PORTLAND – A roll of plastic bags and a list of rules remind dog owners of their responsibilities as they visit Western Cemetery. On their way out, visitors can drop off their pets’ messes in two garbage cans. One sits over Sally, who died in 1853 and whose surname is no longer legible on her worn marble headstone.
Dog owners say the 170-year-old cemetery is better off because of them. They’ve organized cleanup days, raised money for restoration work, and say their presence has driven unsavory elements from the neglected cemetery. But they fear that the cemetery will be taken from them by people who don’t think dogs should be in such close communion with the dead.
This week, a consultant will present recommendations to a city committee working on Western Cemetery’s master plan. Dogs are not the only subject addressed in the process, but have been the most contentious issue.
From California to New York and Alaska to Hawaii, dog owners are fighting for off-leash areas. They’re organizing advocacy groups, putting up Web sites and packing public hearings. In San Francisco, a coastal area has become the focus of a lawsuit and calls for a congressional investigation.
Such disputes have been going on for years, but have heated up in the last five years as more people compete for open space, according to Claudia Kawczynska, the editor of the The Bark, a Berkeley, Calif.-based magazine that proudly proclaims its roots in “off-leash activism.”
“I think a cemetery is a wonderful place actually because it honors what has come before and there’s no better way to honor what’s come before than with the joy that dogs give,” Kawczynska said. “I could think of nothing better than to be greeted at the beginning of the day [by a dog] smelling my remains, just being with me somehow.”
Located in a densely populated section of the city, the cemetery has become an increasingly popular off-leash spot. Owners can rest easy knowing the chain-link fence will keep their pets from running into traffic. And the cemetery’s 22 acres overlooking the Fore River feel open – not spooky like some of the woods where dogs are also allowed off-leash.
But no matter how well-behaved the dogs or how happy they look trotting past headstones, some argue that dogs don’t belong in a cemetery – even when their owners use the plastic “Mutt Mitts” available near the entrances.
“Let’s put it this way: You could have a law that would say it’s OK if you stab people, as long as you pull the knife out and clean up the mess,” said Paul O’Neil, president of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. “As far as we’re concerned, the harm is already done.”
Last year, the Irish Catholic fraternal order erected a monument on the “Catholic Ground” over one area of unmarked graves, O’Neil said. The shiny black granite headstone stands in stark contrast to the many markers that don’t have people to look after them.
Western Cemetery was the city’s primary burial ground through the mid-19th century. Today, many of the white marble headstones list to the side, are broken or have toppled over. Others are illegible, worn down by the elements or covered in lichen.
David Eaton, president of the Friends of Western Cemetery, said drinking, drugs and other illicit activities took place in the cemetery before dog owners became a presence.
Police Chief Michael Chitwood, however, said police never considered the cemetery a trouble spot. But he acknowledged that there were isolated incidents of vandalism, teen drinking and sex there over the years and that other activities may not have made it onto their radar screen.
Anne Pringle, a member of the master plan committee, said the cemetery is in worse shape now, even if there was more crime in the past.
She points out that heavy traffic has helped carve out a trail over an area of unmarked graves and erode other paths. At the cemetery’s center, dogs and owners play in an open area where scruffy grass lies over an undetermined number of unmarked graves.
Pringle said the cemetery can’t handle all the dogs that now use it, and thinks that off-leash dogs should be prohibited.
Eaton said dog owners are willing to make compromises – like limiting the hours and letting people put up fences around grave sites they don’t want dogs on. But it’s not practical to expect dogs to stay leashed and on paths, he said.
Both agree that more fenced off-leash areas are needed on the city’s peninsula to siphon away some of the demand. But it’s unclear whether other areas can compete with the Western Cemetery’s convenience, beauty and friendly atmosphere.
None of the other off-leash areas appeal to Chuck Allen. He’s been bringing his boxer, Bettis, to the Western Cemetery for the two years he’s lived in Portland.
“This is the only place I come,” he said. “I love it.”