On-Beach Off-Leash Dogs



Santa Cruz is dog heaven!

We have over 260,000 human beings in Santa Cruz County, and more than 50,000 dogs, by estimate of the County Animal Shelter. And that’s on a weekday in the wintertime. On weekends and during the summer months, a goodly portion of the 5 million+ people in the San Francisco Bay area come to Santa Cruz to frolic in the waves and enjoy the cool breezes… with their dogs. Imagine how much dog poop 50,000++ dogs leave behind every day.

For those of you unblessed with familiarity of Santa Cruz County, we’re south of San Francisco, on the edge of the Pacific Plate, on the north side of Monterey Bay. Classic California: surfers, Woodies, beach babes, warm beaches, cold water, wildlife at every quarter, mountains on the horizon, the edge of the world on the opposite viewscape. Paradise.

However… the silver lining on the clouds of this human and dog heaven are tarnished by a three-year long controversy over dogs running off-leash on County beaches.

There is a small group of Santa Cruz County dog owners who feel it is their entitled right to allow their dogs to run off-leash on any beach they choose, usually the one closest to where they live. This, despite a decades-long leash law that prohibits dogs from being off-leash when “away from their premises,” which means anywhere in the County, including County beaches. When visitors come over the hill to join the throng, they see dogs running on the beaches, and they think it is OK to allow their canid charges to join them.

Santa Cruz County beaches are not only popular recreational venues for human residents and visitors, but they are also sensitive habitat for resident and migratory shorebirds that have used these beaches for millennia as places to rest, feed and nest. The County General Plan and Local Coastal Program states that the County has the obligation to protect these sensitive habitats from disturbance from human activities, including allowing their dogs to run off leash on these beaches, even unto the point of banning all dogs from the beach, on leash or not.

Unhappy with County Animal Control officers for giving them tickets for violating the County leash law, the “off-leash advocates” have been whining complaining to County Animal Services officials about their stepped up enforcement activities, and the use of Animal Control officers to bring these dog-owning miscreants to justice.

The “off-leash advocate” dog owners are demanding that the County “compromise” on the the leash laws and allow off-leash dogs on “just one” stretch of beach, claiming that “those who don’t like dogs” can go somewhere else (unspecified) while they are allowing their dogs to run free on the beach, chasing shorebirds, tourists, families, surfers and other wildlife with abandon.

“Compromise” means each party in an agreement gives up something and each party benefits. In the case of off-leash advocates’ demands, only one party would gain (them) and everyone else, including the wildlife, would lose. This is privilege, not “compromise.”

It is not the duty of County government to compromise public health and safety in shared public spaces, to compromise the health and well-being of all animals, nor to compromise the biological integrity of sensitive habitats in County parks and beaches. It is not the duty of County government to grant special privileges to one user group at the expense of everyone else.

There are thirteen designated off-leash dog parks in Santa Cruz County. None of them are on the beach, because the County does not create off-leash dog parks in sensitive habitats, such as nesting grounds for shorebirds protected by federal law and international treaties.

If local “off-leash advocates” are serious about compromise, and not just concerned about their own desires to recreate on the beach, then they can give up their demands for off-leash beaches and take their furry charges to existing off-leash dog parks, where they can run free, socialize with other dogs and deposit their poop and pee in areas that do not degrade sensitive wildlife habitat.

It’s a win-win situation. Dogs get their fun and exercise, humans get to enjoy the beaches without getting knocked over or stepping in something smelly and unpleasant, and wildlife can enjoy their homes without dogs chasing them away from their dinner table.


Searching for Happy Landings

The Central Coast of California is a destination spot for thousands of tourists every year. They fly in, relax on the warm, sunny beaches, enjoy their favorite foods, meet with family and make new friends. Rested and replete, they fly on to their next destinations, their feathers shining with new energy and vigor.

California beaches not only play host to black-legged surfers,  golden haired sunbathers and rosy-crested vacation renters. They’re also home to avian tourists, such as Dunlins, White-rumped sandpipers, and Ruddy turnstones.

But all is not well for our feathered visitors. Habitat loss along the birds’ migration routes are making it increasingly difficult for migratory species  to complete their journeys, and it’s not a result of climate change.

