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Dog owners in Fells Prospect angry over community association's advice to residents

Residents of the Fells Prospect neighborhood have long grumbled about abandoned dog feces in their sidewalk tree pits. But when a recent community association newsletter advised members to, among other things, place pine cones or clippings from thorny plants in the pits to keep dogs out, some property owners saw red and said the suggestions were both harmful to pets and illegal.

John Lam, a dog owner who’s lived in the neighborhood -- which is near Fells Point and Butchers Hill -- for three years, said the association’s January newsletter “made a point that a tremendous amount of people aren’t picking up after their pets. It got to the point where they recommended lacing the tree pits with thorns, and that really threw me. It’s irresponsible.”

In the article about dog feces and tree pits, the newsletter said:

“Some dog owners take care to avoid letting their dog urinate in tree pits that are clearly being taken care of, e.g., tended plants and flowers. A tree pit full of weeds or trash, though, tends to be fair game. You can make it clear that you don't want pets approaching by planting thorny plants (roses, bayberry), or covering your tree pit with pine cones or cuttings from thorny plants that are uncomfortable for dogs to walk on. A sign will also encourage some people to move their dog to the next house.

"A short fence also signals, 'No poop, please.' Finally, if your tree pit is a fortress, there generally won't be anywhere to poop. That could be something like a fence of two feet or higher.”

The suggestions, which dog owners argued could injure pets, led to a heated debate on Facebook between Lam, several other Fells Prospect residents, and community association officials, including secretary Phyllis Fung, who co-founded Cut the Crap Baltimore last year to combat dog waste in the neighborhood.

Some in the neighborhood said that while they understand frustration over abandoned poop, the newsletter went too far.

“It’s frustrating that people don’t pick up after their dogs,” said veterinarian Gregory Burbelo, owner of the Boston Street Animal Hospital, which advertises in the newsletter. “A few percentage of owners make it bad for everybody. It is a public health issue in addition to an animal issue -- dogs carry parasites and everything else.”

But, he said, he plans to ask the association to revisit or retract its comments. “It’s sort of trickery,” he said. “It hurts the dog but doesn’t serve as a warning to the owner to keep the dog out.” Planting a thorny bush offers a visual warning, he said, but “putting sharp clippings in there is going to cause a dog to have some kind of problem.”

Besides that, city officials say, fences are illegal. City Department of General Services spokesman Martin Courtney said fences, including short garden-style perimeters, are not allowed around tree pits, which sit in the city right-of-way.

“They’re a tripping hazard and they dent car doors,” he said. Clippings or pine cones in the pits also fall under that rule. “You’re not allowed to just put stuff in a tree pit,” he says. “The general rule of thumb is, no extra stuff.”

Fung declined to comment about the newsletter, and association president Victor Corbin was unavailable. Others said that while the intent may be noble, the suggestions themselves were inappropriate.

“I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for the residents in that neighborhood to go out and see their tree pits littered with dog excrement and litter and other unsavory things,” said dog trainer Alisa Peters, owner of You Silly Dog. “But I would prefer that the association encourage less aversive methods to deter the dogs and people.”

“It’s going to be uncomfortable and/or painful for the dog,” Peters said of the cones and clippings suggestion. “Why are we punishing the dog? It’s not the dog’s fault.”

Burbelo agreed. “If you decorate with a plant, that’s one thing,” he said, noting that he believed the newsletter was well-intentioned but not thought-out. “But other things invite a dog in there and it’s going to serve no purpose other than to hurt them.”

Lam said he suggested installing dog waste bag dispensers in the neighborhood but was told it was too expensive.

“We’re ignoring the fact that we’re attempting to punish 100 percent of the animals for the issues of 10 percent of owners who are irresponsible,” he said. “I’m hoping people will ignore [the suggestions]. There are are a lot of homeowners who think they own their tree pits and don’t realize they’re in the public right-of-way. I have a big concern that people will start putting stuff in the tree pits to hurt dogs.”

"I don't think a natural plant that has thorns or something like that is the worst thing in the world," said Nichole Miller, MD SPCA's assistant director of operations. Dogs can see the plant and avoid it, she said. But "setting booby traps is something else entirely."

She's a fan of actions that encourage pet owners to clean up, including waste stations with free bags and receptacles. "Parks have had great luck with that," she said, adding that they don't have to come at financial cost. "Robert E. Lee park has poop stations that people made. No one officially takes care of them, but people refill them when they see they need to be refilled. It's a great community effort."

Even the MD SPCA shelter, she said, saw improvement in "pick ups" when it installed bag stations. "You'd think people visiting the animal shelter property for spay-neuter or whatever would clean up after their dogs," she said. "That's not aways the case unless there's a poop station there. We find people will generally do the right thing."'

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