As a young boy in 1970s New Orleans, playing football on the neutral ground or rolling down the original Monkey Hill in Audubon Park, or maybe just walking along the sidewalk, I learned a valuable life lesson:
And when it happened, here’s what you did. You called a timeout and wiped off the ball, or you took a stick and scraped your sneakers clean of Rover’s sidewalk souvenirs. (Every now and then one of us — Sherman usually — would make a quick game of chase out of it, pick up the dog crap and fake like he’s going to throw it on someone. We’d scatter pretty quickly, but not for long.
To us growing up, it was just dog shit, plain and simple, something to avoid but a part of nature, a part of life.
A decade or so ago, around the time we bought a little Pekingese puppy, I began noticing the birth of an increasingly powerful movement that I’m still trying to wrap my head around: the pooper troopers.
I’d feel their cold stares as I walked my dog. Somehow, while my head was turned, they had infiltrated the social and cultural consciousness of America. Under their watchful eyes and the movement’s fluttering banner (a plastic grocery bag), it had become politically incorrect, anti-social, downright disgusting, filthy and even criminal not to scoop your mutt’s poop.
I gave the matter deep thought. What is the purpose, I asked myself.
As a kid I could not have imagined walking behind Bowser and scooping up his poop. Talk about some crazy shit! But just take a look around. The troopers are everywhere: in the park, along the city’s sidewalks, trailing their doggies with plastic bags at the ready.
I consider myself to be somewhat environmentally conscious. I recycle as much as possible; I don’t litter; I conserve water; I compost bio-degradable garbage and waste. I even raise my own chickens for eggs and the occasional roaster. I try to limit leisure driving out of concern for carbon pollution’s role in global warming. But I still haven’t heard a good answer to a question that has haunted me for years:
What sense does it make to scoop up dog shit that will biodegrade into dust in a few days, place it into a non-biodegradable plastic bag destined to last for hundreds of years and send it off to a landfill?
I was sitting in the park one day a while back when a young man, mid-twenties or so, was led by his dog near to the bench where I had settled. The dog puttered around, nose to the ground, obviously trying to find a proper place to do his duty. He found it, on a cluster of dead oak leaves three or four yards to my left.
The dog had barely dropped his load when, in a flash, barely the blink of an eye, the young man had swooped in like a hawk. If I had not seen the shit touch the ground with my own eyes, I might have thought he had caught it in mid-air, like a catcher scooping a low pitch into his mitt before it hits home plate.
Here was my chance to ask a dedicated expert for an answer to the question that had bothered me for so long, the one about putting dog shit in plastic bags and sending them off to a landfill.
The young man didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he gave me a look like … what kind of dumb question is that? After a few seconds passed, he politely answered. “Well … I don’t know … um … it’s for the health and safety of my dog and other dogs and bad for the environment.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, and so no one will step in it,” he replied.
I ended on a philosophical note: “Sometimes in life you will step in some shit and when you do, wipe it off and keep going. You know that’s life; shit happens!”
To which he replied: “Yeah, makes sense.”
As he walked away, he stooped to scoop a second pile his dog had deposited as we were talking.
One day last winter, I was parking my car at the curb in front of my home just as two young ladies walked by with their dog, a good-sized German shepherd. As I exited the car and walked toward my gate, the dog began to answer nature’s call on the grass next to my gate.
The young lady holding the leash went into a full panic. Yanking on the leash, she yelled the dog’s name, commanding him to stop. Then, with more yanks on the dog’s leash, she shouted apologies to me: “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” The big dog remained unpersuaded that he should — or could — do much about his present predicament. He remained in his crouch looking up at us balefully, as though to say: “Is there a problem?”
A proper pooper trooper, the apologetic young woman whipped out the plastic baggie she carried in her coat pocket and swooped in to pick up her dog’s droppings.
I intervened: ”Leave it be, let it stay there,” I said.
She shot me a look that mixed confusion and disbelief. “What?!”
“Leave it there, don’t worry about it, don’t trouble yourself.” I said. Then I asked the question that had gnawed at me for years: What sense does it make to pick up naturally biodegradable dog shit that will turn to dust in a few days, put it in a non-biodegradable plastic bag and send it to a landfill?
She had a good answer: “I don’t want you to step in it or get mad at me. Sometimes people get real mean if he poops on the grass in front of their house.”
“Well, I appreciate that but I’m not one of them,” I said. “If I happen to step in it, I know how to wipe it off. No worries, no stress, my friend!”
