Chris Quinn was surprised to see the dog enclosure at Wychwood Barns Park locked. After finding a similar bike lock on the other gate, when it should have been open Saturday evening, the confused and disappointed Quinn walked his energetic pup home.
Quinn thought it might have been the city — but the city says no. The identity of the gate locker is a mystery. Nobody seems to have witnessed the Saturday stealth, but dog owners suspect it was a vigilante who wants them — and their pets — out of the park.
Toronto’s off-leash enclosures have, since they were established, sparked friction between canine owners, other park users and neighbours. The city dismantled one off-leash enclosure, in Ledbury Park, after a teeth-baring turf war.
“I sometimes joke that after you settle an off-leash dog dispute you should go and negotiate Middle East peace,” says Joe Mihevc, who until last fall represented on city council the area around Artscape Wychwood Barns, a community hub near Christie St. and St. Clair Ave. W.
“I would tell residents ‘If you don’t have an enclosure the whole park is a dog park.’ But the gulf between dog lovers and non-dog people is huge, it can turn into war.”
Wychwood dog folks are accustomed to criticism. Quinn says his wife has heard a woman in a condo across the street yell at dog owners and blast them, from a window, with recorded sounds of barking dogs.
One day a couple of months ago his dog Chuck was quietly playing with another dog, he says, when the recording got the dogs barking. The dog got so riled his wife had to take it home.
“That’s what we don’t understand — there are very restrictive hours at this dog park and (the dogs) are pretty quiet,” Quinn says. “They run around and maybe bark once in a while to get (another dog’s) attention.”
Signs tell users the enclosure is open Tuesday to Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., and on Sunday and Monday from 10 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. They also warn against excessive barking and spell out a code of conduct.
Tash Francesca, watching her dog Lupita play in the enclosure, says a condo dweller has yelled at her and others that a school is nearby and they should be ashamed of themselves.
The fact that somebody locked the gates — a dog owner later cut the locks off — has replaced normal banter among visitors.
“It feels like a real community here but lately not as much,” Francesca says.
Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents the area now, says his office has fielded many outraged complaints — about 40 one night alone — from a park neighbour he declined to name. Mihevc says he fielded similar complaints for years.
Matlow has no idea who locked the gates but says “that’s completely unacceptable and unfair to everyone in the neighbourhood who appreciates having a dog park accessible to them and their pets.
“Communities have difficult debates — if there should be a dog park and what hours. But the way it works in a democracy, is if you don’t like the outcome you can campaign to change the decision.”
The Star could not access the condominium from which dog owners heard yelling. None of the owners in the park Wednesday could identify the person. Some disagreed on which unit has been the source of the noise.
How to settle such a dispute, which Matlow does not want to escalate, remains unclear. While there is a process for people to complain about dogs and their owners, there is no obvious way for dog owners to complain about complainers.
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Asked if locking gates of a city facility is illegal, a Toronto police spokesperson says “it all depends on the circumstances at the time of the investigation,” after a complaint is made. “We cannot speculate, however, if it is possible that a charge may be laid.”
City staff are finishing a review of existing off-leash areas including Wychwood Barns Park. A summary of feedback from a September public consultation says people wanted the enclosure there open more hours and for dogs to be able to access running water when it’s closed.
Quinn and Chuck, meanwhile, have no plans to stay away. “A pup like him needs exercise and this is a great place to get it.”