Diana Cartman (a pseudonym) suffers from a recurring nightmare. The dream runs like this: Cartman watches television in her living room a few blocks from the ocean in Imperial Beach. It's getting late, and she has to get up early for work. So she walks to her bedroom at the other end of the house and climbs into bed. As she nods off, she's shocked back into wakefulness by five large dogs barking over the fence less than ten feet from her bedroom window. Over the barking she hears a male voice yelling, "Shut up! Shut up!" Though the yelling stops in a few minutes, the barking continues. Sometimes it lasts another hour or so, then resumes at dawn. Sometimes it lasts all night.
There's no waking from Cartman's nightmare, because it's not a dream. It's her life, and she says it's gone on for so long that her health, relationships, and work are suffering. "At first," she recalls, "the guy had two little old dogs that barked a little bit. As the years passed, he bought more and more dogs. Right now he's got five large dogs. I don't know what breed they are, but they're big short-haired dogs. Their barking has gotten worse over the years to the point where I think the dogs are neurotic. They just bark. It could be 3:00 in the morning. They wake me up at 6:00 in the morning. But when he comes home from work around 11:00 p.m., they bark like mad for ten minutes. Then he goes out and swears and screams and yells at them. So I can never go to sleep before midnight."
The tone in Cartman's voice contains frustration, anger, and despair. It's 6:00 p.m. on a Monday evening in early May, and her tiny, cluttered living room is stuffy. The windows and doors are all shut, a defense against the barking, which can be heard regardless. "And they're not even outside," Cartman says. "He goes to work at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and I think when he's at work he leaves them inside. He comes home from work about 11:00 and lets them out. That's when the real barking begins. And most of the time he leaves them out all night."
Cartman gets up from the living room couch and walks through the kitchen to a side door. The steady but disinterested barking crescendos to mezzo forte at the sound of the deadbolt snapping open and surges to a fortissimo roar when Cartman steps outside. "They're locked in the garage right now," she explains, "barking through the screen door."
She walks around the corner of her house into a 40- by 40-foot back yard. "I never use this yard," she complains. "I never have friends over for barbecues. I never sit out here and read, because the barking is unbearable."
The barking isn't the only thing that's unbearable. Despite the prevailing ocean breeze that blows from Cartman's toward the dogs' owner's yard to the east -- Cartman asked that he not be named -- the smell of dog feces is overpowering. A peek over the fence reveals why. Nearly every square meter of the neighbor's dirt-and-weed back yard contains at least one colossal dog pile.
Others in the neighborhood are upset about the barking. Pat Duncan lives over the back fence and one house to the west from Cartman. Though she's farther from the barking dogs, she describes the racket they raise as "unreal. It's ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff for 5 to 20 minutes at a time. They don't seem to take a breath. They are so uncontrollable. Seems like every night they set off at about eleven o'clock. Then the other morning it was 6:30, and they were in a ruckus. And the other night at about 9:00, when I was out in the computer room, it was ruff, ruff, ruff. They would not shut up. So it is a constant problem, but I don't get it as bad as Diana does, because she is next door to them."
After attempts to talk with her neighbor about the barking resulted in shouting matches, Cartman called the City of Imperial Beach. That move accomplished about as much as the yelling matches with her neighbor.
Byron Shewman lives a block from the ocean at the north end of Imperial Beach. Two years ago he returned to Imperial Beach, the town he grew up in, after decades away playing professional volleyball in Spain and living in coastal North County. About a year ago, he decided to start jogging. On the short walk to the beach and on the beach itself Shewman noticed something that disturbed him. "Dog crap," he says, "everywhere. It's on the beach, in the alleys, and on the sidewalks all around the beach. I am not saying everyone, but a lot of people are not picking up after their dog, and it is disgusting. I have had enough of it."
Not only are they not picking up after their dogs, but people aren't restraining their pets either. "Some people keep them on leashes," he says, "but it seems like more don't. I have been chased a couple of times, dogs yipping at my heels. And there are rottweilers and pit bulls down there. And, I mean, some people come down here with four or five dogs sometimes, which is okay, but gosh, look after them."
Though frustrated with unleashed dogs and their excrement, Shewman had decided "just ignore it, because nothing's going to change." Then he went to his friend Barbara Garrison's beachside house for Memorial Day. "We are sitting out on her deck," he recalls. "It is about one o'clock, and the beach was packed. There were four or five dogs running leashless. But the amazing thing was that a lifeguard came down and parked, and there was a guy right in front of him throwing a tennis ball to -- if it wasn't a full pit bull, it was certainly half. It was a big dog with a big jaw. And it was retrieving this tennis ball time after time while toddlers played on each side of it. I was thinking, 'This is absurd. Is he just going to ignore that?' So I went down there after about 40 minutes of this. I was going to ask the lifeguard, 'What do you think about that dog in front of your truck?' As I got closer I could see that the lifeguard was a young guy, and he was chatting up this young girl standing there. I said, 'Forget it.' "
But Shewman didn't forget it. Instead, he and Garrison wrote letters to Imperial Beach officials, complaining about the incident and general lack of enforcement of the leash requirement. Imperial Beach's city manager, Gary Brown, called Shewman back. "He seemed like a nice guy," Shewman recalls, "but nothing came of it."
Garrison, who's taught school for 38 years and lived on the beach for 5 years, says, "I see as many dogs off leashes as on, probably more. Just taking walks along here, unleashed dogs come bounding right straight at me. I have been nipped at before, not broken the skin but scared the heck out of me. And people just say, 'Sorry, sorry.' My husband has had German shepherds, pit bulls, and rottweilers come bounding up. And every time I take a walk down there, there are dog piles sitting right in the sand."
Her neighbor, Dick Howe, has grown so irritated with dog piles on the sand in front of his house that he's taken to giving plastic bags to people who don't pick up after their dogs. "They usually come up with an excuse," he says chuckling, "something like, 'Oh, thanks. I forgot to bring one.'
"The other day," Howe continues, "I walked out there with my two dogs. There was a dog in the ocean without a leash. And when he saw me coming, its owner went toward the dog. At that point, I knew that the dog wasn't too nice. Sure enough, the dog came running for me and came that close to biting me. If he had come one more step after one of my little dogs, I would have kicked the shit out of him. I told the owner, 'You get that dog on a leash.' "
Garrison worries that Imperial Beach is in danger of gaining a reputation -- if it doesn't already have one -- for lax rules regarding dogs on the beach. "If you go to Coronado," she says, "you know you have to keep your dog on a leash or you are going to be fined. So people think, 'Hey, let's go to IB, nobody cares.' "
"Nobody cares" is the feeling Cartman has about her barking-dog dilemma. In addition to talking to the offending neighbor and calling the sheriff -- Imperial Beach doesn't have its own police department -- she's written letters and placed phone calls to the Imperial Beach City Council, the city attorney and, when she felt the city attorney was unresponsive to her needs, to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Animal control officers have been to her house and, Cartman says, have agreed that there is a problem. But animal control and the city attorney's office could never coordinate efforts well enough to prosecute the matter. The barking continues, and Cartman is selling her house. "I don't know what else to do," she says.