Carmella Clark still remembers it like it was yesterday. On a late-summer day, Clark, an avid horseback rider, was making her way back from a weekend jaunt along Forbidden Drive when she heard some rustling on a nearby trail.
An instant later, she said, a pit bull emerged from the brush and attacked the two from behind.
“And before I could do anything, the dog was under my horse’s belly and was growling and biting at his belly and legs,” said Clark in an email.
Caught off guard, the horse bucked and Clark was thrown from her saddle, landing on her hip.
As she dusted herself off, the dog’s owner appeared and asked if she was all right. Clark didn’t have much time for a response: her horse was running wild through the park with the dog in hot pursuit.
“I just told him to get his dog,” she said.
Eventually, said Clark, the dog peeled away from the chase while the horse continued his frenzied flight down Forbidden Drive. The horse later found its way back to its home inside Mt. Airy’s Monastery Stables with a deep cut and bite marks on its leg.
Police responded to Clark’s 911 call a half-hour later to jot down the details of the incident. And after deeming the attack an “accident”, opted to issue a warning to the dog owner instead of a $25 fine for violating the city’s leash law.
Clark, to say the least, was angered by the outcome. But she wasn’t surprised.
Philadelphia police and park rangers in particular, she said, rarely enforce the leash law, which requires dogs to be on a leash no longer than six feet and prohibits them from roaming without one anywhere in the city.
Clark also blames a lack of signage explaining the ordinance.
Officials with Fairmount Park acknowledged that the city’s leash law is regularly disregarded, but said they take every opportunity to educate dog owners about the rules.
Enforcing the ordinance, however, is difficult, said the department’s Chief of Staff Barry Bessler. Cutbacks have left the department with less than 30 park rangers to patrol the system’s 10,000-plus acres.
And in order to issue a fine, he said, the dog owner must provide identification.
“If they refuse or don’t have it, there’s not much we can do,” said Bessler, who said he hadn’t heard about Clark’s attack.
Officials with the 14th Police District, which includes the site of Clark’s incident, said nuisance crimes, like dogs running off-leash, are not a big priority, but officers don’t ignore them.
“It is important to the police department,” said Captain Joseph Dales to Clark at a recent Police Service Area meeting.
A handful of long-time park users interviewed by NewsWorks said they generally weren’t bothered by dogs running free in the park and didn’t fear being attacked.
Kim Mills, a biker from Chestnut Hill, said loose dogs have nipped at her heels before, but said the incidents were more annoying than anything else.
She said it comes down to the individual owner being aware of their dog’s behavior in public. If the dog could potentially be problematic, said Mills, the owner should keep them on a leash.
“But if they’re dogs that listen to you and are well-behaved and have manners I really don’t have a problem with it,” said Mills.
Clark acknowledges that dogs have run off-lease in the park for years and that, for the most part, nothing really serious happens as a result. But, she said experiences like hers and others she’s heard about make the park less enjoyable for everyone.
“If you never know when a dog is going to come running out of the woods to knock you down or bite you if you’re biking then what are you going to do?” said Clark. “You just don’t go into the parks anymore”