There must have been 300 people crowded in and around the second-floor meeting room of Evanston’s town hall last Thursday night. They came in all shapes and sizes–men and women, young and old, carrying signs, wearing buttons and T-shirts that revealed their outrage and defiance. The veterans of Evanston government cannot recall a turnout as large or boisterous.

No, the issue wasn’t taxes, landfills, subsidized housing, or nuclear waste. It was dogs, or more specifically, a proposal by Ann Rainey, an alderman from a ward on Evanston’s southwest side: “It shall be unlawful for any dog or cat to go or be upon any public playground or public park within the City or upon a path or sidewalk through or within any public park or playground within the City.”

“When I saw Rainey’s proposal, I couldn’t believe it,” says Jean Benzies, owner of a yellow Labrador retriever named Emma. “My dog is a darling, a sweetheart, an angel. She never barks or bites when she’s out in public. It takes me an hour to get through the park with her because the little kids want to pet her. They like to hug her and give her kisses. Oh, she’s such a sweetheart. I still can’t believe that they would try to ban her from the park.”

And yet there was the news of Rainey’s proposal–in black and white–in the Evanston Review. Unbeknownst to many of Evanston’s dog owners, the ordinance had been discussed at a June 2 meeting of the council’s Police Service Committee, where it was endorsed by about a half dozen Evanston residents concerned about dogs defecating in the park. The committee had scheduled another hearing on the matter for its meeting the following week.

“I guess we should have seen it coming,” says Rebecca Ryan, another dog-owning resident of Evanston. “The police have been harassing dog owners all summer.”

“That’s right,” Benzies adds. “Most of the year, you could probably murder people in the park and they won’t give you a second glance. But all spring and summer, we’ve seen the police cracking down on people for not walking their dog on a leash. A friend told me that an Evanston policeman told her that the word had come down to harass dog owners. I don’t know what set that off. But that’s what the policeman told her.”

Well, the Rainey proposal was the final straw, as far as Benzies was concerned. And she wasn’t alone. Every morning she encounters other dog owners, when she walks Emma in one of two Evanston parks. Usually they exchange no more than a word or two, perhaps about their pets. But now there was a bond. This proposal, they all agreed, is a horrible, intolerable infringement on their rights. They exchanged names and phone numbers, planned meetings and strategy. The great counterattack was under way.

“I knew 75 dogs by name, but didn’t know the names of their owners,” says Benzies. “Until this. We had meetings. And we decided to lobby the aldermen.”

What they discovered scared them. The proposed amendment had been referred to the Police Services Committee, which has five members. A quick survey showed that two committee members supported the ban; one was opposed; and two others were uncertain.

“I asked one alderman how we could defeat this proposal,” Benzies recalls. “He told us our only chance is to get at least 100 people to the meeting.”

So they upped their efforts, passing fliers, hanging posters, collecting donations for a full-page ad in the Evanston Review. By the time Thursday’s meeting rolled around, the issue was the hottest draw in town, attracting a remarkable cross section of the community to the meeting. (Although, remarkably, only three of five committee members–Jack Korshak, John Rudy, and John Bleveans–bothered to show up.) If any ban backers were in attendance, they were silent.

The dog backers, on the other hand, covered all bases. “I’m a psychiatrist,” one speaker announced. “Dogs are, in essence, humanized and family members. It would be untherapeutic to keep dogs out of the park.”

“What we need is better training,” a dog-obedience instructor added. “In my long experience, I know that dogs can be taught to eliminate on command.”

Dogs are needed for love, protection, companionship, said a dozen or so speakers. There are other problems with the parks–far worse than dogs–that demand attention, including vagrants, bonfires, panhandlers, criminals, broken bottles, and discarded trash.

“I run every morning in the park, and my dog makes me feel secure,” one young woman declared. “If you ban dogs, how am I going to feel protected? Am I going to have to carry a gun? If you pass this [proposal], I won’t adhere to it. I won’t stop running, and I won’t keep my dog out of the park. You’re going to have to train the policemen to run after me.”

And through it all sat Rainey, in a flower-patterned dress, her head erect, her bearing proud, undaunted. Why, oh why, reporters asked, did you ignite this?

“I did it because that’s the way I do my job,” Rainey says. “I’m responsive. People tell me there’s a serious problem, and I want to bring that concern to the public area. I told the dog owners that if they had told me they were being harassed by police in the parks, I would have brought that matter up too.

“The fact is, I have received over 100 complaints over the last two years about dogs. I’m a dog owner; I love dogs. I own Thumper–she’s of mixed parentage–and I never take her to the park. I don’t need to. There’s plenty of alleys and streets, and I have a yard. Dog owners have to realize not everybody loves dogs.”

