JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Modern history is riddled with examples of respectable populations harboring criminal subpopulations: Sicilians and the mob, Chicagoans and rum runners, abolitionists and the underground railroad.
But when it comes to collective criminal complicity in 2012, Durango’s dog owners are surpassed perhaps only by the evasive taxpayers of Greece.
Durango Police Department Lt. Ray Shupe said police regularly issue citations to people who refuse to leash their dogs while walking in public. John Patla, director of La Plata County Animal Control, said officers typically issue five $45 tickets a week to Durangoans who let their dogs roam the town unattended, like animals.
Amber Blake, Durango’s multimodal transportation director, said in summer, parking officers can rarely walk Main Avenue without seeing dogs illegally tied to benches.
“We get complaints about it all the time, but we don’t issue tickets for that. I’m not sure how it would work, unless you left the ticket on the dog,” Blake said.
Long has Durango been dogged by dog problems. Dan James, former board member of the Durango Farmers Market, said before the market instated a pet ban four years ago, one in 10 people brought dogs to the market, maybe more.
“There were scary rough-sounding spats, cases of dogs urinating on produce and numerous encounters where dogs stole food out of children’s hands,” James said.
Fort Lewis College student Danny Sullivan freely admits that he brings his dog Kenny, a 55-pound German shepherd-husky mix, into Walmart on a routine basis.
“And Kenny’s not a good dog. He soils the carpets, tries to get in the garbage, and barks so much that we’ve had the police called on us twice. At Walmart, I’ll try to avoid the grocery section. But in this town, no one says anything,” Sullivan said.
Walmart spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said the discount store understood “some members of the community enjoy shopping with their pets, (but) out of respect for our customers, it’s our policy to only accommodate service animals in our stores.”
Albertsons, north City Market, and Natural Grocers likewise said – excepting service animals – dogs were absolutely forbidden from their premises.
However, Marian Schaub, San Juan Basin Health Department’s food protection specialist, said reports of pets in local grocery stores persist.
“We’ve had numerous complaints about dogs in Walmart, City Market and Albertsons, sometimes smuggled in purses,” said Schaub.
On a recent Monday morning, this Herald reporter borrowed a colleague’s sweet-tempered 11-year-old Rottweiler-mix, Ally, to see how such infiltrations occur. Though greeters rebuffed us at two entrances, we quickly breached the store’s central entrance, and wandered its palatial aisles – including the grocery section – for almost half an hour, at one point passing a cart that had two Chihuahuas in its child seat.
Though the health department’s Schaub said dogs’ proximity to food posed obvious public-health risks, she noted that big chain grocery stores are in a legal bind: They risk civil penalties if they break health codes, but if they turn away legitimate service animals, they risk violating the Americans with Disabilities Act – and, therefore, costly lawsuits.
Lija Day, Colorado Service Dogs’ executive director, said: “You can’t tell someone who’s disabled ‘don’t bring in your service dog.’ It’s like taking their wheelchair and making them crawl across the floor. The dog is medical equipment.
“According to federal law, all store managers can ask is: ‘Is that a service dog?’ That’s it. No certification is necessary,” Day said. “Unfortunately, people abuse this to get their nonservice dogs into stores.”
Indeed, when chain retailers were (whimsically) asked whether stores should, “let in service cats, service rabbits or service elephants,” only Walmart’s spokeswoman paused. Managers at Albertsons and north City Market said service animals of every kind would be welcome.
Other than dogs, only Capuchin monkeys and miniature horses are officially sanctioned service animals in the United States.
Riverview Animal Hospital’s Dr. Stacee Santi said dogs’ stature in human society is deservedly unique.
“Cats might serve a therapeutic purpose, but you can’t really make a cat do anything. Animals like snakes, lobsters – they’re not capable of loving you back. And while monkeys, elephants and even giraffes might be trained as companion animals, there’s an access issue.
“Where dogs are especially apt to service humans: They’re kind-natured, trainable and loving – in a way that’s unmatched by anything on the planet, service dog or not. There’s just different rules for dogs,” Santi said.
Local restaurants have gotten on all fours finding ways to legally gratify Durango’s dogs – and their incorrigible owners.
Steaming Bean supplies dogs with complimentary water bowls. Mallory Nicklas, of Guido’s, said dogs are welcome on the patio.
“Sometimes it’s like a nice little puppy party out there,” she said.
Other businesses can show dogs even more hospitality. 6th Street Liquor invites dogs to come in.
“After all, nothing’s more ‘Durango’ than dogs – except maybe beer,” employee Charlie Fox said.
FLC student Sullivan recalled he once brought his dog Kenny into the Smoke Shop on Main Avenue.
“Kenny just took a big (fecal liberty ) right on their floor. The guys at the Smoke Shop dealt! They still let dogs in. It’s a big reason I’m still here. We’re such a huge dog town,” Sullivan said.