Mecklenburg County dog parks will soon be open to everyone, and many dog owners aren't happy about it. Some say they'll stop using the parks altogether.
Recently, a petition was still circulating that urged the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department to keep the Pooch Pass, a swipe-pass system designed to keep out dogs that are not up-to-date on rabies shots. But it appears the phase-out of the passes is a done deal, petition or not, as of July 1.
"Without the pass, how can we be sure our dogs are safe?" asked Jeff Madey, a dog owner who takes his golden retriever, Deuce, to Barkingham Dog Park at Reedy Creek Park most Saturdays. "I don't mind paying the $35 if it means I don't have to worry about rabies."
Dog owners had to purchase the $35 license and certify their dogs were vaccinated against rabies to gain entry to parks. If a dog showed aggression or its owner didn't keep its shots current, the license could be revoked.
Mike Cozza, a park and rec spokesman, said the department's estimates indicated the program could soon cost more than it brought in. "We weighed the costs of running the program against how many people would have to apply for the passes once we opened new parks," Cozza said. "The stress on our system would be too great, so we decided to open the parks to everyone."
There are now four dogs parks in Mecklenburg County, and a fifth one is expected to open soon in Frazier Park. Cozza estimated more than 2,000 Pooch Passes are currently issued.
The department didn't make the decision to end the program lightly and examined more than 10 cities, including Raleigh, Seattle and Portland. "We figure if they can do it so can we," Cozza said. "Nobody reports any significant problems."
The department also consulted dog owners before deciding to end the Pooch Pass program. Cozza said the department had received complaints that the passes were too expensive. "Should the parks department be running dog parks as if they're country clubs, meaning you have to pay to get in, or should they be open to the public?"
Cozza emphasized that the law mandates owners have their pets vaccinated for rabies. "We feel there will be no problem to people or pet safety because, whether you use a dog park or not, it is the law that you have your pet vaccinated."
Melissa Knicely, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Animal Care and Control, said Thursday that animal control has current rabies certificates for 113,661 dogs -- nearly two thirds of the more than 173,000 dogs that she estimated live in Mecklenburg County. Animal control estimated the number of dogs by using a formula from the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.
Knicely said CMPD's Animal Care and Control director Mark Balestra hopes to talk with the parks department about concerns, including how bite situations are handled. Animal control has heard from many residents upset about the change.
County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts has also heard some of her constituents voice their concerns. "I have heard some talk about people being upset that the program is ending, but I have also heard lots of people say that they are very happy that the dog parks will be more accessible," Roberts said. "When you walk a dog on a street you don't know if all the other dogs have their shots. We are just trying to make the dogs parks accessible to all citizens."
But many dog owners aren't sold.
"After you work so long, and take him on the same walk everyday, it is nice to let him off the leash and run around and know that he is safe," said Christa Shore, who brings her collie Max on weekends. "I know every dog has its shots. If they take the program away I can no longer be sure of that and it might make me think twice."
Karen Shugart contributed.