Dogs' best friends

Residents and a teen activist group have succeeded in establishing a canine haven in San Simon Park.

Dog owners in Jerusalem's Old Katamon neighborhood finally got their wish: a gated area in San Simon Park where their dogs can run freely without fear of fines from inspectors or complaints from people who are afraid of dogs. A joint effort by teen activist group Noar Ac-TV and area residents made the San Simon dog park a reality. "Through their research and interviews, the kids of Noar Ac-TV discovered that residents have wanted a dog park for a long time," says Noar Ac-TV manager Yali Ben-Ami. Funded by the Jerusalem Foundation, Noar Ac-TV has been part of the International Cultural Center on Emek Refaim for two years. It is comprised of a group of teenagers who volunteer their time to make a difference in the community. Upon researching areas in the community that require changing, the teens walk around with a video camera to document their projects. Earlier this year, the teens asked the municipality's Department of Veterinary Services why there were only two dog parks - one in Sacher Park and one in Ramat Danya - in a city that, according to the municipality, has 15,000 registered dogs. Dr. Zohar Dvorkin, head of veterinary services, said there wasn't a need for more dog parks in the city because people weren't asking for it. Dvorkin says he was not aware that dog owners were asking for such a park and had already taken action. Katamon residents and dog owners Judith Sternberg and Sara Sheradsky began a petition a year and a half ago to have a dog park established in San Simon Park. "We'd meet in the park, and there was certainly a need for a dog park because there was a constant battle with people who didn't like dogs," says Sternberg. "Whenever we met someone with a dog, we asked for their name and phone number and told them about the initiative." Some 50 dog owners signed the petition, which was sent to the Jerusalem Municipality. "The municipality acted quickly," says Sternberg. "After a few days I got a call that they wanted to come check out the park." In June 2008, Sternberg and other petitioners took a tour of the park with municipality officials to designate a space for dogs. The municipality suggested a space off the main park in the garden area by the game tables. Sternberg and the others wanted an area cordoned off in the main park, but the municipality wanted the grassy area to remain beautiful for the residents. "We said OK, whatever; we need the space," says Sternberg. "It's really crucial and we can't let the dogs run free because of people who are afraid of dogs or don't like them." After the municipality's visit, nothing happened for quite some time. In her second letter to the municipality Sternberg wrote, "We got a positive answer but we don't see any action." The teens from Noar Ac-TV who worked tirelessly for the past four months on the San Simon dog park project gave the municipality the needed push. "When the camera was rolling and teenagers were behind it, people felt uncomfortable to not do what they should," says Ben-Ami. Within two months the dog park was up and running. "We achieved our goal," says 15-year-old Momo Stein of Noar Ac-TV. The municipality plans to complete the park by installing running water and garbage bins, complete with disposal bags, in about a week. Dog owners are happy to finally have a place to release their dogs freely despite the park being incomplete. "This place is better than nothing. We are grateful for it," says Sheradsky. "The most important thing for me is not to be afraid of inspectors anymore." Getting caught with your dog unleashed in the park carries a NIS 400 fine. "You can come and sit quietly and peacefully and let your dog run," says Sheradsky. "A place like this makes friendships between people and friendships between dogs. Something like this becomes central to people who have dogs and love dogs." While everyone agrees the dog park was needed, wheelchair-bound and disabled dog owners are disappointed about the park's inaccessibility to them. There is no path for wheelchairs, and the split-level gravel and stone-covered dog park makes it nearly impossible for the disabled to maneuver easily. This writer, who has cerebral palsy, can't get to the lower level of the park if she needs to pick up after her dog, as there is no railing between levels. The gravel and stone are also a slippery and harmful combination. "I can't go all the way into the park," says Chaya Yedvave. "The gravel can puncture the wheels of my chair." Michael Mintz, manager of the municipality's department of public gardens, says construction will begin this week on a small path at the entrance that will extend a bit further into the park. There will also be a bench on the side for wheelchair companions, and a garbage bin. The locks on the fence will be placed at a level that anyone in a wheelchair can reach. There are no plans to replace the gravel or to turn the split-level dog park into a flat surface. According to municipality officials, the dog park is not a major project, so they aren't investing too much into converting the park. Until the park is accessible for wheelchairs, Yedvave continues to take her dog to the main park. All in all, 15-year-old Noa Cohen, who worked on the project, is delighted to see the fruits of her group's labor. "It was a meaningful thing to do because we can actually see results now. We really accomplished something." Dog owners sum up their sentiments in two words: Thank you.