If the Congressional Cemetery had a theme song, it could be “Who Let the Dogs Out.”
But while the song has been out for only a few years, Hillites and visitors to the cemetery might have been asking that question for as many as 20 years. With the cemetery being the only place on the Hill to legally let dogs run off-leash, dogs and their owners can be found enjoying the grounds at almost all hours of the day. In fact, the “K-9 Corps” — as an organization of dog owners who walk their canine friends at the cemetery are known — is the best form of security in place at the cemetery, said Patrick Crowley, vice chairman of the board of directors for the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
“A few neighbors, like seven or eight local folks, started walking their dogs around the cemetery and their presence helped push out the bad element,” said Crowley. “I guess drug dealers don’t like being seen by non-drug users.”
While vandalism at the cemetery has gone down, membership numbers of the K-9 Corps since its creation about 20 years ago have gone up to about 250 members. Dog owners wishing to join fill out an application and earn their membership through a $125 donation plus $40 per dog. The money generated from the K-9 Corps makes up about one-third of the cemetery’s operating budget.
“It costs us $5,500 every time we mow the lawn,” Crowley said of the 33-acre privately-owned cemetery. “That’s my pitch to people who I see aren’t members. Sometimes dog walkers have balked at us because they think [the cemetery is] public property and they don’t have to pay for it.”
However, the 197-year-old cemetery is leased to the Association for the Preservation of Historical Congressional Cemetery by Christ Church, 620 G St. SE, through July 2019. The association is responsible for the upkeep, operation and enhancement of the cemetery, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Historic as it might be, the cemetery has not always been in the best shape. In 1997, Congressional Cemetery was named one of the 11 most endangered places in the country by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The cemetery now is listed as “saved,” thanks in large part to volunteer work and donations, including the work of K-9 Corps members.
“People don’t appreciate what the dogs and owners have done for this cemetery,” said 25-year Hill resident Holly Burkhalter.
Burkhalter has been bringing her 5-month-old dog Fala to the cemetery ever since the dog had all of its shots.
“The dogs definitely have their friends — they run, rumble and tumble,” Burkhalter said.
While Burkhalter is sensitive of those who feel it is disrespectful to let dogs run off-leash in the cemetery, she thinks being there and enjoying the space “is the best tribute” to the deceased.
“You walk around and read some immensely touching story, and you find yourself thinking about these people in ways you never would if you weren’t here to see them,” Burkhalter said.
Anne Oman, who has lived on the Hill for 34 years, agrees that there is no disrespect as she and her dog Cooper roamed the grounds.
“In Victorian times, cemeteries were parks,” Oman said. “It’s really very pleasant. If I were dead, I would love it.”
With Cooper being somewhat “untrained,” Oman said she feels safe letting him run off-leash at the cemetery because it is fenced in. Even though she lives right across the street from Lincoln Park, she will not let Cooper run there because it is both illegal and too dangerous with all the car traffic.
Most parks throughout the Hill are public property, either maintained by the District or the National Park Service. U.S. Park Police spokesman Sgt. Scott Fear said pets are to remain on the leash, and if they are off-leash officers use discretion and either issue a warning or citation. A dog owner could be issued a $50 ticket for leash law violation.
“Officers will go up to people and say there’s a leash law in this park, could you please put your dog on a leash. Nine times out of 10 the people will do that,” Fear said. “A lot of the complaints we get come from other dog walkers who have their dogs on leash and other owners don’t.”
At Congressional Cemetery there is no specific leash law, but cemetery manager William Fecke said he asks that owners have all dogs on a leash within 100 yards of the main gate. In place of laws, there is a list of rules given out when K-9 Corps members first join. Some of these include cleaning up after the dogs, keeping dogs away from non-dog walking visitors and events, being respectful of gravestones and having dogs under control at all times. Also, the cemetery is closed to dog walkers one hour before and after burials and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on certain holidays.
One of the highest priorities for dog owners is the need to clean up after their pet. If clean up is neglected, dog walking privileges could be revoked.
“Certainly when you step in something it’s a problem,” Crowley said concerning dog droppings that might go unnoticed by owners. “We regularly have what we call ‘poop patrols,’ which is a volunteer-based type of thing. You get a set of bags and an area to go clean up.”
While Fecke said one man called a few weeks ago “irate” about the dogs roaming the cemetery, most complaints are put to rest once it is explained how much the K-9 Corps helps the historic site.
“Please keep in mind that Congressional is first and foremost a functioning cemetery, not a ‘dog park,’” reads the first paragraph of the K-9 Corps membership agreement, and most of the members seem to respect that.
“It’s the most special place in Washington, D.C.,” Burkhalter said.