LEWISTON — A brown pit bull strains against the leash that Jessica Tanguay struggles to keep in the grasp of her outstretched arm.
The sturdy dog digs his paws into the dirt path, powering his way up a wide trail into Thorncrag Nature Sanctuary with what appears to be a grin on his open jowls.
Tanguay, who lives in Buckfield and works in Auburn, says she often brings Bruno to walk the trails of the sprawling conservation land. On this sunny day, she's joined by her mother, Sue Gallant, who is clutching the leash of Roscoe, a Shih Tzu mix.
“They love it,” Tanguay says of the dogs' shared zest for walks in the local bird sanctuary.
Their days at Thorncrag might be numbered, though.
If the Stewardship Committee at the Stanton Bird Club has its way, Bruno and Roscoe would have to find a different park in which to stretch their legs and chase the occasional chipmunk.
The club owns and manages the 372-acre urban oasis off Montello Street. The committee voted unanimously in April to bar dogs from the trails. The club's board has taken that recommendation under advisement.
The committee consulted with other land management groups before reaching its decision. It cited problems with dogs intimidating walkers, dog waste left on trails and dogs disturbing the fragile ecosystem of the place, including wildlife and environmentally sensitive areas such as vernal pools and bird nesting areas.
Reports of dogs biting people and fighting with other dogs has sparked concern about safety among the group's membership.
Despite the “on leash only” policy at the sanctuary, many visitors let their dogs run free on the trails, a written statement released by the board Friday says.
“Members of the board recognize that dogs have been permitted in Thorncrag for many years and many people enjoy walking their dogs on Thorncrag trails,” according to the release.
“Personally, I am a neighbor of Thorncrag, own a dog, and have walked her on numerous occasions in Thorncrag,” wrote Tom Robustelli, president of the club.
But he said the club's primary purpose should come first.
“Thorncrag is, first and foremost, a sanctuary for wildlife,” he said
Dog owners to blame
Kristen D'Eramo of Lewiston stood in the parking lot at Thorncrag, her cairn terrier Guster leashed by her side. Guster, who bears a strong resemblance to Toto, was waiting to meet Kodi, a Samoyed, to go for a morning walk.
“It's a great place to bring him,” D'Eramo said. “We live in a place with a small, fenced-in yard. It's nice to bring him out here.”
Kodi's owner, Andrea Dibello, who lives just minutes from the sanctuary, said the problem lies not with the dogs, but with the owners. If owners would take responsibility for keeping control of their dogs and picking up after them, there would be no problem.
If the Thorncrag board were to decide to close the sanctuary to dogs, owners would be given time — “a period of months”— to find alternatives before that edict were to go into effect, Robustelli wrote.
But D'Eramo and Dibello say there's really no alternative comparable to the sanctuary in Lewiston and its environs.
“It would be a bummer,” D'Eramo said. “I think this is the only nature-like area.”