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Dog lovers to celebrate decade of effort for off-leash pet parks

By Staff | Dec 31, 2009

Fort Myers Beach residents Pat and Mary DeVincent have been crusaders for off-leash dogs at Bunche Beach and Bonita Beach Dog Park for many years. On New Year’s Day 2010, the DeVincents and many friends and acquaintances will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the process that started S.O.O.D.A — Save Our Off-Leash Dog Area, — an organization formed the same day an on-leash requirement sign appeared at the Lover’s Key area dog park.
“On Jan. 1, 2000, a sign went up at Dog Beach stating that ‘pets were permitted on a 6-foot hand held leash’ only,” said Pat DeVincent, president of S.O.O.D.A. “The state had control of dog beach at that time, and they were the ones that put that sign up. We’ve been going there since 1995. People had been going there for years before that because it was always a place were they could allow their dogs to run off-leash. When that sign went up, we went to (then) park manager (Jim Gibson) who told us to petition the state. That’s when we decided to take action.”
The DeVincents knew what needed to be done. They had frequented an off-leash dog park outside of Seattle where the same situation happened. The residents formed a group called S.O.D.A which stood for Save Our Dog Area.
With that in mind, the DeVincents and their petitioning friends and acquaintances decided to pattern themselves after the West Coast dog-friendly group. But since S.O.D.A. was already used, the group had to alter the name and S.O.O.D.A was born.
After nearly 1-1/2 years and 3,000 signed petitions later, S.O.O.D.A. was accredited to continue an off-leash area when the state gave the dog beach back to the county who relaxed the on-leash rule. On June 15, 2001, it became Lee County’s first dog park.
During the petitioning process, Pat DeVincent wanted to get more involved in F.O.L.K. (Friends of Lover’s Key), but he found resistance at the state park. When Lover’s Key brought in Paul Rice and things changed.
“He welcomed me to the organization and I later became F.O.L.K.’s vice president,” said DeVincent.
With the efforts of Rice, Lover’s Key Manager Michael Hensley and Brie Ochoa, DeVincent sees nothing but positive things at Lover’s Key for years to come.
Yet, the crusade rages on, but this time at Bunche Beach — the San Carlos property which allowed dogs there until the summer of 2003. S.O.O.D.A members, who are registered volunteers with Lee County Parks and Recreation, have been unsuccessful in attempts to get an off-leash or even an on-leash dog area back at the county facility.
“I have sent documents to the county and the governor because that is part federal land,” said DeVincent. “Dog discrimination lives at Bunche Beach.”
At the March 2009 Town Hall meeting at Fish-Tale Marina, DeVincent asked Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah why there wasn’t even one on-leash dog park on more than 23,000 acres of Conservation 20/20 lands. His reply was to talk to 20/20 Program Coordinator Lynda Thompson, and his request has been on the 20/20 agenda since then.
DeVincent, who is also actively involved in getting a handicap fishing pier at Lover’s Key, still has the fire in his heart — as well as the love for his beloved deceased companion, Issaquah, who passed away April 20, 2008. They recently celebrated the one-year anniversary with their current rescue dog, Mia, who is mostly Doberman pincher.
“This for me will be a final attempt to not only recognize the people involved from the state and Lee County but to get dogs on Bunche Beach,” said Pat DeVincent, who will be moving his family to Washington once his Beach house is sold. “There is no logical reason why dogs on a leash shouldn’t be allowed to walk on Bunche Beach.”