By: Joel Garbon
We’ve all seen it plenty of times. Maybe while we are picnicking with our family, taking a stroll in a city park, and simply looking out a window into the neighborhood. Something draws our attention to a person walking their dog. The person stops as their pet sniffs the grass anxiously. The dog assumes the familiar defecation position, and the owner suddenly appears distracted by a compelling message on their cell phone or the sight of a rare species of bird high up in a tree. Fido finishes his business, and his owner gives a few quick glances around to check for any obvious signs of surveillance. Then, coast clear, owner and pet quickly retreat from the scene, leaving behind the stinking pile of waste.
A similar scene is repeated hundreds, or even thousands, of times a day across every urban landscape. And while the messes left behind by discourteous dog owners are an affront to “good neighbor” sensibilities, there is a much more serious consequence to these dirty habits. Pet waste is loaded with pathogenic bacteria and nutrients. One researcher found that a single gram of dog feces can contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria. (1) Another study found that a population of 11,400 dogs can contribute up to 5,000 pounds of solid waste per day. (2) When washed into lakes, streams, and bays during rainstorms, this waste causes serious impairment to water quality. Fecal bacteria pose a health risk to humans and animal species, and may make water unfit for swimming and shellfish harvesting. Phosphorus and nitrogen content in the feces may promote algae growth that contaminates the water, reduces oxygen levels, and disrupts the aquatic ecosystem.
It is likely that many, if not most, pet owners are unaware of the detrimental effects of pet waste on water quality. Public education is an important tool to increase awareness. Progressive communities use a range of tools and programs to address the issue. These may include signage and placement of specialized pet waste containers in parks and along waterways, distribution of printed materials, and public service announcements in media. Some cities have adopted set-aside areas in parks for off-leash activities, as such areas tend to reinforce the positive behaviors of responsible pet owners.
While it would be ideal if all pet owners cleaned up their dog poop simply out of respect and courtesy for their neighbors, many people don’t seem to care for such basic civic-mindedness.
For this reason, some communities have found it necessary to impose fines for non-compliance with clean-up policies, since the dollar, rather than courtesy, appears to be a stronger motivator to do the right thing for such folks. It’s not hard to imagine, in these times, that eventually the use of high-tech surveillance tools (drones that look like dragonflies?) might be used to enforce clean water policies. Hopefully it won’t come to that, since the 15-second use of a pooper-scooper and plastic bag makes for good neighbors and good water quality.
(1) Van der Wel, 1995.
(2) Northern Virginia Planning District Commission, 1998.
Read more in this series:
Part 2: Loving Your Car and the River Too!
Part 3: Taking Out the Trash