The beach, any beach, is the closest thing to heaven on earth for dogs. The chance to provide joy for a beloved member of your extended family makes the beach a lure for anyone with a canine companion. But for most of us with dogs in Los Angeles, the beach is like the waters in Hades under Tantalus’ chin - so near and yet impossible to enjoy. All my dreams of the beach include my dog by my side, yet there is no beach in Los Angeles County that permits dogs. When I want to enjoy the beach, I drive to Long Beach, to Huntington Beach, to Ventura County.
If you have no strong opinions about dogs and beaches one way or the other, you could not possibly imagine how passionately the pro- and anti-dog beach factions feel about it. The motivations of the dog-lovers are understandable to non-dog people, who also know the desire could possibly be selfish. The motivations of the - let us call them beach-limiters - are only comprehensible if there are real problems that the dog people are not willing to address.
My experience with the process in Santa Monica suggests that the dogs and their people are not being given a fair shake. Unleash the Beach, a volunteer citizen’s advocacy group, began what turned out to be a futile two-year campaign to get a small area of beach near one of the Santa Monica storm drains designated as a one-year pilot dog beach in Los Angeles County. As objections were raised, they adressed every environmental and public safety concern in a responsible manner. The City Council finally voted to approve the pilot program, but then the county and state squashed the plan. I should say here that when I came across the group, Unleash the Beach, I was so impressed with their commitment to dogs, community and environmental responsibility that I considered joining their board. They were grass roots, ordinary people who only were asking their fair share. I began getting involved in public hearings on the issue and based on what I heard and saw, took a side in this. What follows is my view of the issue. Read on and see if you agree with me.
Unleash the Beach created an official proposal that they presented to the Santa Monica City Council. The Council formed an environmental impact committee to determine the ‘footprint’ of the plan. At the panel created to look into the scienctific evidence, Heal the Bay’s representative stated two objections to the idea of a dog beach. One came from a desire not to “introduce contaminants” to the area. This came after testimony from Heal the Bay’s own report cards on other dog beaches in California revealing them to be no worse and sometimes actually better than the surrounding beaches. The President of Heal the Bay didn’t question the report card printouts, yet persisted in speaking of contamination as though it were the inevitable result of dogs on the beach.
Since any use carries contamination of some sort, the phrase “introducing contaminants” is Rovian in its half-truthfulness by failing to look at the ecosystem as a whole. The contaminants from one use may well reduce or eliminate the contaminants from a different use. That is precisely the case with dogs on the beach. Yes, dogs do go to the bathroom. But the science and the experience of other dog beaches clearly shows that dog beaches actually improve the fecal profile of the water. How can this be? Seagulls, according to all the reports, present a major pollution problem, and human illnesses such as swimmers itch are a result of bird coliform in the water. Seagulls flock to the beach for human food trash. This is a major problem and yet one that has a perfect, organic solution: dogs. On the east coast, there is at least one multi-million dollar company that trains border collies to keep geese away from parks and golf courses, reducing the guano and intrusion of the birds on recreating humans.
Dog beaches have virtually no food trash because it is bad for dogs. It does not even require paid maintenance to do it. Casual strollers pick up the KFC bags rather than risk their dog dying from a bone splinter. No food means no food scavenging birds, which means a lot less shit in the sea. While the area Unleash the Beach was proposing for a dog beach was small, even a slight possibility amelioration should not be ignored if Heal the Bay’s goal is really to heal the bay. This possible improvement will never be known if a pilot program is not tried.
The science alone ought to speak to the issue of environmental impact. Yet as the science has lined up to demonstrate that dogs on the beach are at worst a zero-sum proposition with regard to pollution, those who should be most responsive to that kind of evidence have instead switched to using the tools of rhetoric instead of reason. For example, at the Environmental Task Force meeting, Heal the Bay’s president tried to refute the documented evidence by saying he didn’t want his daughter playing in the sand and finding buried dog feces. This is disappointing, and irrational. Why, with miles of beach, would she be there among the dogs? Children under a certain age are not welcome at many dog parks. And why was that imagined anecdote part of the scientific debate. I have no idea. The environmental committee voted to recommend the pilot program to the City Council.
The storm drain where the dog beach was proposed was clogged with dead birds and fish, human fecal drainage and broken glass. The dog folks were proposing to regularly clean it up with volunteers because dog people don’t want their dogs getting in that junk either, and they would have a motive to give a public service in order to get a public benefit. Would Heal the Bay rather have a filthy, public nuisance outdoor trash bin than a well-maintained regularly cleaned-up beach area “polluted” by dogs?
The environmental groups also objected about the snowy plover, an endangered species, that nests on the beaches around LA. Unleash the Beach was very conscientious about making sure the snowy plover site was far enough away from the dog beach to be completely safe. But even when the dog beach area was a half-mile away from the snowy plover site, and even when the Long Beach Model showed clearly that the dog remain in the marked off areas, the battle cry of endangered species continued to be raised. I agree that California has a lot of environmental problems that need adressing, but by speciously pulling out the big guns against a small pilot plan by private citizens active in their own local governance, it smacks of the way some politicians use 9/11 to squash any plan they don’t agree with on the national security front. Meanwhile, spending lots of passion on small but emotional hot-button half-truths means the bigger, more pressing needs and opportunities for change are left to rot in the sun like the dead birds in the storm drain.
You may scoff at the issue saying it is not worth public time when there are so many bigger issues to address. You may believe dogs are just dogs and I am a sentimental fool. But that does not make my tax dollars worth less than anyone else’s. To allow your contempt to deny me of my enjoyment of ALL public areas funded by my tax dollars so that you won’t have to submit a loss of enjoyment in ANY public area funded by your tax dollars is unfair. No one is suggesting dogs be allowed on all beaches all the time. Only that dogs be allowed on some beaches some of the time. Some beach communities solve the problem by allowing dogs before 8 am. Some only permit them in the off season. Others only allow dogs in limited areas of beachfront. Any of those models would satisfy Los Angeles County dog lovers. None of those looks possible in the near future because of intransigent opponents who are not open to any negotiation or reason. Apparently, that kind of politics is epidemic in our country on a national scale and on a local scale, and the quality of life for all of us suffers.