UPDATED November 12, 2018: Essex County Chief of Staff Philip Alagia, posted the following on the South Mountain Conservancy Facebook page: “I just confirmed with the Parks Director and [Essex County Executive] Joseph N DiVincenzo Jr – they do not have a special permit to do this. We will review with the Parks Department and the Sheriff to handle.” County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. also issued a statement here.
My Dog Hikes, a company that takes New York City dogs to wooded areas outside of the city for hikes, is getting a lot of heat from South Orange-Maplewood residents for a feature article in The New York Times.
The article — “Can’t Take Your Fancy Dog Hiking in the Country? Hire a Pro” — chronicles My Dog Hikes’ employees letting dogs off leash in the South Mountain Reservation. Off leash dogs are prohibited in the Reservation, although the company reports via social media that it has a “special use permit.”
From The New York Times article:
With the parking lot out of sight, the hikers unleash the dogs one by one. A few pups take a bathroom break. Theo, the gray Weimaraner, tears up and down the path. Otis, an amber pit bull, barrels through the trees.
How is Ms. Klein so sure the dogs won’t run away? As an animal behaviorist, she trained most of the dogs herself. But just in case, every dog wears a waterproof GPS tracker.
“This is an extreme amount of trust, when you tell people from the city, ‘We’re going to be taking your dog off-leash hiking,’” Ms. Godwin said. She and Ms. Klein perform regular head counts. Both are efficient and easily manage 14 dogs for about three miles, while carrying knapsacks stocked with medical supplies and water jugs.
However, Essex County regulations read, in part, as follows: “Dogs are not permitted on County property, except when held by leash or in a designated off-leash area and under the control of the owner or other person having such dog in charge. No dog or other domestic animal shall be permitted to be at large, and any owner or person in charge of such animal shall be responsible for the control thereof.” Dogs are only allowed off leash in “designated areas” such as the two-acre fenced-in dog park near the Reservation’s playground on Crest Drive.
Via instagram, “mydoghikes” has posted, “we have special use permit.” Village Green has reached out to My Dog Hikes via instagram, email and voicemail asking about the permit. We have also reached out to the County. We will update this story should we receive responses.
Village Green has previously reported on the local conversation between those who want the law enforced and some local dog owners who feel that they can safely allow their dogs off leash under specific circumstances.
However, local residents seemed united in their outrage over an outside business seemingly flouting the law to bring large groups of dogs to hike in the Reservation for profit — when local taxpaying residents are not allowed to do so.
Shortly after the publication of the story, the SOMA Lounge NJ Facebook group lit up.
Wrote one poster: “As a dog walker – if this is the group I’ve seen up there, I’m not a fan. (I don’t know if it’s the same group – but I do know of a group that comes with NY plates on the vans). … That’s too many dogs to be in an uncontrolled environment IMHO.”
Wrote another: “The situation is absurd and it’s sad that actual local residents have lessened their use of the Reservation because for-profit companies are breaking the law and ruining it for others.”
Many commenters wrote that the unleashed dogs could pose a danger to local hikers, children (there are some outdoor preschool groups in the Reservation) and other on-leash animals using the park.
Still others said their were “infuriated” that a non-local business was using a local resource with such seeming disregard for the local community. Susan Brand said that she posted the following comment on The New York Times Facebook page. “The South Mountain Reservation is a county park designed by the Olmstead firm. This is like taking the dogs off leash for a run in Central Park and calling it a hike in the ‘country.'” Others noted that the Reservation backs up to a densely populated first-ring suburb.
Commenters also posted complaints on mydoghikes instagram feed but found that their comments were being deleted (as was Village Green’s initial comment asking for comment).
One commenter with the handle alongcamenutty posted: “This is ridiculous. On this public property, I have kids and several of my friends who are runners. They DO NOT want to see unleashed dogs out there. It’s.against.the.law. And please spare us the drivel about ‘special permits’. We are long time residents here and know better.”
Another commenter posted a screenshot of a response from mydoghikes stating that My Dog Hikes had a special permit allowing it to take dogs off leash on hikes in the Reservation (see screenshot below). However, both the original comment and mydoghikes’s response were later deleted.
When reached for comment, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca told Village Green, “Essex County Sheriff is responsible for the reservation enforcement.” Village Green has reached out to the Sheriff’s office for comment and to verify if there is a “special use permit” for professional dog walking companies to walk dogs off leash in the Reservation.
Should such a special use permit exist, online reaction thus far would seem to indicate that local residents will have a lot more questions for the County.