By MATT MURPHY, Sun Staff
LOWELL -- There are just some presents no one likes to find under a tree.
Protectors of the city's parks and public walkways say dog owners are ruining the urban landscape by allowing their pooches to "do their business" wherever they please and refusing to clean up after their pets.
The "presents" left behind mean residents and visitors to the Mill City must watch their step when they try to enjoy the city's outdoor spaces.
"People don't mind volunteering and weeding and raking to make the parks beautiful. But no one wants to spend all day bending over picking up dog crap. It's disgusting," said Deb Harding, a volunteer with the Lowell Parks Department and the Lowell National Historic Park.
This spring cleanup volunteers devoted countless hours to sprucing up Lowell's parks and public gardens for the summer season, planting flowers and pruning trees.
But far too much of their time was spent holding their noses and scooping poop, volunteers said. Harding said the mess left behind after the winter along the Dutton Street train tracks was enough to make volunteers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell rugby team sick to their stomachs. The Victorian Garden on Shattuck Street was no better.
Harding has adopted the garden, devoting her energy to landscaping, planting flowers and bringing many of the once-neglected plants back to life.
But for the first few days of spring, Harding said she spent most of her time picking up after dogs. "I've discussed this problem with other park staff and, yes, it's quite apparent and visible that there has been an infusion of dogs into downtown Lowell that came with people moving into the condos -- the new Lowellians," said Mike Wurm, volunteer coordinator with the national park.
Lowell has a city ordinance requiring dog owners to pick up after their dogs. Violators can be punished with a $10 fine for each infraction.
But enforcement has not always been high on the priority list.
Whistler House Museum Executive Director Michael Lally said he will be forced to ban dogs from Whistler Park on Worthen Street because dog waste litters the lawn and has killed the grass.
"Some people are really good and pick up after their dogs, but some people don't. Unfortunately, we're going to be banning dogs from our park because they're ruining it," Lally said.
So Harding and her friend Diane Lemire of Dracut, have stepped up with a plan of their own to raise awareness and encourage pet owners to respect public spaces and take responsibility for their dogs.
The campaign is called "Get WastED." And with the support of the Revolving Museum, Harding and Lemire hope they can contribute to a renaissance of public gardens and green spaces in downtown Lowell.
"Lowell needs more signature gardens. It's a different type of art. It's landscape art. But people need to respect these spaces," said Janice Pokorski, gallery and events manager for the Revolving Museum.
On May 6, the Revolving Museum held a canine carnival downtown, drawing more than 300 people and 125 dogs. Owners got to pamper their pets with massages or have their canine's portrait painted.
It was also the first public event for Get WastED. One bold pup could not resist serving up the first teaching moment, choosing to "go" right in front of Pokorski as she addressed the gathering with a microphone.
As the owner started to walk away, Pokorski called for her to stop and pick up the mess her dog had just left on the sidewalk. Though she scolded with a smile and a little humor, the message was no joke.
"People are rude and they just don't care," Pokorski said.
Harding and Lemire hope to raise enough money through T-shirt sales, donations and grants to install receptacle with scoopers in all of Lowell's public parks.
By attending events like the Lowell Folk Festival, Harding said she also hopes to raise awareness that dog waste is a public nuisance, encouraging pet owners to respect public green spaces.
More than one park advocate suggested it might be time for the city to build a dog park to accommodate all of the new pet owners downtown.
This is not an urban problem.
Towns like Billerica, Chelmsford, Littleton and Dracut all have bylaws requiring owners to scoop when their dogs decide to go.
Homeowners tend to have larger yards in the suburbs, Billerica Police Chief Daniel Rosa said, so complaints are usually at a minimum.
At Veterans Memorial Park in Dracut, signs remind dog walkers to keep their pets leashed and pick up what is left behind.
Dracut Parks and Recreation Director Lori Cahill said there are trash bins throughout the park, and still dog owners refuse to clean up.
"Maybe people are just too lazy. But the last thing you want to do on a nice day is go to throw a blanket down and find out you can't because there is animal waste everywhere," Cahill said. "I'm a dog owner. We carry our little plastic bags around with us whenever we leave our property. Nobody likes to do it, but it's your responsibility as a dog owner."
Matt Murphy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appeared in the Lowell Sun on Sunday, June 4, 2006