Volume 75, Number 25 | November 09 -15, 2005

Villager photos by Bob Kreizel

Avast ye doggies!

Dog owners are loyal to Tompkins Sq.’s First Run

By Hannah Seligson

New York is a city that loves its dogs, and this fact is nowhere more apparent than at the Tompkins Square dog run’s annual Dog Run Halloween Parade, which was held on Sunday at the First Run dog park. The name “First Run” is no accident — it is the first and largest official off-leash space in New York City, and residents are loyal to a place that lets their dogs roam free.

Hundreds of dog owners, some in coordinated costumes with their dogs, gathered for the Halloween dog parade, the country’s largest Halloween parade for dogs. Friend of First Run and Shady’s Waggery partnered for the event. The parade was hosted by Kari Harendorf, star of Animal Planet’s “K9 Karma,” along with Lower East Side performance artist Reverend Jen.

All the proceeds from the parade went to the city Parks Department for the maintenance and renovation of First Run. Fundraising is critical to First Run because it is managed and fully funded by the community, not the city. Five thousand dollars in prizes were awarded to the winners and runner-ups in seven categories — Best in Show, Best Trick, Best Costume, Large Breed, Small Breed, Best Dog Team Costume, Best Owner-and-Dog Combo and Best With Kid.

Garret Rosso, manager of Tompkins Square First Run, was extremely pleased with the event. “It was our biggest ever,” he said. “We had 2,500 people showing up, and it has turned into the biggest dog parade in the country.”

Allison Klein, an East Village resident, came with her dogs, Max and Vegas, dressed as bar-mitzvah boys. “We have come every year for four years,” she said. “It is the cutest thing you’ll ever see. We are hoping that we’ll get an honorable mention.”

The Halloween dog parade is just one of many activities owners do with their dogs. In fact, one of the prizes being raffled off was a weekend getaway at a pet-friendly resort. “We have a birthday party for our dog,” Karen Weber said. Weber was dressed in a matching outfit with her dog, Magoo. She was attired as a cheerleader, her sister, Kristen, as the coach, and Magoo as the player; they had their hopes pinned on winning the Best Dog Owner-and-Dog Combo.

Dog owners come from far and wide for the parade. Robin Blauschild traveled all the way from Pleasantville with her dog, Pita. Having been paralyzed in a dogfight, Pita’s roman chariot costume seamlessly incorporated his wheelchair.

Some even used the event as an opportunity to spread a message. Janette Patterson, the director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation (PETA) was there with her dog, Roxie, to educate people to the fact that one often may not know what kind of fur one is wearing. “It could very well be dog or cat fur,” Patterson said. “I’m here to raise awareness.”

The creativity of costumes ran the gamut from homemade to store bought to perfectly stenciled leopard spots on a 150-pound Great Dane. David Gater, owner of the Great Dane, said he didn’t enter him last year because he was “too small.”

The loyalty to the park was apparent, as many dog owners said they come to First Run three or four times a day. One dog owner, Jonathan Ross, said he comes to First Run four times a day. “People are proud of this dog park,” he said. “It’s part of the neighborhood. I have friends here and my dog has friends here too.”

Although the Halloween parade raised just under $8,000, First Run has been told it needs to raise at least $70,000 to do the necessary maintenance on the run. “In order to raise that kind of money we have to start a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit organization], but once we do that, we can be sued because we are liable for a piece of property,” he noted.

It is this strange dynamic of private citizens running a part of a public park that makes managing First Run so difficult at times. “It’s impossible for the East Village to raise $70,000. We’ve been doing it for two years and haven’t even passed the $30,000 mark,” Rosso said.

As Rosso explains, “Tompkins Square Park is falling apart. We are well past the critical point, and everything is deteriorating now. It is going to cost thousands of dollars to repair and those will only be band-aid repairs. We really need a massive renovation.”

Yet, while a lot of dog owners at other runs have combative relationships with park management, First Run and the Parks Department have what Rosso characterizes as “a beautiful marriage.” “Elaine Crowley, the park district manager, and Harry Greenberg, the Tompkins Square Park manager, have been incredibly helpful,” Rosso said. “There have been no two people that have been more instrumental in helping us organize. Elaine and Harry have really exceeded what we’ve asked of them.”

First Run has, however, been able to make some financial inroads toward their large fundraising goal. Dog Fancy magazine, the largest dog media publication in the U.S., recently named First Run number four of the top 10 dog parks in the country, and gave First Run a $10,000 grant. Rosso, though, remains skeptical of the amount of money they have been charged to raise, as other dog parks around the city have been able to be maintained on a fraction of what First Run has been told to raise.

Even with all the bureaucracy and the long, often tedious, hours, First Run is a real a labor of love for all the community members who work to maintain it. “First Run is a big asset to New York City,” Rosso explained. “We are the best example of a community run dog park in the United States. The editors at Dog Fancy magazine were shocked at how close the community here is and how much volunteer work is done by the community. People from London call me to ask me how to organize a dog run like First Run.”

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