BUCKTOWN — The temporary shutdown of two local dog parks to make way for the construction of the Bloomingdale Trail has created an unintended problem:
Dog owners are now unleashing their pooches in regular parks, leaving behind piles of poop and some angry parkgoers.
"They've cleared out the dog parks, and people are letting [dogs] go to other parks and letting them off the leash," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). "People are like, 'We got all these dogs running everywhere.' "
The amount of dog feces, he said, "is a big problem."
People unleashing their dogs in nondesignated areas has always been an issue, said Waguespack, but all you need to do is look at the grass at parks like Hamlin, Erhler, Churchill and Holstein to see how the pets have migrated.
The Walsh Park dog-friendly area, 1722 N. Ashland Ave., has been closed for Bloomingdale Trail construction for weeks and will be relocated for at least 10 months. Churchill Park's dog park, 1825 N. Damen Ave., is closing sporadically throughout the construction process.
Churchill was closed for two weeks recently and will be closed again for a "significant amount of time" in the future, though it's unclear when, according to Mary Antonakos, president of the dog park's advisory council.
Both parks host some 50 to 100 dogs a day on average.
The only dog park left in the area is Wicker Park, 1425 N. Damen Ave., a popular park that some dog owners avoid over worries of overcrowding. Others avoid it because of the "territorial" nature of dog parks, they said.
So, letting dogs run off-leash in a nondesignated area instead has become common practice, dog owners and residents said.
At Walsh Park, Stephanie Fellinger, a mother of three, said the closure of the park's dog-friendly area has led to increased poop and more dogs in the general play area.
With fences and construction equipment on what was once a grassy field, Fellinger called the park "dirty, rundown and shoddy" made worse by "more poop, more dogs and less people because people don't want to bring their kids here."
"Poop attracts rats," Fellinger said.
At Erhler, 2230 W. Cortland St., Ana Palomares, a nanny to two children, said she's also seen an uptick in dogs since recent closures. Most dogs are on a leash, but some run around without one, and their owners weren't picking up after them.
"I love dogs, and children do too, but they should stay in the dog park," Palomares said. "It's dangerous for them to be there."
Ananda Breslof, president of the Walsh Park Advisory Council, said she was not surprised by the trend. Before the dog area closed, she asked the park district to create a temporary one for just that reason but was denied, she said.
"Obviously, this is what people are going to do," she said. "They're going to want to run their dogs anyway."
Now grassy areas could be dug up by the increase in dogs, and volunteers will be forced to replace turf, she said. Already, the safety problem was highlighted this year when an off-leash dog was killed after it ran into passing traffic, she said.
"It's an awful, awful, awful lesson to learn from a situation like that," she said.
Irresponsible owners are difficult to catch. The city's animal care and control department is "chronically underfunded," and it's nearly impossible to get immediate help if an unleashed dog goes rogue in a park, Waguespack said.
If a problem does occur, the owner could be fined anywhere from $300 to $10,000, up to six months of jail time, up to 100 hours of community service and restitution to the victim. Violations include owning an unregistered dog, unleashing a pet and not cleaning up feces.
When the city does show up, it's still hard to catch the offender, Waguespack said.
"A lot of dog owners just take off," he said. "They don't stick around. You never find out who they are unless you see the dog or the owner walking around."
Antonakos said that regular visitors to Churchill's gated dog park should walk their dogs or take them to Wicker Park instead of letting them loose, but it's possible that they're unleashing in the field next to the dog park for a morning exercise, when kids are less likely to be playing, she said.
The problem is that green space in the city is a precious commodity now.
"We're all on top of each other," she said.
Dog owners also often complain that they're taxpayers but have no children and deserve to have full use of parks for dogs "the way everyone else does," Antonakos said.
"I think it's a valid argument," she said. "You're going to have dogs in the city. There's no way around it. We really need to provide a good space for them."
Around 4 p.m. Wednesday, two dogs played "off-leash" in Walsh. A woman who only identified herself as Annie said she only takes her dog Mutton off-leash when there are fewer people in the park.
"He's well-behaved, not aggressive," she said.
It doesn't matter whether owners think their dog is good or not, Waguespack said. They're not always right, and they have to follow the law, he said.
"I don't care how nice you think the dog is," he said. "Get it on a leash."