Pepper-Sprayed Puppy Inspires Call for Off-Leash Hours at Denver Parks

Sydney Gilpin and Mary Francis, from left, with their dogs.
Sydney Gilpin and Mary Francis, from left, with their dogs. Photo courtesy of Mary Francis
The level of tension between visitors to parks in Denver's Highland neighborhood and dog owners who let their pets run off-leash "is pretty insane," says resident Mary Francis. "People are openly yelling at each other at the park."

That's bad enough — but then one of Francis's neighbors saw something that "caused quite a hullaballoo," she recalls. "A woman walked up to a five-month-old puppy and just pepper-sprayed it in the face" — and subsequent reports suggest that this wasn't an isolated incident.

To Francis, who owns a golden retriever named Misiu, such incidents seem wholly unnecessary. "I understand why people are upset about it, but I also understand why dog owners want to go out and exercise their dogs," she says.

She's now trying to provide another alternative. In conjunction with ten-year-old Sydney Gilpin, another neighbor, who opted to attend school remotely so that she could walk her own dog to the park in the mornings, she's launched a petition calling for dogs to be allowed off-leash in Denver parks between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

The model for the plan is New York City, which has allowed what its park department refers to as "courtesy hours" in designated areas of parks since May 2007. "Over the past twenty years," the department says, "this policy has kept parks and neighborhoods safer, allowed owners to exercise and socialize their dogs, and reduced the number of dog bites."

Francis, who learned about New York's approach during a visit there, thinks that implementing something similar in Denver would address a series of problems. "There are very few dog parks — only twelve in Denver proper — and something like 158,000 dogs in the city," she notes, adding that some of those parks "aren't well maintained. They're full of gravel, and my dog won't even walk on it. If I take her there, she just lays down."

Moreover, many people aren't able to access those dog parks. Sydney, for example, "doesn't have a car," Francis says, chuckling as she name-checks her colleague.

She also points to scads of studies showing that "dogs need to exercise and socialize to fit into their community."

In addition to creating the petition, Francis has reached out to her Denver City Council rep, District 1 representative Amanda Sandoval. Gina Volpe, an aide to Sandoval, says that office plans to contact the Denver City Attorney's staff to learn more about whether such a change would be possible through rule tweaks or legislative changes.

Francis also connected with Denver Parks and Recreation. The department "welcomes comments and will evaluate all ideas and suggestions offered," says spokesperson Cynthia Karvaski, who points out that "unlike NYC, our parks are closed between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and remaining in any park property during these hours is prohibited." Without altering these regulations, though, off-leash hours under the Francis-Gilpin proposal would still be possible from 9 to 11 p.m. and 5 to 9 a.m.

In Francis's view, there's growing support for her petition, which has collected 391 signatures as of March 1. "I don't think dog owners are trying to intentionally flout the law," she emphasizes. "I just think we have very few options, and we all live in the same community. I think there's a solution for it."

One that doesn't include pepper-spraying any puppies.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts