Pup culture

A Jerusalem dog park gives paws for thought.

Dog park 521 (photo credit: Chaim Collins)
Dog park 521
(photo credit: Chaim Collins)
It’s not a unique phenomenon: While “the kids” run and play in the park, working off pent-up energy, the adults sit around and discuss topics like dealing with separation anxiety, behavioral problems and providing a healthy diet. But when these kids get to the gate on the way out of the park, they are put on a short leash – literally.
There are very few places in Jerusalem where dogs are able to run around freely, without fear of being handed a hefty fine by municipal inspectors.
Having a place where they can romp and play – without scaring young children – helps prevent aggression in the dogs.
There are also benefits for the human companions. Man’s best friend helps create friendships. In this particular park – the dog park in the San Simon neighborhood – the human friendships are a cause for celebration.
I doubt that there is any other dog park in the world that can boast of hosting so many Jewish life-cycle events. The San Simon dog park has hosted sheva brachot, the traditional celebration following a religious wedding (courtesy of the owners of Goldie the Labrador retriever); two sets of proud parents have marked a brit mila (the circumcision was performed in more sterile surroundings but the proud parents held a get-together in the park for the dogs and other friends who couldn’t make the main event); a toast for Rosh Hashana, and, just last week, a bar mitzva celebration for Ro’i (a boy, not a dog, in case you were wondering.)
In July 2010, the park even held a party to celebrate its own first anniversary, declared by my mother (or more to the point, Mimi’s owner) “a howling success.”
There are three other dog parks in the capital, several in Tel Aviv and others dotted in cities around the country. But the San Simon park – or “The Bark,” as it’s known in jest among some of the regulars – is different.
“There is a real community feeling,” says Lynn Goldberg, an English teacher who tries to come on a daily basis (“partly for my own sake, partly for Angie’s”).
“These people have become true friends,” she says. Her sentiments are echoed by many other regulars, people who come even when they are dog tired, to relax with other pet owners and let their mutts have some fun.
Owners range in age from young teens to definitely senior citizens. The dogs include puppies just old enough to have been vaccinated and those like my own mutt, Gussie, who is way past bat mitzva age.
Newcomers at first have to find their way around and figure out who’s leader of the pack. And that’s not just the pooches. An unofficial hierarchy also exists among those who regularly hang out in the park. They make sure that dogs that are aggressive or have other problems – and owners who are not willing to accept responsibility for their dogs’ behavior – realize they are barking up the wrong tree.
Goldberg notes that when Angie was a puppy, she took her to the Sacher Park dog run, but Angie was pounced upon by big boisterous dogs, leaving the pup traumatized. They both seem to have found their place in San Simon. “She always knows when we’re going and gets excited,” says Goldberg.
Like other regulars, she talks about the site in terms of “our park.”
Among her particular park friends is Maisa Nashashibi, who brings her German Shepherd almost daily from the Wadi Joz neighborhood. “It’s very nice. Coming to the park is really good for both of us,” says Nashashibi.
The Muslim-Jewish friendship does not seem at all incongruous in such a setting, where social barriers are naturally broken down. San Simon dog-park aficionados include secular and Orthodox Jews; Sabras, new immigrants and veteran Israelis; long-term visitors and tourists. One frequent-flying dog has notched up miles between Israel and Finland, for instance.
There is more than a sprinkling of professionals, but a policeman, landscape gardener, a bank clerk, and a couple of tour guides are all among those who refer to “our park.”
Occasionally, this being Israel after all, conversation turns political, although a huge effort is made to keep discourse polite and make sure hackles aren’t raised. It might be a dog park, but dogma is out of bounds. Most of the time the chat is just that – a pleasant way to pass time with friends. Some sit under the olive trees and play backgammon. Instead of using the old “the dog ate my homework” excuse, in the summer my son often does his homework in the park.
Some of the dogs have expensive pedigrees while others are what is fondly known in these parts as “meurav Yerushalmi,” a Jerusalem mix, referring to a popular local dish of mixed grilled meat.
Edna Baruch, who can list dog-sitting on her varied CV, admits that she is not familiar with other dog parks but notes that “there is something special about our park, the way people come together to celebrate and also to help each other out.”
When one dog owner found an injured puppy that needed an urgent operation, regular park-goers pooled together to cover the costs. And when an owner was hospitalized, others helped make sure her dog was still exercised and taken care of.
“We have a lot to learn from our canine companions. At the dog park, they’ll fight and howl at each other one minute, and forget it all and play together the next. They really teach us about living in the moment and moving on,” says one regular.
Another stalwart of the park also comments that it’s important to solve problems that might arise peacefully and pleasantly. Dr. Mati Huss, a university lecturer in Hebrew literature but better known in this particular crowd as “Mica’s owner,” is among those who confesses that he comes “an hour or two a day” as much for his own pleasure as for his dog’s benefit.
The facilities include a water fountain, a container with “pooper-scooper” bags (although, like the toilet paper in the average kindergarten, these run out faster than they can be replaced) and (too few) benches.
Though still far from ideal, there is access for the handicapped, allowing residents of the nearby home for the disabled to come; a lapdog arrives in style, hitching a ride on a wheelchair.
For those who plan their day around this trip to doggy heaven, there is one overriding concern lately – the fear that in the dog-eat-dog world of real estate development plans will result in their paradise being paved over. And, of course, the more built-up the surrounding area, the more important it is for owners and pets to have somewhere to call their own.
The centrality of such a spot in the lives of both canines and their companions is poignantly portrayed in the 1998 movie Theo’s friends, directed by Eyal Halfon. Halfon documented a year in the lives of five dog-owning Tel Avivians, including himself – his late dog is the Theo of the title.
Halfon demonstrates how dog ownership is a great way to overcome the possible loneliness of life in the urban jungle.
Once you unleash the secrets of the dog park subculture, you’ll realize you’re not barking mad when you enjoy going to the dogs.
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