True, Evanston certainly is a diverse community–rich and poor, black and white; it’s hardly a sleepy North Shore commuter town. When Northwestern University’s students are in town, its population swells to more than 80,000. On steamy summer days, the parks get congested.

“There’s the problem of dogs running wild, or people not cleaning up after them,” says Rainey. “And of dogs running into the play lots.”

She’s right about that. Indeed, this reporter remembers an incident in an Evanston park about a year ago. A frisky dalmatian–running unleashed–gave chase to a woman jogger. She tried to outrun him, but the dog was too fast. The dog thought it was a game; he jumped on the jogger, his tongue wagging, wanting, it seemed, only to be friendly.

“Hey, keep your dog on the leash,” an irate bystander called out.

“She’s not hurting anyone,” said the owner, who was trying to leash the dalmatian, but couldn’t because the dog was running away.

“Fuck you,” said the bystander.

The dog owner was stunned. The F-word in Evanston? With old women and children nearby?

“Hey, that’s real nice language,” the dog owner yelled.

“Hey, fuck you.”

“Yeah, real nice language. I suppose that makes you feel tough–using language like that. I suppose that makes you feel less like a yuppie.”

And so on and so forth.

“What dog owners must realize is that there are people in this city who are not interested in coming into contact with your dog,” says Bleveans. “They do not look at your dog as a person.”

It is not unusual to ban dogs from parks, as Winnetka, Skokie, Glenview, Kenilworth, Morton Grove, Arlington Heights, and Lake Forest have done. As it is, the regulations governing dogs and other pets cover about nine pages of the Evanston municipal code.

There is, for instance, the statute regarding “female dogs or cats in heat: every female dog or cat in heat shall be confined in a building or secure enclosure in such manner that such female dog or cat cannot come into contact with another animal except for planned breeding.”

Dogs are also banned from beaches, restaurants, confectionery shops, coffee shops, ice cream or soft-drink establishments, offices, stores, groceries, meat markets, bakeries, or “any store or shop for the sale of food, except any shop for the sale of animal pets,” according to the Evanston code.

Most important, all dogs must be leashed when they are out in public, and all owners must pick up after their dogs when they make a mess.

“I know that not all people clean up after their dogs,” Benzies admits. To which the extremists among dog lovers may respond, big deal. Is that so horrible? After all, the stuff is biodegradable–it’s kind of like fertilizer. True, it’s disgusting to step in. But it’s certainly less painful than, say, walking on broken glass. And we dont see Evanston banning people in the park because some folks litter.

The final vote was three to zero against Rainey’s proposal, which Rainey herself pledges never to resurrect. “I may not be politically smart, but I ain’t stupid,” Rainey says. “I can see the numbers. This turnout was amazing. I’ve never seen a spontaneous eruption like this in my life.” The possibility remains, however, that someone else will reintroduce legislation against pets in parks.

So the conflict persists: the struggle between those men and women who need to follow their natural impulse to let their dogs run wild and government, elected by the people to, among other things, enforce, govern, and protect.

There are some possible compromises, the first of which, a cessation of hostility, emerged during the meeting.

John Bleveans proposed that a citizens’ panel be formed, to help improve the laws governing dogs. He suggested–and almost everyone agreed–that dogs be banned in socalled tot lots, small playgrounds for children.

“I know a lot of people who were at the meeting want to serve on the citizens’ panel,” says Benzies. “We also want to form an Evanston dog owners’ association. And, as responsible dog owners, we may have to take the onus of policing irresponsible owners. In the past, I have always been ladylike. Now I may have to be more assertive. If I see someone not cleaning up after his dog, I may have to say something. I don’t want to go into the park looking for a battle or confrontation. But if the alternative is restrictive legislation, that’s what we may have to do.”

With more cooperation, Evanston can clear this mighty hurdle and move on to the other, more mundane matters like taxes, schools, and crime.

“It’s funny, when you consider how many people turned out tonight and compare it to when we pass a budget that can break you and put your children in debt,” committee member Korshak told the gathering. “One year we had a record turnout for a budget hearing of two. Well, I hope you keep coming out.”

“I’ve never been political,” says Benzies. “I went through the 60s without marching once. I have never even voted. I sort of know that a Republican is in the White House, and his name is Reagan. But that’s about it. And here I was calling up aldermen and organizing.”

Will she register to vote now?

“Yes,” she replies. “Just in case Rainey ever decides to run for mayor.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.