Foxtails at Pt Isabel. Photo- Kathy
Foxtails at Point Isabel: the seed-heads of the invasive grass can be dangerous for dogs but provides ground cover for squirrels and other small animals. Photo: Kathy
Foxtails at Point Isabel: the seed-heads of the invasive grass can be dangerous for dogs but provides ground cover for squirrels and other small animals. Photo: Kathy

Dozens of dog lovers are expected to join a city of Berkeley crew in the off-leash area of César Chávez Park on Saturday, March 28, in a novel attempt to rid the area of foxtails.

Berkeley has been mowing a 2-acre patch of the 17-acre off-leash area for 15 years, but the effort has not eliminated foxtails, an invasive grass whose barbed seed heads can cause serious injury to dogs. The city has left the grass about 6 inches high so it could also act as a ground cover for squirrels and other animals in the park.

In 2014, dog owners complained to the city that the drought was making the foxtail situation worse and asked that officials step up their mowing and even consider mowing a larger area.

Drawing of various areas in Cesar Chavez Park
Map detailing various areas in César Chávez Park
Map detailing various areas in César Chávez Park

This year, the city will once again mow the grass, but there will be a team of volunteers walking behind the mower to rake out the seed-heads, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko. The volunteers will also selectively remove some of the barley grass that creates foxtails.

“If we do this right native grass will have a better chance of growing and we will reduce the foxtails,” said Chakko. “The goal is to reduce as many of the seed-heads as possible.”

If the experiment succeeds, it will probably be repeated later in the year, said Chakko.

Volunteers, many of whom already had a training session earlier this week, will work from 9 a.m. to noon, said Chakko.

Berkeley established the off-leash area in 2000 in the central part of César Chávez Park. Jim Martin, a consultant with the Emeryville-based Environmental Collaborative, prepared a biological report of the area. He updated the report in December 2014 and this new plan is in part a response to his findings, said Chakko.

Mary Barnsdale with her dog Rusty at César Chávez Park. Rusty is wearing a face mask for protection from foxtails. Photo: Charles Siler
Mary Barnsdale with Rusty at César Chávez Park in July 2014. Rusty is wearing a face-mask for protection from foxtails. Photo: Charles Siler

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, sometimes costing thousands of dollars.

Mary Barnsdale, who regularly brings her dog to the César Chávez off-leash area, said in 2014 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.

Dog owners ask city to remove foxtails at César Chávez Park (7.01.14)

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and on Facebook where we often break news. Email us at Would you like the latest Berkeley news sent to your email inbox once a day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...