In the summer, Colorado Springs' open space parks are bustling with families out for hikes, runners zooming by in tank tops, mountain bikers hurtling down hillsides and dogs. Lots of dogs, some running free along trails and through the brush.
Many owners don't heed signs at park entrances that say dogs must be restrained. Animal Law Enforcement Officers Katie Kirk and Avery Borden, who have both worked for the city-contracted Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region for about a year, say they hear every excuse in the book.
Yet unless you're in a marked dog park or off-leash area, it's against city ordinance to have your dog off-leash in city parks. The law was rarely enforced in past years, but in the last month, the Humane Society has stepped up enforcement. Officers are now patrolling parks and open space. They hike or use mountain bikes to get around. For the last month, they've mostly issued warnings. But now they plan to start writing tickets.
The fine is $50 per dog for the first offense, $80 per dog for the second offense, and a day in municipal court to face stiffer penalties for the third offense. The maximum sentence at municipal court is a $500 fine per charge and/or 90 days in jail, plus court costs.
A hot issue
It's Wednesday afternoon, and Kirk and Borden are walking in Stratton Open Space.
The place is usually packed, they say. Often, they don't even need to hit the trails to find violators here; they can just hand out tickets in the dirt parking lot. But today, the clouds look ominous, and only a handful of people are on the trails. Only one person is walking dogs, a woman being tugged along by two leashed pups.
Kirk and Borden smile and wave at her as they pass. They both say that while dog owners often resent tickets, others thank them for enforcing the law.
There are plenty of reasons to keep dogs leashed, they say. Dogs, even nice ones, can bite people. Some people are simply afraid to have a strange dog approach them. Dogs can chase wildlife and even attack fawns. Dogs off-trail may disturb native plant life and poop near delicate watersheds. Unleashed dogs can become distracted and run into roads where they can be hit by cars. And loose dogs can pose a hazard for mountain bikers who might not see them jumping out of the bushes.
Kirk and Borden field calls regularly about all those problems.
Joe Stafford, director of the city's Animal Law Enforcement Department, says that in 2013 his office received 20,970 calls from El Paso County jurisdictions. Of those, 2,915 were for a dog running off-leash.
A February city survey, done as part of an update to the Parks, Recreation, and Trails Master Plan, found that some people are unhappy with so many pooches running free. The mailed survey was sent to 1,600 randomly selected households; 252 people responded. Seven out of 10 said there was a lack of public awareness about park and open space rules, and six out of 10 felt there was a lack of enforcement. About half specifically felt that off-leash dogs were a problem, while the other half didn't.
Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, says she also hears from people on both sides of the issue, and TOSC has no formal opinion on it. But personally, she feels like keeping dogs leashed is a good way to ensure that everyone gets to enjoy the city's parks.
Stafford says he loves his Weimaraner, and he knows that Colorado Springs is a dog-crazy community. He also thinks that most people are very responsible with their pets.
But a few can cause a lot of problems. In 2013, the Humane Society received 660 documented reports of domestic animals biting humans in El Paso County, 300 reports of domestic animals biting other animals, and 154 reports of domestic animals that were either bitten by or bit a wild animal. That's 1,114 bites.
Stafford's department also received 1,015 calls about aggressive domestic animals, which can mean that an animal growled, barked at, or chased someone.
Stafford says a variety of circumstances lead to those calls, but most can be prevented by being a responsible pet owner, including leashing dogs. He says his department tries to get "voluntary compliance" from pet owners. Last year, for instance, animal control issued 5,263 warnings to pet owners, but only 1,268 citations.
But if you let your dogs off-leash on the city's trails this year, don't count on that leniency anymore.