that he will have a park where he can socialize with other dogs soon. “They need to be playing this summer. No question about it.”

Renee Hart holds her new puppy at Amazon Park in Eugene.

by Evan Sernoffsky

Coming up with a list of links to focus our “Free to Fetch” blog has proved infinitely valuable. We now have a pool to draw from when conducting our research, and we have established a precedence of transparency when going forward with our work. Visitors to our site can not only find well crafted and in depth reporting, they can also examine the original source material from whence our work came.

The theme for “Free to Fetch” is centered around community dog parks in the Eugene/Springfield area. Our blog will focus on the social aspects of dog parks as well as the controversies that come about in these canine utopias. For our blog roll we took from an array web based source material. The refined version of our list includes these sub categories: hard news web sites, reputable community websites (the City of Eugene), popular websites dedicated to dog related issues, and blogs that are have a similar focus to ours, the last of which we can use as a formatting guide to our work.

For our hard news source we used the Register-Guard. This local newspaper syndicates national news, and does reporting on local issues. We found one story about a woman whose dog was killed at a community park, and is petitioning for new parks in Eugene that specifically cater to small dogs. This story is going to provide most of the subject matter of our project. The Register-Guard also posts letters to the editor, which act as a barometer for public sentiment, and will help us in focusing the direction of our reporting.

The City of Eugene’s web site is an excellent resource for finding statistical information for parks and recreation services, and provides a substantial list of contacts for employees of the city. This will be our go to page whenever we need an interview from a professional in the field.

Other dog related websites like and blogs like “No Dog About It” will round out our research by giving us a perspective on how people around the nation view community dog parks, and help us to examine the unforeseen problems that can arise at them.

At the beginning of our research our focus was very broad. After doing all of the work in finding our initial web based source material, “Free to Fetch” was able to narrow its focus and find one gripping story to pursue. While “Lolas Story”—the Register-Guard article mentioned earlier—will provide our blog with a gripping narrative, our other sources will help to expand our story telling into something that any community member can enjoy.


Every town, city and region has parks and open spaces for outdoor enjoyment. Dog parks, walking trails, skate parks, and open spaces exemplify a few of the types of community spaces that we all have the opportunity to enjoy. Some community members cherish these spaces, while others abuse them. Federally, the U.S. Department of the Interior preserves and maintains parks and open spaces with the help of state and local governments.

With the support of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, Eugene is able to provide areas for the members of the Eugene community a place to gather, play, and socialize. With Renee Grube leading the City of Eugene, Department of Library, Parks and Cultural Services, she plans to provide areas  “where individuals, families and neighborhoods can feel connected to their community.”

But in what direction are the parks of Eugene headed? The greater Eugene community is constantly growing and changing.  As neighborhoods morph, new places to connect to the others in our community are needed.  Parks must be continually updated and renovated to meet the standard of living that the residents of Eugene want and need.  The process of updating the public spaces is ongoing and never ending.

Maintaining and improving parks requires more than just government funding. Financial and physical local support is required to improve our community areas. Donations and involvement are the best ways to see improvement in parks. One of the easiest ways for a community member to get involved with parks is through the Oregon Parks and Recreation department’s “Adopt-a-Park” volunteer program.  Individuals, groups, schools and businesses are encouraged to “Adopt-a-Park” by providing clean up and maintenance of the community members’ park. In return, the adopters receive recognition in the form of signs, plaques and ribbons for their civic contribution. This program helps to alleviate the burden on city maintenance crews to continually update and improve parks.

New forms of public spaces are beginning to emerge in the Eugene/Springfield community. Some of the more popular public spaces, which have seen a proliferation in recent years, are leash free community dog parks. These parks provide an area for dog owners to bypass city leash laws (which require all dogs to be restrained by theirs owners) and are frequented by community members and their dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds. Springfield is in the process of opening its first off leash dog park and Eugene already has five public dog parks. Follow us as we start to explore the rich culture of our community dog parks.