With a word of thanks, she yielded to my suggestion. Three days later, the dog’s contribution to the nourishment of my yard had disappeared from view. My grass was only more vividly green.
My interest in the topic remained keen. My question still needed an answer. This was a job for the Internet.
I used various search terms: “Pros and cons of picking up dog poop;” “environmental hazards of dog poop;” “benefits of picking up dog poop.”
To my surprise I got hundreds of hits: articles, web sites, businesses, blogs and services dedicated to dog shit. “What to Do with Poo: The Art and Science of Dog Poop,” proved informative. Several web articles listed “Top 10 Reasons To Scoop Your Dog Poop,” of which three reasons were cited almost universally: 1. It’s the law! 2. Dog poop is unsightly; and 3. No one likes to step in pet waste and spread it into homes, cars and businesses.
The other reasons varied widely. One list included this dire warning: “Roundworms and hookworms deposited by infected animals can live in the soil for long periods of time and be transmitted to other animals and humans.” Another cautioned that “leaving dog poop encourages other dogs to mark that spot by urinating over the previous dog’s scent.” I also learned that “dog poop pollutes the water.” But, not to worry. As one Top 10 list saw fit to remind us all: “It’s easy to clean up by carrying plastic baggies and paper towels in your pocket. The baggies can be secured and thrown away in the garbage.”
For those deeply committed to the fine points of dog shit-less world, there were articles and websites offering insights on “picking up dog poop while pregnant” and “how to pick up dog poop in the snow.” Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer, provided “Three ways to solve the dog poop problem.” Auggiedog flogged an Automatic Pooper Scooper, “a new powered stool tool for picking up dog waste. We took the stoop out of the scoop — just pull the trigger and Auggiedog will deliver!”
And if Auggiedog fails to deliver, leaving behind unmentionable evidence, there’s the DNA profiling of dog feces, a CSI-style tactic used to catch “criminal dogs” and their owners who don’t scoop. A company called PooPrints sells a test kit that’s used to gather errant fecal matter, which PooPrints then checks against its registry using parent company BioPet Vet Lab, a biotech outfit in Knoxville, Tenn. (PooPrints also provides owners with an oral swab for submission to a global pet registry.)
For those who won’t or can’t clean up after their dogs, it’s good to know there are a lot of people who will do it for you: “Louisiana Pooper Scooper, The Poop Butler,” for one. And for the entrepreneur, there is a “Small Business Idea – Poop Waste Removal” website to help you get started squeezing dollars out of doo-doo.
Along with quirky ideas, I also found fellow travelers, folks who shared my sense of alienation from the pooper troopers and all they stand for. In a 2002 screed entitled “I DON’T PICK UP MY DOG’S POOP,” an anonymous author claimed to be a responsible, tax-paying citizen who found it absurd to get all worked up over a few turds in the grass.
Warnings about epidemic parasites and mass contamination of the water supply are not supported by science, the author contended. Commentary following the article ranged from vicious to disdainful, and acts of vengeance by those who sided with the pooper troopers verged on lunacy: throwing shit on neighbors or their cars, leaving it on their porches, poisoning their dogs. Indeed, people have been injured and even killed by partisans outraged over a failure to scoop poop.
In September 2011, The Gazette, a Montreal daily, reported that a 27-year-old woman was stabbed to death while walking her dog. Charged in her murder was the 50-year-old companion of the janitor at the building where the incident took place. Seems the janitor and the victim had had a bit of a feud going over her lax attitude toward poop scooping.
As a kid growing up I would take Butch, our shepherd mutt, for walks through the neighborhood and on the neutral ground. I did not pay much mind to where he dropped his load, unless it was on the grass immediately in front of someone’s house. And we kept him from soiling the part of the neutral ground where we played football. That common-sense approach was reinforced by a big sign at the entrance to our neighborhood park, banning dogs altogether. Parks were for kids to play in, not for dogs to shit in.
Now, all over New Orleans, the powers that be are closing neighborhood parks to children and turning them into dog parks. What’s more important, a safe place for children to play or a spot for dogs to relieve themselves? (Just asking.)
Common courtesy meant that we took Shep to a place where very few people walked and none of us played, or he just shat in our yard. No one ever went out to pick it up, and as far as I know, no one in my family — or anywhere else in the neighborhood, for that matter — ever got sick from dog shit. Not saying that it can’t happen, but the folly of larding landfills with non-degradable plastic bags full of dog shit is certifiably unhealthy for the planet.
Here’s the alternative, the lesson I’ve extracted from my many years pondering the pooper troopers: When shit happens, just wipe off your shoes and keep on walking.
Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.