“About half of the shorebird species in North America are in decline, primarily due to habitat destruction and degradation. The world’s growing coastal population continues to increase the encroachment of people into shorebird habitat.”

Birds at a Southern California beach: seasonality, habitat use and disturbance by human activity, Kevin D. Lafferty, Biodiversity and Conservation 10: 1949–1962, 2001

Here on the Central Coast of California, shorebird habitat has decreased over 90% as a result of coastal human development. In areas where the shoreline is protected from new development by the California Coastal Commission, human recreation is further disturbing shorebirds attempting to rest, feed and breed on those same beaches.

The growing number of off-leash dogs on beaches are an increasing threat to migratory shorebirds, when they chase and disturb birds attempting to rest and feed before continuing their migratory flights. Although dogs do not remove habitat and infrequently kill birds directly, dog disturbance causes birds to interrupt their feeding and expend greater energy in flight.

Impacts to migratory bird species are a result of the cumulative effects on reproduction and chick survivorship. Birds forced to forage less effectively may not build fat reserves needed by stressed and depleted migrants who must rest and feed to successfully resume their migratory journey. (Lafferty, 2001)

The problem is compounded by the international travel agendas of migratory birds. While many countries protect migratory species passing through their territory, far too many do not, leaving dangerous gaps in which critical resting and breeding habitat is rapidly becoming compromised.

Researchers track migratory birds’ routes to see if they’re venturing through protected areas or destroyed habitats. CSMonitor.com

Individual countries may protect migratory birds but the great length of their journeys are endangered. Scientific American

Migratory birds ‘lack world protection. BBC

Migratory bird species are dealing with very real physical threats to their survival. International studies of avian migratory patterns must be used to create new protected areas in key locations to allow migratory birds to continue unmolested throughout their global ranges.

Where can I take my dog off-leash on the beach in Santa Cruz?

It seems that everyone wants to come to Santa Cruz, California to let their dogs run off-leash at the beach!

Even during the winter, a percentage of visitors to the beaches of Santa  Cruz County are from out of town. It must be the sun… or something. A percentage of those visitors bring their canine charges with them as  well and can’t wait to get their dogs sandy and smelly at the beach. Go figure!

How are they to know – before they get here – that their off leash dogs are not allowed  on Santa Cruz County beaches (except Mitchell’s Cove before ten and  after four)? Or that there are five beaches (Main Beach, Cowell, Natural Bridges, Wilder Ranch and Scott Creek) that don’t allow dogs at all?!

As it turns out, there’s an app for that, or at least, a web site.

Click HERE for the answer to this and other questions at Santa Cruz Off-Leash Beach!

I am a long-time proponent of anarchism, the body of thought regarding a social system based on non-hierarchical, decentralized, self-rule; that is, rules but no rulers.

I am forced to admit that human beings are not capable of sustaining such a society.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in an attempt to protect a section of coastal California from a small, dedicated, vociferous, group of people intent on continuing their practice of allowing their dogs to run off-leash despite local leash laws prohibiting the practice.

At first, this might seem a contradiction. Laws? Illegal? Rules? Rulers? What does this have to do with anarchy?

Not much… and everything.

The off-leash dog proponents claim it is their right to allow their dogs to run off-leash whenever and wherever they want, despite ample evidence that off-leash dogs attack and injure people, other dogs and wildlife. It is clear that the common good requires rules restricting people from allowing their domesticated animals to roam freely in shared public space, hence, in our non-anarchic society, leash laws.

There seems to be a growing movement in the United States (the only country I know) of disregarding laws by considering them “obsolete.” It’s part, I think, of the “on demand” society created, at least in part, by the ubiquitous presence of television, computers, “smart” phones ( a “dumb” idea), and other instantaneous access technology that reduces human attention span, increases demand for material possessions and increasingly emphasizes personal individuality and desires over the common good.

Thus, those who want to go to the beach with their dogs off-leash seem to see this as an “entitlement” that no one else has any right to tell them they cannot do. They want it. They want it now. Any rules that stand in the way are “obsolete” because they don’t agree with them.

