An old black lab licks any hand that reaches out to pet it, tail thumping enthusiastically against its owner’s leg. A huge husky appears to smile as small children crowd around, burying their hands in her bushy fur. More and more, dogs are becoming a part of the Roosevelt Island community. But is the Island ready for them?
Not so long ago, seeing a stout puggle scamper along the promenade next to its owner would have been a rare sight. As recently as 15 years ago, the management of each building on the Island barred dogs except in the case of service dogs. The park spaces, courtyards between buildings, and public areas on the Island were also off-limits to dogs.
“We used to have to stop people at the bridge,” one Public Safety officer reminisces, “just to make sure they weren’t bringing dogs onto the Island.”
This unofficial ban began to loosen in 2003 with the completion of Riverwalk buildings 475 and 465, which provides housing for staff at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Weill Cornell Medical College. In order to appeal to faculty and staff members who already had pets, the buildings did something unheard-of-on the Island: they allowed dogs.
Today, a majority of buildings on Roosevelt Island permit dogs. Only three holdouts remain: Rivercross, Manhattan Park, and Westview. In 2010, a dog owner in Rivercross ended up in court to adjudicate her right to keep her pet. When she lost the case, the co-op board sued her for the cost of legal fees, according to the blog Rooseveltislanddogs.com. Nevertheless, there’s enough demand for the Rivercross doorkeeper to keep a well-hidden bag of doggie treats in the front desk.
In many buildings, however, the dog treats are kept front-and-center, a symbol of the Island’s changing attitude toward dogs. At the Octagon, the treats are proudly displayed at the front desk in a glass jar. Octagon residents laugh about being pulled straight towards the doorkeeper at building-sponsored mixers for dog owners. And in Southtown, Riverwalk Crossing has a pet spa for residents to use at any time.
The Island has also added two dog runs in the intervening years. The northern dog run, around the corner from the Octagon, is a large fenced-off park separated into an area for large dogs and one for small dogs. It has trees just outside both entrances, and a bench for owners to sit in the shade. It is grassy, has a fence set up as an obstacle in the larger area, and often has a couple of good-samaritan tennis balls for the dogs to play with.
The second park sits farther south, across from the Riverwalk buildings. Originally lush, the Southtown park has been dug at and run over so much that it is now merely a large circle of pale brown dirt and rocks with sporadic patches of weeds and grassy corners. There is a black metal table in the center of the park that provides the only shade on hot days for dogs and scorched forearms for owners. The water bowl chained to the fence next to a wood pallet is rusty and can’t be used.
“It’s dirty, it’s dusty, it doesn’t have to be like that,” says Riverwalk resident Sabrina Hermosilla of the southern dog run. “You need trees, especially in the summer.”
Hermosilla has spearheaded a Facebook group called Roosevelt Island Dog Owners to discuss common concerns and hopes for their dogs in their neighborhood. Most pressing is the hope for a new dog park with shade, water, grass, and seating.
Alex Kaplan, associate project manager for Hudson, says the company does plan to upgrade the southern dog park as a part of its development of the future East Commons, though no timeline has been given.
The need for spacious and well-maintained dog parks is especially important to local dog owners because there are relatively few areas on the Island where dogs are welcome. Many of the gardens, courtyards, and evenly-kept grass areas ban dogs. Dogs are not allowed in the courtyards of the Roosevelt Landings buildings, must avoid contact with the many trees behind the church, and must ignore the tempting scents in the many bushes by the Tram.
Sergeant Will Dantone of Public Safety ascribed the many RIOC signs prohibiting dogs to concerns about dog waste that gets left behind.
Judy Berdy, Roosevelt Island Historical Society president, agrees. “People complain about poop in the promenade behind Eastwood [now Roosevelt Landings].”
According to RIOC’s dog policy – and in keeping with City laws – dog owners are required to pick up their pets’ waste.
When asked if he’s given any tickets for leaving dog waste on the ground, Dantone admits, “Not in a long time.”
Of course, not all dogs are restricted from the Island’s more tempting spots. Service dogs, including certified therapy dogs and physical assistance dogs, are allowed anywhere their owners go.
Retired US Army Captain, Seth Hidek, says this isn’t always the reality, though. Hidek, who has “orthological and neurological” injuries, relies on his service dog to help him keep calm and stay positive. He says he’s been hassled or barred from entry on six different occasions in the past year.
“I’m irritated,” says Hidek as he recounts being denied access to the Tram in February, from Four Freedoms Park on July 4, and denied use of the Red Bus as recently as August.
The problem, he says, is with training. The Americans With Disabilities Act states that “staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card… or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.” Hidek says he was denied access to the Island’s public facilities on the grounds that the service dog was not clearly identifiable and that he refused to provide documentation.
“They [RIOC] are not taking the time to train their employees,” Hidek said, “or they don’t care.”
Director of Public Safety Jack McManus acknowledges that officers have responded incorrectly to Hidek in the past. He says there’s a misconception that service dogs must be big, harnessed, and special-vested dogs, and that he’s spoken to his officers about this..
“We identified an issue,” McManus says of his department, “and took steps to correct it.” Hidek acknowledges that Public Safety officers did support his right to have his service dog during a recent conflict.
Part of the Community
For the most part, though, dog owners say they feel the Island is welcoming.
“I’ll be walking and people will scream her name,” says Hermosilla of her 6-year-old Siberian Husky, Talula. “And I don’t even know who they are.”
Hermosilla and Talula walk the Island for three to four hours a day. Hermosilla says Talula is very happy to be petted and played with when she is stopped by Islanders on the street. A certified therapy dog, Talula has such a positive effect on the people she meets that Hermosilla brings her to Coler Hospital monthly to spend time with patients who can no longer get outside.
Hermosilla attributes genuine connections with other Island dog-lovers to Talula. “Talula has enabled us to really bond with our neighbors. We’ve learned the word for dog in so many different languages.”
Tags: Island Life