Dennis Buonagura wasn’t allowed to have a dog as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Decades later, you might say all of the city’s canines are in his care as the President of Central Park Paws, a program of the Central Park Conservancy.
“The group’s goal is to facilitate communications between dog owners and the Conservancy, to create a forum to address dog issues in the Park, to develop recreational and educational programs and events in Central Park involving people and dogs, and to increase understanding of the privileges and responsibilities of dog ownership,” says Buonagura.
Paws started as an advisory group founded in 1999 by dog-lover Susan Buckley, who served as Paws President until Buonagura took over the volunteer position in 2012. It became a program of the Conservancy in 2010.
One significant mark they made on behalf of dogs and their parents as an independent effort was securing off-leash hours. It wasn’t easy. The group had to appear in court to prove how park playtime would benefit NYC life, and the request had to be approved by City officials as well as the Parks Dept.
“Fortunately, we had a member who was an animal behaviorist, so our facts were in order,” says Buonagura. “She was able to prove the importance of dogs needing to have off-leash time to be dogs — through the language of dogs and the psychology of dogs — and how that works when they intermingle, as well as the importance of having them being sociable in the Park so that they’re sociable on the streets and in elevators and in apartment buildings.”
The group was granted the privilege of off-leash hours, but Buonagura can’t stress enough that it is a privilege — not a law — and one that can easily be revoked.
“We aren’t about enforcement, so I try to make helpful comments when I see someone whose dog isn’t leashed when it’s supposed to be,” says Buonagura. “I’ll say, ‘You know, you can get a ticket because your dog is off-leash.’ Unfortunately, some people don’t care. I’ve gotten replies like, ‘My daughter is so happy to see the dog play, it’s worth paying a ticket.’ Or, ‘I pay more in taxes than you earn in a year, so I can keep my dog off the leash.’”
The group also worries whether off-leash privileges will be revoked whenever a new Parks Commissioner is appointed.
“We always wonder, is this person a dog person, are they going to close the door on this? It’s political, like having a president that hates gay people,” says Buonagura.
Central Park Paws hosts events such as Bagel Barks, which provides complimentary coffee and bagels along with educational seminars, training programs, and lectures from Park staff members. Their main annual dog event, the My Dog Loves Central Park Fair, occurs in October. Preparing for these events in their early days was a very hands-on, grassroots effort.
“There was a time when we physically carried fold-up tables into the Park, set up the booths, went to the store to buy bagels for the Bagel Bark, went to Starbucks and bought urns of coffee, and Susan Buckley baked muffins,” says Buonagura. “Now, the Conservancy brings in a caterer. So with their help, it’s been great.”
The Central Park Paws program is currently undergoing a reorganization to further expand and better serve its partnership with the Conservancy.
“We’re working toward figuring out how everybody can cohabitate in Central Park without the bikers saying, ‘Oh, the goddamn dog people crossing the path, I can’t ride my bike,’ or the runners saying, ‘Oh, the horrible bikers we can’t run on our path,’ or the pedestrians saying, ‘Oh, the bikers don’t stop for red lights and the dog people aren’t picking up poop.’ We’re trying to create the camaraderie between all the user groups of Central Park. And there are many, and everybody thinks their group has the right to run the park,” says Buonagura.
At home, however, it’s clear who rules the roost — pugs Hazel and Olive AKA “mean machines.” Indeed, the dog rules are much more lax in the Upper West Side apartment Buonagura shares with Joe, his childhood-friend-turned-partner of 39 years and soon-to-be husband.
“Joe is a huge dog lover, but not an overly neurotic and obsessive dog nut like I am,” says Buonagura. “He allows the pugs to do whatever they please. They have him totally under their control to demand treats, get belly rubs, and sit in his lap to oversee his computer activities.”
Despite Buonagura’s busy schedule juggling his volunteer work, his job as education coordinator for a not-for-profit arts organization, and planning a wedding, he still manages to find time for his beloved hobby — knitting.
“I knitted six pink pussy hats for friends who went to the Women’s March on Washington,” says Buonagura. “And I should state that those friends were men.”
Suggestions can be sent to Central Park Paws via its Facebook Page:
To learn more about upcoming Bagel Barks, Barks After Dark, Hound Hikes, and the My Dog Loves Central Park Fair, go to:
Please note: The following site is not affiliated with the Paws group: centralparkpaws.net