“You don’t know me well enough to tell me what to do” is the oft-heard and experienced attitude.

This trend, if it is a trend, is 180 degrees away from the ideals of anarchy. In this world view, every individual is an authority, there is no common good, the needs and desires of society are subservient to the needs and desires of the individual.

So we’re stuck with some form of hierarchical society until Homo sapiens grows up enough to take responsibility for its individual self and relearns the concept of responsibility to the wider society.

Santa Cruz County beaches are thriving natural habitat for numerous species of wildlife and plants. It is not a sacrifice zone to be thoughtlessly discarded in favor of human recreation and amusement.

It is sad to note that such habitat is rare in Santa Cruz County, so much so that shore bird numbers have declined precipitously as their feeding, resting and breeding areas have been destroyed by development and dominated by human activity.

Recently, local dog owners have pressured Santa Cruz County officials to allow dogs to run off-leash on Santa Cruz County beaches, in the very spot where this egret is feeding.

Shore birds perceive dogs as predators, especially off-leash dogs roaming free across the beach and uplands. The birds take flight, interrupting their feeding, resting and nesting behaviors, reducing their viability in their home habitat.

It is important to protect and preserve the remaining natural habitat on Santa Cruz beaches, which are a critical part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Dogs must be kept on-leash and County leash laws must be strictly enforced.

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold

Plover killed by off-leash dog

Wardens look into death of endangered plover

An off-leash dog killed a nearly fledged endangered piping plover on a beach in south Maine. The beach has off-leash hours from sunrise to 9 AM, and areas where dogs are required to be kept 150 feet from plover habitat.


In a follow-up story, Dog’s owner steps forward in killing of protected Maine bird, officials explain that the dog owner has come froward and that the owner may not be fined.

The video and text exhibit a remarkable complacency about dogs on the beach and their devastating effects on wildlife. The incident also shows clearly that off-leash hours on the beach place wildlife at risk, no matter how many signs and exclosures are put up to protect sensitive species and habitat.

When Dogs Run Free

In the past few weeks there has been much discussion in Live Oak about allowing dogs to run off leash on the beach between Corcoran and Moran Lagoons. 
Although Santa Cruz County has strict leash laws that apply to the beaches as well as inland, some dog owners have gotten used to letting their dogs run off-leash on the beaches, as budget restrictions have resulted in intermittent leash law enforcement by County Animal Services. Recent patrols by Animal Services officers have raised awareness of restrictions on off-leash dogs and have prompted some dog owners to lobby Animal Services and County government to grant exemptions to the leash law at the three County beaches.
One of the arguments put forward by dog owners in favor of off-leash hours on the beach, is that responsible dog owners obey the laws, pick up after their dogs and help keep the beaches clean. To see how well this works, I took a tour of two beaches in the City limits of Santa Cruz. 

Mitchell’s Cove beach has off-leash dog hours from sunrise to 10 am and 4 PM to sunset, the same hours proposed for the three County Beaches, and well posted with signage at the stairs leading down to the beach. I was there at 11 AM on April 17 and watched three “responsible” dog owners letting their dogs run free on the beach, an hour past the 10 AM restriction.

Lighthouse Field State Park Beach is owned and regulated by California State Parks and is prominently posted “Dogs On Leash Only.” Nevertheless, at 11:30 AM, the beach was overrun by 20 or more dogs running off-leash, and their “responsible” owners. Since State Parks has little money for enforcement, irresponsible dog owners know that this is a place where they can bring their dogs to run free with impunity.

While it is true that there are many responsible local dog owners who do not flaunt local, county, state and federal laws, there are also many irresponsible dog owners who ignore the laws by letting their dogs run free in prohibited areas. This is why we have strict leash laws in the County and City and why its is essential that special exemptions to the law not be made for specific beaches.
There are thirteen specified inland “Off-Leash” dog parks in Santa Cruz City and County, where dog owners can take their dogs for exercise, socialization and fun for their dogs and for themselves. Dogs running free on beaches harass and drive off wildlife, including the endangered Western Snowy Plover. 
Let’s all be responsible dog owners and non-dog owners and preserve the beaches for animals who have no other place to go.