Apr 18, 2008

Celebrate Nature Where You Live

As you likely know, Sunday is Earth Day. I tend to think that everyday is Earth Day, but I'm as thrilled as the rest of you to have one special day to celebrate our hospitable planet.

I did not organize for Earth Day in McLaren Park this year, but I will be participating. I will be leading a sustainable dog walking demo at 2pm.
Our companion animals create an extension of our family's footprint. I've written about the billion dollar consumer goods industry aimed at dog and cat guardians. And while a pup's ecological pawprint is affected by toys, processed food, driving to walk, and dog fashion items, I like to focus on the most important part of a dog's life: the walk.

We'll talk about ways to enjoy a satisfying walk while protecting the ecosystem and trails. I'll point out some wildflowers, but this will mostly be a landscape scale discussion of dog walking tactics. This walk is for professional dog walkers and individual guardians.
As a general overview, I'll focus on a few techniques and principles.

1. Visit areas of low sensitivity first. For our dogs, the most exciting part of the walk is often the first 20 minutes. I like to let them burn their energy in areas where we're least likely to disturb wildlife, trample wildflowers, or contribute to erosion. So on the walk I'll point out ways to identify sensitive landscapes in McLaren Park.

2. Throw balls on stable surfaces. It's easy to impact where your dog runs when you're playing fetch. Chuck the ball on stable surfaces rather than eroding hills. If you want your dog to get an uphill workout, identify the best place in your park for this activity. For example, at Bernal Heights Park there are two large areas that were quarried. There is no soil or vegetation, and no trails under threat if we play fetch in those areas. So I throw balls there, rather than on the crumbling slopes on the north and west sides of the park.

3. Prevent all digging. While digging is an innate dog behavior, it is very destructive to the land. Digging threatens wildlife and the unique flora of San Francisco. Furthermore, digging often damages our trails, which limits access for dogs and humans alike. In my experience, dogs dig most fervently in the rainy season, when the ground is pliable. Off-leash access comes with the responsibility to have our dogs under voice control. Prevent digging to protect the parks and our off-leash access to them.

4. Keep a good pace in sensitive habitat. I like to visit the sensitive areas within off-leash parks. When the pack and I enter a wildflower area, quail habitat, or the like, I lead the group by staying on the trail and maintaining a comfortable pace until we've reached a less sensitive area. I stop to play fetch or chat with friends in the less sensitive areas of the park, and make it my goal to get both my and my dogs' heart rates up as we move through rich landscapes. If I have a dog who I know will not stay on the trail or will harass wildlife, I will use a leash temporarily, until we get through that part of the park. But usually, if I lead on the trail, my dogs will fall in line behind me.

5. Prevent the flushing of wildlife. Like digging, the pursuit of wildlife is innate within our dogs. And while we may view this as natural behavior, we must also recognize that the number of dogs in San Francisco drastically outstrips it's carrying capacity. In other words, we would not have over 100,000 predator canines in 49 square miles under wild and natural conditions. Just as we protect our dogs from cars, we should protect wildlife from our dogs.

6. Scoop the poop. Most dog folks in San Francisco do this already. The few irresponsible folks out there make us all look bad. About once a month I'm approached by someone who thinks that it's worse for the environment to put the poop in a bag than to leave it in the park. The SF Dept of the Environment is working on a source for truly biodegradable bags so that we can do a pilot project with a methane digester for the poop in Duboce Park and Bernal Heights Park. (Apparently the ones currently on the market lack a catalyst to start the reaction between the poop and the bag.) Until then, let's not turn all of our land into landfill. Water run off is affected by dog poop, and so is habitat. And often, so is my shoe. So even if you're torn on this one, please pick up. Again, the majority have this under control.

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