Dogs, ducks and dubious decisions

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The Dickson Wetlands have been a success both as a water-engineering project (providing water for the nearby sports grounds) and as attractive open space parkland.

From the day it was opened, people have been going there from the surrounding suburbs to enjoy the amenities – mainly just to walk. In addition to the care-free meanderers, there has been a significant influx of people who use the space to walk their dogs.

Just before Christmas, on the 22nd December, the ACT Government sent out notifications that several areas including the Dickson Wetlands are to continue to be designated as being off-leash for dogs. This contentious issue had been the subject of some government communications over the last year in relation to several public spaces around Canberra.

While the general announcement contained much information regarding broader policy, it was this statement pertaining to Dickson that I wish to address:

“For the three wetland sites – Dickson and Lyneham wetlands and the Flemington Road ponds – it has been determined there is insufficient evidence to support the presence of roaming (off-leash) dogs having a detrimental impact on birdlife in those areas. As such, the designation will remain off-leash for the time being. The ACT Government will continue to monitor these sites to ensure the designation is meeting the needs of all users.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. I wonder what evidence the government used for this decision.

Based on my very frequent visits to the Dickson Wetlands, being normally several times a week in the evenings, it is a common occurrence that dogs are already allowed to race about off leash. This is having a detrimental impact on other visitors, on young children, on other dogs, on the vegetation and most importantly on the birds, namely the ducks and their habitats.

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For people who go to the wetlands to relax, with or without dogs, the requirement now is to be constantly on the look-out for badly behaved dogs.

This gets very nasty when the light is very low and it is difficult to see them approaching – for instance one evening we were accosted by a very large dog (about 3 feet tall) that suddenly appeared from the reeds we were passing. I suspect it did not see us approaching and was taken aback by our arrival as much as we were of it!.

One event that stays with me is: A woman, who was busy on the phone, and was accompanied by three aggressive looking small pit bull dogs, was about to cross our path ahead of us. The three dogs were not large but were off leash. Another couple were approaching from the other direction with their baby in a stroller. As the two groups neared each other, the latter couple became very unsettled. They stopped and took their baby out of the stroller and held the child high and close until the dogs had passed by. The owner of the dogs did not react, as she stayed on the phone and just kept on walking. The other couple remained very distressed and after putting the child back down, spent a moment or two watching the dogs depart the scene.

I have seen other parents take their children and hold onto them when dangerous looking dogs approach.

I have also observed others with dogs on leash hold their own dogs close when approached by a menacing looking dog that has been allowed to roam freely.

I know of people who no longer walk their dog around the wetlands as they are concerned about the dogs on the loose and that they may revert to form and attack the more defensive pet dog.

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A frequent occurrence is that people allow and encourage their dogs to run through the waterside plants and to bathe in the ponds. This is having a detrimental effect on the plants on the sides of the ponds and then there are the ducks that need to scurry away given the sudden arrival of the dogs into their water.

One unbelievable behavior is that owners take their dogs out onto the peninsular and make their way through the plants towards the duck island. When the water is low, as it is right now, some venture further onto the island – with their dogs. I can only imagine the effect this is having on the plants and the bird life.

I do not blame the dogs, as they do what they are allowed to do.

It is the dog owners that cause the problems.

It must be very annoying for the many dog owners who actually love their animals, respect the lives of other people, and have done the right things by training their pets to behave in public places – and keep them on-leash.

This is not an anti dog thing. I have been known to take friends’ dogs for a walk (on leash).

The problem here is the behaviour and lack of responsibility of some domestic dog owners in public places and that the government has knowingly decided to ignore this issue to the detriment of the amenities offered by the Dickson Wetlands.

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Then there is this information from the ACT Government: “Both you and your dog have the right to use public land without fear of attack or harassment by other dogs.’ By designating the parklands as off-leash the government has negated this former statement.

We now have the situation whereby the desire to allow dogs off-leash in a public space has over-ridden the rights of others not to be harassed, not to have their own safety compromised and has shifted the responsibility to others to confront irresponsible owners.

Unfortunately for some, they now choose to stay away from the parklands.

By all means I encourage the government to establish dog parks for people to have their dogs off-leash. But the Dickson Wetlands is a wonderful open green space that should be enjoyed by all – not just the off-leash dog owners.

Is there anyone left within the ACT Government who knows about governance, about transparent community engagement and the need to place the highest priority on the environment and the well-being of residents?

I suspect that sometime in the near future that the adoption of the recommendation for off-leash in this popular area will lead to a serious claim against the government – the basis being willful ignorance.

I suggest the clock is ticking on this dubious and non-evidence based decision.

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Paul Costigan

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