In a city as beautiful as Austin, the parks and outdoor spaces entice many dog owners and their dogs. While Austin is known for being dog-friendly, the beauty of our parks and water spaces, unfortunately, suffer when owners fail to properly leash their dogs or dispose of their dog’s waste; this is where the Bark Rangers come in.
The Bark Rangers are affiliated with the City of Austin and focus on the city’s parks and outdoor spaces, with a mission similar to the National Park affiliation but with greater emphasis on local procedures. Bark Rangers in Austin aim to reduce the amount of pet waste or bagged pet waste left on trails and in parks, reduce the number of off-leash dogs in on-leash parks, reduce pet and pet owner injuries and deaths due to inadequate safety measures, and encourage pet owners to be park caretakers for Austin’s park system.
Melissa Hand, an Austin Park Ranger II and Bark Ranger program coordinator, explains the importance of caring for our pets and parks in a city as populated as Austin.
“Austin is a growing city that is home to over 250,000 dogs,” Hand says. “Venturing into our parks might seem like a simple trip, but dogs, like humans, require supplies when visiting a park, such as water to drink, a leash and poop bags.”
Educating others is also a part of the Bark Rangers program. Hand makes sure to emphasize to the park visitors the importance of ensuring parks are dog-friendly as well as protecting the dogs and Austinites.
“Our dog populations generate roughly 150,000 pounds of waste every day!” Hand says. “When not disposed of properly, this waste can wash into our local waterways causing giardia, roundworms, salmonella and other unpleasant diseases.”
Hand explains that caring for dogs in our parks benefits everyone’s health. Hand says excessive pet waste may result in higher nutrient levels. When this waste is combined with warm, slow-moving water, it can cause a spike in toxin-producing, blue-green algae, making humans and dogs extremely ill. In some cases, the results are even fatal.
Volunteering is also an essential aspect of the organization.
“When looking for new volunteers, we want people who are passionate about their dogs and their parks,” Hand says. “We also need self-starters who are excited about creating a community around responsible dog ownership.”
The Bark Rangers are currently recruiting and have an online workshop where applicants can learn how to become team members. The program is open to all dogs and their owners who are fully vaccinated, socialized, friendly and can respond to basic commands.
The Bark Ranger program wouldn’t exist without its volunteers. Carla Criner, Wendy Hernandez, Will Smith, Gina Rivera and Dale Blasingame are a few of the many volunteers who keep our parks beautiful.
Criner says Bark Rangers combines many of her interests. The program merges her commitment to stewardship, dedication to giving back to the local community and drive to share outdoor adventures with our dogs sustainably. She notes that it’s essential to take care of parks, especially with Austin’s growing population.
Criner and her dog Loki often do volunteer work together.
“Loki is always happy to be out and about, especially on Bark Ranger duty!” Criner says. “He gets so excited when I put his bandana and service vest on.”
On the other hand, East Austin-based couple Hernandez and Smith joined the Bark Rangers to bond with their dogs and community. Along with cleaning up parks as Bark Rangers, the couple also hosts neighborhood cleanup days on their own.
“It feels great to give back to our community while spending time with (our dogs) Ace and Mason,” Hernandez says. “We also love that we are helping make Austin more beautiful and enjoyable for all.”
Another volunteer Rivera mentions how the pandemic provided an opportunity to participate in outdoor activities, allowing her dog Riggins to enjoy the outdoors. This time of growth during the pandemic influenced her to join the Bark Ranger Program.
“Riggins and I spend a lot of time in parks, so it is a great way to give back to spaces that are important to us,” Rivera says. “It’s a great enrichment activity for him.”
Lastly, Blasingame has a close relationship with Texas Parks & Wildlife because his rescue dog Lucy is the only dog to have visited all 95 Texas state parks. Blasingame hopes to connect with nature while also helping his community by volunteering at the Bark Ranger program, which he discovered while on their usual trail walks.
“I feel a strong connection to the parks and trails that have given us so much joy over the years,” Blasingame says. “It feels amazing to be able to give back in any way possible.”