It takes only a short stroll into the trees from the entrance on Stevens Avenue to see who rules Portland’s Mayor Baxter Woods.
On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of dogs romped through the park, some sprinting down the trails, a few fetching balls in a field and others ambling by their owners’ sides – almost every one without a leash.
Dogs may not rule for long, however.
Complaints that loose dogs have chased and frightened children, among other things, have thrust the popular park into the recurring conflict between dog owners who want their pets to run free and people who, for various reasons, prefer them on a short leash.
The city is about to post signs and hold a meeting to warn dog owners to be respectful of other park users. If those efforts don’t work, the signs warn, the city could require leashes in Baxter Woods.
While officials hope to avoid it, similar conflicts have escalated into culture clashes over dogs’ access to beaches, parks and other public areas, dividing neighborhoods and communities in southern Maine, including in Portland and South Portland.
Most recently, dog owners in Scarborough forced a special election to overturn leash rules adopted to protect shorebirds such as piping plovers, one of which was killed by an unleashed dog on Pine Point Beach last summer.
The number of dogs in Baxter Woods has been on the rise since Portland banned dogs from Western Cemetery in 2001, the outcome of an early and bitter clash between pet owners and those who felt overwhelmed by loose dogs.
The number of complaints about dogs in Baxter Woods has risen, too, said Jeff Tarling, the city’s arborist.
Dogs are allowed off-leash in the park if they’re under voice control, Tarling said, but people’s definitions of voice control vary. City code says an off-leash dog in Baxter Woods, or any other public area where leashes are not required, must be within 50 feet of its owner and immediately return to the owner’s side when called.
Although dogs that use the trails regularly far outnumber the people who are opposed to them running loose, Tarling said, everyone should be able to enjoy the park peacefully.
“We’re just looking at this to be so that all visitors have the same experience,” he said.
Within the next month, the city plans to post signs at the park’s four entrances and hold a public meeting to make dog owners more aware of the effect their animals can have on other people in the park.
That includes Yael Ashtari’s 4-year-old daughter, who has been scared of dogs since she was bitten by one.
“The dogs eagerly sniff, lick, jump and prod. I am forced to quickly pick up my daughter as she freezes in fear and hides behind me,” Ashtari wrote in a letter to the city in August.
Robin Lea, a sixth-grade science teacher at Lincoln Middle School, wrote to Tarling this month, saying she had taken students to nearby Baxter Woods “and once again encountered the problem of many off-leash dogs.”
Lea said her immigrant and refugee students are particularly scared of the dogs – presumably because they’re not familiar with them as pets. Many Muslims consider dogs unclean and avoid them.
Despite Lea’s instructions for her students to be still, she said, “most run in fear and the dog chases them thinking it is a game.”
And that could cause more than tears.
Two years ago, Tarling said, a middle school student who was running through the woods with the cross-country team was bitten by an unleashed dog.
There’s no mention of dogs in the terms laid out by Percival Baxter in 1946, when he conveyed the 30-acre park to the city in honor of his father, James Phinney Baxter, a former Portland mayor. Rather, he deemed it a place for recreation and education, as well as a sanctuary for birds.
“There’s no question it’s probably not a place that birds are going to find inviting right now,” Tarling said.
Before requiring leashes for dogs in the woods, he said, the city will try to educate dog owners and balance the needs of the park’s various users. He hopes people will start policing themselves.
Baxter Woods is not yet a battleground similar to Scarborough’s beaches, but David Victor can see the same thing happening if the city considers a leash requirement.
“People would come out,” he said. “It would be like Scarborough.”
Victor has been bringing his black Lab, Lily, to Baxter Woods twice a day for 10 years. Because of her taste for other dogs’ excrement, he keeps her on a leash. But that doesn’t mean he’s fine with a leash requirement.
He fears that people who want to let their dogs run loose would stop coming, and the character of the park, as a place for dog owners to meet and mingle, would change completely.
“There’s community here,” he said.