On the kind of cloudless, crisp morning that makes both blue sky and white teeth shine as if polished, Max and Rosie romped in big circles around the grassy meadow of the West Matheson Hammock Park. They ran after each other in their version of tag. They danced around trees. They smiled broadly, wagged tails vigorously. They were ecstatic to be inside Miami’s dog paradise.
Max and Rosie’s owners took on their pets’ joyous and carefree mood. How could they not at West Matheson, a hidden oasis? Pass through the gate by the pond, hike in on the hammock trail or follow the path lined by royal palms and find 120 acres of room to roam. It’s a green haven unlike any other in the metropolis for walkers, runners, birders and man’s best friends.
Except that freedom for the four-legged is illegal. All dogs are supposed to be on a leash, in accordance with Miami-Dade County ordinance 58-28. West Matheson is known as an unofficial, unfenced dog park where dogs can ramble and play.
Usually, the county’s Animal Services officers leave the place alone. There’s no reason to enforce the leash law, especially when the department has more pressing matters. The regular dog owners who come in the morning or evening know the pets’ personalities as well as the human ones (often a reflection of each other). But bad dogs, like bad people, ruin the fun for everyone.
“It’s not the dog that’s the problem; it’s the irresponsible owner,” said Neils Pace, unofficial mayor of the unofficial dog park and owner of Nelson and Layla, satiny and well-behaved black Flat-Coated Retrievers. “Once in a while we get a dog in here that should not be let loose. He’s not socialized to be with other dogs.”
Explained Ron Tobin, owner of Spanky, a stocky, affable American Bulldog who likes to sit in the front seat of Tobin’s Mini Cooper: “This place is a slice of heaven that is therapeutic for dogs and owners, but, yes, sometimes a fight breaks out. Dogs are like people. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes they bite.”
That’s what happened last week when an unfamiliar black mutt instigated trouble with the peaceful denizens of West Matheson, and scared a child. A complaint was lodged. Animal Services sent a patrol and issued warnings: Keep your dog on a leash or get a $165 ticket.
“They came out for four days to bust us, enforce the law and close out the complaint,” Tobin said.
There are some dogs — or rather, their owners — who deserve a fine. Take the notorious Nico, the Joe Pesci of the park, a volatile little mixed breed who terrorizes everybody to scratch his itchy inferiority complex. Then there’s Ragnar, an obnoxious Vizsla who takes his hunting instincts way too seriously. Ollie is like Harvey Weinstein, an unwelcome sniffer who rubs every female dog the wrong way.
The West Matheson regulars have learned to avoid the rogue dogs or ask the owners not to return until the dog is trained.
“You’ve got to bring a friendly social dog here,” said Susie Hannan, owner of Rosie, the sweet, swift German Shorthaired Pointer. She held a birthday party for Rosie at the park — with party hats for canines and owners. “All dogs are innately friendly. They’re pack animals. But if they are never around other dogs, they develop human qualities — not necessarily a good thing. If I see a dog who is taking a certain posture, I’ll go the other way. You have to read their body language. If I see a dog on a leash I understand he’s not here to frolic. And you have to know how to reel in your own dog.”
Ralph Garcia, who owns a Doberman Pinscher named Max, said he always asks an owner he does not know if his or her dog is friendly before unleashing Max.
“One time Max got bit by a big, muscular, aggressive Dobie because Max is just too nice,” Garcia said. “Pit bulls get in here and we’re petrified because one time a pit bull jumped out of a car window and grabbed a Dobie by the hind quarters until he was bleeding badly. In cases like that, you should know to muzzle your dog.”
Luisa Maran, known as the West Matheson “Dog Whisperer,” is a dog sitter who regularly walks a half-dozen clients through the park.
“An occasional scuffle is normal, and I’ve been knocked down,” said Maran, tossing a tennis ball for a deceptively athletic French Bulldog. “It’s so healthy for the dogs to exercise. A leash can make a dog more aggressive.”
Not everybody treasures the freedom afforded by West Matheson, a Protected Natural Area under the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. In 1930, William J. Matheson and son Hugh donated the tract of tropical hardword hammock forest to the county for its first public park.
Today, some surrounding homeowners in the Snapper Creek and Hammock Lakes neighborhoods, disturbed by how the number of visitors swells on weekends and the unregulated dog activity, want to restrict car access and parking inside the park. Visitors can drive in on Schoolhouse Road, enter through an open metal gate and park on the grass. Or they can park in the gravel lot on Old Cutler Road directly across from the north entrance to Fairchild Tropical Garden and walk 500 yards in on the nature trail (which is too rough for wheelchair or disabled users). Or they can walk in from Banyan Road on another rocky trail.
A master plan proposal by the county would permanently close the gate to cars, build a fenced dog run for off-leash dogs and strictly enforce the leash law.
“It ought to remain a public park for everybody and not a private enclave for the entitled few,” said Keith Donner, an advocate of preserving the park’s natural state and keeping it easily accessible to the public. “This park was deeded almost 90 years ago before that area was platted with houses. Nothing we’ve seen rises to the level of nuisance.”
Homeowner Suzanne Brawner, who lives on Schoolhouse Road, said the park is so buffered by its dense landscape that the only irritation she’s noticed is when visitors parked on neighboring streets when the gate was closed. Now the county keeps it open and traffic is minimal, she said.
Dog owners say there is nowhere else like West Matheson. Dogs are not allowed at Matheson Hammock Park’s east side. A dog park at Chapman Field is surrounded by water, populated by snakes, and a Jack Russell terrier was eaten by a crocodile there. Standard, smaller dog parks in Coconut Grove are “like appetizers for dogs who really want to run,” Hannan said.
“This is the only place I consider to be countryside in Miami. I used to walk my dog on a leash in Coconut Grove and I knew we were both going to get fat,” Pace said. “As for the homeowners, you can’t move in next to an airport and then complain about the planes.”
Randy Malen has a strong connection to West Matheson. His late white German Shepherd, Storm, “the smartest dog you’d ever meet,” is buried right there, he said, pointing to the spot near a gumbo limbo tree. He brings Star and Miss D., also white German Shepherds, to rove with their pals every day.
He and the other regulars dread any altering of West Matheson. A recurring nightmare among those who love to escape on its wooded trails: A sellout to a developer of McMansions.
“We’ve got enough fences and walls and restricted spaces in Miami,” Malen said. “Keep it wild. Keep it free.”