ORLEANS — If a dog is man's best friend, who's a dog's best friend? Karl Oakes might try to deflect the praise, but one can imagine that tails wag at the mention of his name.
Oakes has become the town's leading advocate for dogs that love to visit the beach and their owners who love to join them there. Brought up in apartment buildings, he couldn't have a dog and never owned one until “my daughter kind of finagled my wife into getting a little Maltese who turned out to be this awesome dog,” he said. “It was the last dog in the world I ever imagined I'd have. I used to walk around with this little fluff ball and think to myself, 'How did it come to this?'”
The Oakes family took Tucker to the beach “all the time,” Oakes recalled. Their dog died early in 2015, and not long after, the selectmen affirmed that dogs were not allowed on the beaches through most of the spring and summer. Oakes said he didn't notice. “We went through a mourning period” for Tucker, he said, “where we just weren't even thinking about having another dog.”
But eventually, his wife started looking on Petfinder and found a wire-haired Jack Russell terrier. “I said, 'Wow, that's a very cool-looking dog,'” said Oakes. “Then I did what was the equivalent of saying, 'Let's get the dog.'... I showed it to my daughter.”
Along came Boris, “a stray in Houston right before the hurricane,” Oakes said. “He went through some rough stuff. He's still got a pellet where somebody shot him. He's still afraid of loud noises.” The family had to convince the dog's foster parents in New Jersey that they would be good caretakers. “We didn't meet one of their criteria,” said Oakes. “We didn't have a fenced-in yard. We had to sell them truthfully on what a great life (he'd have) because there are so many great places you can take your dog for a walk on the beach. So access to the outdoors is part of the contract we made with his foster parents to provide him a happy life.”
In April 2018, Oakes brought Boris to Nauset Beach and “for the first time in my life saw the sign 'No dogs anywhere April 1 to Labor Day.' At first, I thought it was a new rule, but it had been passed in 2015, a couple of weeks before Tucker died. That's why I was not aware of it.”
To Oakes, “April 1 doesn't make any sense at all. There's nobody here.” He decided to wait until early 2019 before speaking with the selectmen at public comment and by letter.
Then the rules were applied to Wildflower Beach, which dog walkers use to access state land where their pets can be exercised year-round. Frustrated by what he called the lack of response from the town, and irritated that the hearing on posting Wildflower had been listed under the location's legal but less known street address, Oakes took action.
“I felt it was important to try to gather up a political entity that could express the perspective of dog owners,” he said. “It's really important to be clear that of all the dog owners I know, and I know many now, there are none who fail to understand that some dog owners are irresponsible, that some don't pick up their dogs' poop, and some that don't mean to be irresponsible but have dogs they rescued and they don't know their social history and the dogs are not 100 percent aggression-free and the owners don't realize that until a situation arises.”
Dog owners “get all of that,” said Oakes. “We're not campaigning for the right to be completely free of any restriction and for people to leave us alone and stop telling us what to do. We're campaigning for reasonable restrictions that arise out of a process that takes the needs and preferences of everyone in the community into account and also goes through an attempt to find the best and least restrictive solution to the problems.”
Oakes started off with a Facebook page for Orleans dog owners that got 11 hits on its first day; 10 days later, 189 people had visited. He made up a flyer and started handing it out at Kent's Point. He sent out postcards to the 560 people with dog licenses issued in Orleans (and notes he's heard that the true number of owners is probably three times that).
When the matter came up again on the selectmen's agenda, he posted a laminated notice at Kent's Point urging people to attend. By his estimate, 65 dogs owners showed up.
“That got across that we weren't happy about it,” he said. “From that point forward, there's been a real change. It's really changed from kind of a protest movement to how can we create a dog organization that can be helpful in the process of making good rules, in educating dog owners in terms of what's expected of you, and if you don't do these things, if you leave bags of poop on the beach, we may not be able to use these areas. Do you know that your dog is socialized? Do you need support for training?”
The owners “didn't want to be just perpetual grumblers,” said Oakes. “We wanted to become part of the solution. The most consistent message I received was, 'Talk to Tracy Plantier at the Eastham Dog Owners Association.'”
If Oakes is an Orleans dog's best friend, Plantier is the Orleans Dog Owners Group (ODOG) best friend. “Our first meeting was pretty much all Tracy,” Oakes said. “She laid out what they do and offered to share bylaws and so on. She was so incredibly helpful.”
The selectmen have gotten the message and are working to set up an animal regulation task force. At tonight's (Aug. 1) meeting of ODOG at 30 Franz Rd. at 7 p.m., the association will work on recruiting members for the task force, creating photo documentation of Wildflower Beach use, and outreach to local veterinarians, among other topics. The location is two houses east of the Skaket Beach parking lot.
The “little dust-up” that bought things to this point is in the past, according to Oakes. “I look at a town as analogous to a family,” he said. “You don't choose these people, but you're living with them. For all the people in town, it's in our best interest to live together as well as we can. We can have disagreements in the short term. In the long term, we look to see how we can cooperate as efficiently as possible for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We're totally optimistic about working with town officials. Some of us went to high school with the current selectmen. We're really not trying to do this as complete strangers but as common stakeholders.”