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New debate arises over dog park: Toxic plants

By Kathy Prucnell, Islander Reporter

In the wake of reports that newly added holly plants — its berries — in the Holmes Beach dog park are toxic to dogs, at least two schools of thought have emerged.

    One leans toward the position that because plant toxicity is common, there’s only an issue if dogs are attracted to the plants.

    The second is more conservative, and cautions against deliberate placement of known poisonous plants in an area planned for pets.

    Public works superintendent Joe Duennes, who oversees the improved dog exercise area recently carved from the outfield of Birdie Tebbetts Field, said dog park advocates have previewed the dog park landscaping decisions with him.

    “I don’t know anything about toxicity,” Duennes said. “I’m unsure if dogs would eat berries.”

    The dog run was developed on the perimeter of the baseball park in April after the city commission decided to spend approximately $8,300 to add a fence, dividing the outfield and diminishing the ball field. The effort was spearheaded by Commission Chair David Zaccagnino, who said there was too much liability for dogs and their owners to share the field with ballplayers.

    Since the fence was installed in April, issues have arisen with weekly softball activity in the scaled-down ball field, because balls frequently fly over the fence into the dog park.

    And there are the questions raised about the safety for pets due to landscaping choices for the park.

    As to the possible toxicity of plants, Zaccagnino, the city’s liaison to its parks and beautification committee, said it’s beyond his scope of expertise. He said he’s not a master gardener, and “has nothing to do with it.”

    Since April, advocates for the dog park, including Barbara Parkman and Renee Ferguson and a group of 40 or so dog owners, have been raising money and making contributions to the park. A yard sale was held June 9, bringing in approximately $586, adding up to $1,150 in May.

    A double gate for the entry and landscaping have been purchased thus far. City workers and volunteers constructed a shelter and planted trees and shrubs.

    A Name-the-Park contest is under way, with about 25 names suggested last month, according to Parkman.

    Mayor Rich Bohnenberger expects the dog park advocates to bring the suggested name to the city commission for approval.

    At the June 12 city work session, Parkman and Ferguson sought the commission’s advice on dog park issues, including plaques to honor donors and the addition of a pet-friendly water fountain, and Bohnenberger instructed the dog park advocates to take their issues to Duennes.

    After the meeting when asked about whether the landscaping is native or toxic, Parkman said ficus trees are native “Florida trees” and the hollies “are fine.”

    Parkman told The Islander she selected an Eagleston holly for the park.

    Eagleston is a hybrid of the East Palatka holly of the Aquifoiaceae family. The East Palatka is a female plant that produces berries, said Patricia Porchey, horticultural education agent of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services.

    “I’d be leery of plants with red berries because kids and animals are attracted to them,” she said.

    Eating the berries could cause nausea and vomiting, according to Porchey.

    “Eating large amounts” of crape myrtle bark, seeds, leaves and flowers “can cause diarrhea,” according to Porchey.

     With ficus trees, “touching sap of leaves and stems can cause photodermatitus-burning, blistering and itching of the skin,” according to a brochure Porchey provided.

    The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website includes an extensive list of plants poisonous to dogs, cats and horses. It lists crape myrtle as non-toxic, but lists ficus tree varieties, such as fig, weeping fig, and Indian rubber plant as toxic to dogs. It also lists American holly varieties as poisonous.

    According to Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director at the ASPCA Animal Control Center, dogs may vomit if they ingest parts of the ficus trees, hollies and Sansaveria snake plants.

    While the hollies may not be attractive or palatable to dogs, with respect to the Sansaveria, she said “due to their tall nature, these may be more likely to be chewed on.”

    The city’s parks and beautification committee makes recommendations for landscaping on city property, including Arbor Day, Kingfish Boat Ramp and recent palm tree donations. However, according to committee chair Jerry West, it has not been called into the dog park landscaping project.

    Bohnenberger said the park committee, “a group of well minded-citizens,” comes to the city with its recommendations.

    “Everybody in the city has their own opinion of what’s good for the Island,” he said.

    West said if the city asks for his committee’s help, recommendations would be given to Duennes. And West agreed with Duennes, saying, “just because a plant is poisonous,” it doesn’t mean a dog will be attracted to it.

    Asked if she’d like a committee to assist her with future plant selection, Parkman said, “Then, we’d have six different opinions. I know we need fast-growing, native ones — non-toxic to dogs.”

        The parks and beautification board “is always available” to the city as a resource, West said.

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