Berkeley dog owners are pleading with the city to clear the off-leash dog area at César Chávez Park of foxtails, an invasive grass whose barbed seed heads can cause serious injury to dogs.
The Berkeley Animal Care Commission sent a letter to City Council which was circulated at their June 18 meeting urging for a “regular, frequent, preventative schedule” of mowing. According to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, the letter will be reviewed as a communications item at the Council’s July 8 meeting. The Council cannot take action on communications items.
Dog owners say that the state-wide drought has made the foxtail situation at César Chávez Park on the bay particularly bad this year. Claudia Kawczynska, editor-in-chief of Bark Magazine, and former city waterfront commissioner, was at the ACC’s June meeting. She said the off-leash area needs an emergency mowing.
“The foxtails are the worst they’ve ever been. This is the worst year for foxtails throughout California. We’ve had a horrible season, the hottest ten months on record.”
The foxtail, sometimes called wild barley, is a common grass in California. The plant grows almost year-round. It is only dangerous to dogs in the summer, when the seeded head of the plant become dry and brittle. The head is made up of clustered, spearlike seeds with pointed ends and microscopic barbs, which can damage tissue within the animal.
Foxtails can enter the animal’s body through orifices like the nostrils or ears, or areas of vulnerable skin, like the paws or the armpits. The barbed seeds can migrate through the dog’s body once they have pierced the skin. According to a PETA article, the seeds can become lodged in organs and cause abscesses, severe infection, and even death.
An embedded foxtail is painful for the dog, and owners have to inspect their pets every time they play in a high-risk area — like César Chávez Park.
Once a foxtail is embedded it is difficult to remove. The symptoms are sometimes subtle, and vary based on the plant’s point of entry. Once the foxtail is detected, the surgery to remove it can be expensive. Kawczynska said she spent $3,300 removing a foxtail one of her dogs picked up in April. Another regular at the César Chávez off-leash area, Mary Barnsdale, said that she had spent almost $4,000 on surgery removing foxtails. Barnsdale now has her dog, Rusty, wear a mesh face mask at the park to protect his eyes and ears.
The foxtails have been a contested issue for more than 15 years. Before the 17-acre off-leash area at the bay-front park was established in 1999, the city retained a scientist to conduct a biological assessment of the area to minimize the environmental impact of the park.
The assessment, which was completed in 1997, recommended that the foxtails remain unmowed in most of the area in order to provide cover for the gophers and birds that inhabit the park.
“Maintenance activities to minimize the growth of foxtails and burrs within the off-leash area should be limited in extent and not result in a significant reduction in vegetative cover…,” the report read, and continued: “… mowing height should be set between four and six inches off the ground surface to retain some grassland cover for wildlife while removing seed heads.”
Based on these recommendations, the city only mows two of the 17 acres designated as the off-leash area. The rest of the space is overgrown with foxtails. The city also established a 7-acre protected area, where no dogs or humans are allowed.
A May 21 memo from the city manager to the City Council says that the city has mowed the two acre area in May and August every year since “the late 1990s.”
Kawcynska said she hasn’t seen evidence of mowing this spring, and that she hopes for an immediate mowing to combat the foxtails this season, and then a reevaluation of the city’s long-term plan for protecting animals from the foxtails.
“What we are are asking for is an emergency mowing and then to have a thoughtful process. Mowing earlier in the season would prevent the foxtails from spreading… my complaint with the city is that they are putting more dogs at risk.”
City spokesman Matthai Chakko, when asked for comment, said that the city’s position on the foxtails could be found in a May 21 memo of background on the issue from the city manager to the City Council.
Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans. He can be reached at email@example.com
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