The Dirt on Island Dogs

April 7, 2019

When I was in high school in Brooklyn back in the 1980’s, I remember a joke told by a classmate: How can you tell the difference between New Yorkers and tourists? Answer: The tourists are all looking up at the skyscrapers, and the New Yorkers are all looking down at the dog poop.

Had I been growing up on Roosevelt Island, that joke would not have been so relevant, since, until about ten years ago, Roosevelt Island had a bylaw forbidding dogs from even visiting the island. Now, the Island’s poop-smeared streets are putting it in a league with the rest of New York City as a place where you literally have to watch your step.

The impending opening of PupCulture, a doggie day care, on Main Street, reflects the increased prevalence of pooches, large and small, alongside humans on our little island. The Octagon was the first residential building to allow dogs, and it wasn’t long before other buildings began to follow suit. The Hudson Related buildings in Southtown not only allow them, but advertise on their website that dogs enjoy the same amenities as humans do.


View west from Main Street, adjacent to Manhattan Park green space, Central Park.

Many dog owners would disagree with this statement, and we ran a story last year on the subpar conditions of the dog parks, also called “dog runs”, which are the only places where dogs are allowed to be off-leash.  A lack of shade, running water, and grass maintenance were cited. Dog owners started a facebook page to convene to discuss dog rights and advocate for improvements of the two parks or “dog runs” that exist on the Island.


Their proposal to RIOC to relocate Southtown’s dog run to a portion of Blackwell Park has met with some outrage and pushback from residents who fear that putting the park so close to the playground and sprinkler presents a potentially dangerous situation for young children who run and squeal through the sprinklers in the warmer months. 

Promises were made by RIOC that their Public Safety Department (PSD) would closely monitor and ensure that local dog owners would be cleaning up after their dogs and abiding by the leash laws as well. But the condition of our sidewalks tell another story. Ironically, the southern part of the Island, whose apartment rents come with a higher price tag, easily outdoes the northern part of the Island in terms of fecal phenomena on our sidewalks.  


And the concept of training one’s pets to urinate away from the flow of people and children (otherwise known as “curbing” the dog) seems to have been wholly forgotten. I personally have gotten into a few “pissing matches” with neighbors who have blatantly ignored the signs and let their dogs urinate directly in front of building entryways and on the metal posts that outline the driveway of 405, 415, and 425 Main Street, many of which have begun to corrode, along with the cement that holds them up.  


Dog owners neglect to clean up after their dogs all over the Island, including in a Southtown lobby

One new neighbor claimed that the sign in the flower beds stating “No Dogs” did not mean her pooch couldn’t stand just outside of the rail and pee through it onto the flowers. Another neighbor claimed that her Golden Retriever, who had chosen one of the front posts on which to lift its leg and gush a torrent, “couldn’t make it to the curb.” And one family who habitually steps out the back door of 425 and sets their lap dog right down to pee where they and all their neighbors will step right into it on their way out the back door to work and school in the morning, just looked at me blank-faced when I said something. That pooch’s personal stain on the street every morning has now been joined by others. They seem to be taking advantage of the absolute void in discipline from Public Safety. More and more pet owners are walking their dogs on grass with clear signage that says not to.   

We did a FOIL request with RIOC to find out how many citations were given in the year 2018 involving pet owners. Were any disciplinary measures taken on negligent pet owners who fail to clean up after their dogs? For failing to abide by the leash law? Or for any dogs that may have bitten a human? The answer is, no. Not one single citation was issued in the entire year for any of the above, although there was, apparently, one report of a dog biting a human.  

“It’s hard to enforce,” said Officer Jeff Laszcyzch at a Public Safety Committee meeting earlier this year, “because we have to catch them in the act.” These transgressions are frequently witnessed by lay people in the community, day in and day out. Dogs enjoy the grass at the plaza between 425 and 455 Main Street, at Capobianco Field, in the Blackwell sprinklers all summer long, at Blackwell Park, and in the line at Starbucks – all places with clear signage prohibiting dogs.

When we ran a story called Nina the Speed Dog last fall, which centered around a 2-hour chase by Public Safety to catch and bring to safety one dog who had gotten off-leash, the officer interviewed stated that “Chief McManus is a big animal lover.” The officers pursued the dog until it was resolved with a happy ending and the little canine was brought home. It meant a lot to the dog’s owner, for whom the dog was like her own child.

But sometimes, when it comes to dog owners and non-dog owners, not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a happy ending. I’m a nature lover and I acknowledge that dogs, just like people, need to spend time in the wild, among the grass, trees, sticks and dirt. Which is why I question whether most city dogs really enjoy a good quality of life. It’s also challenging for humans, which is why many of us are attracted to Roosevelt Island with it’s green spaces and quietude and striking Manhattan views, and choose it as an ideal place to raise our children.


We may not get woods and walking trails or endless beaches, but we get a few patches of green. We get the tree-shrouded place behind the subway my son used to call Nature’s Castle. We used to get access to the playing fields. We get a few trees to climb, some dirt to get dirty in; but wait. We all know about the yellow snow, but now we have to worry about the “dirty” dirt our children are naturally drawn to play in, to dig in with a stick, or write their names or an X to mark a hidden treasure. We have to worry about potential diseases that may be lurking on the soles of their shoes, or worse, under their fingernails.

The amount of space we have here is finite. We have to preserve it to be able to coexist. That’s why we have laws stating that we can’t all just go to the bathroom where we play and live. That’s why we can’t spoil Nature’s Castle. But dog owners may never see the big picture and do the right thing if Public Safety does not hold them accountable.


Non-profit Wildlife Freedom Foundation does understand the issue and has spearheaded an educational campaign that was endorsed by both RIOC and the Department of Sanitation of the City of New York. As part of a larger effort, signage was posted in the glass window of the Public Safety Office and along the western promenade, that show a cute caricature of a dog and owner with the words, “Don’t Be a Poop-etrator,” reminding Islanders that not cleaning up after their pets can land you a $250 fine. It is part of a multi-prong effort directed at dog owners to ensure they are complying with the laws.


Ironically, this is a hand slap compared to New York City’s littering fine, which is $500. Apparently, dropping a pile of dog doo on the street is only half as offensive as dropping a box of, say, Thin Mints, or a pack of gum. While the former may wash away with the rain, it’s also the only one that can transfer communicable diseases on the bottom of your shoe.

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