- The mass of dog feces in municipalities is huge and much of it is not cleaned up by dog owners.
- Politicians have turned to extreme measures and penalties for dog owners who don't clean up after their dogs.
- The latest method to identify miscreant owners involves mandatory registration the DNA of dogs.
- Dog urine has its own unique negative environmental effects.
There has been a recent spate of media coverage concerning a town in the south of France, Beziers, where all dogs must undergo mandatory genetic testing and carry a "DNA Passport." This is to allow street cleaners to identify dog owners that have not picked up feces left by their dogs in the center of town. If caught owners face a charge of €120 ($135).
A Big Pile of Dog Poop
What's the fuss about a little bit of dog poop? First, at the municipal level, there is an awful lot of it. According to the Canadian Animal Health Institute, the average dog can produce around 5 pounds (2.5 kg) of fecal waste weekly. That adds up. For example, the city of Chicago has to deal with over 68 million pounds of dog poop annually. Dog poop is not only stinky, and aesthetically offensive, but it's bad for the environment. Many people think dog waste is safe, natural, and compostable. However, it's not. It has the possibility to add toxins to the watershed and the soil. In a city like mine, Vancouver, Canada, dog feces can also attract coyotes and rodents. Rats and mice like to eat the undigested nutrients in the feces, while coyotes are attracted to both the fecal matter and the rodents as potential food sources. Coyotes are a potential danger to pets and small children, while rodents are known disease vectors.
Deborah Wells at the School of Psychology, Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, found that only a scant majority (53.5 percent) of owners cleaned up their dogs' feces. There were also demographic differences. Female dog owners were about twice as likely as males to pick up after their dogs. Individuals with lower incomes were only one-third as likely to clean up after their dogs than those with higher earnings. Dogs that were allowed off-leash were also around three times less likely to have their owners pick up after them than those who kept their dogs on leash.
Politicians Respond to the Crisis
The mayor of Beziers, Robert Menard, has publicly stated that the city thought that simply putting more police officers on the street would have a positive effect. However, he has complained that when there is a police officer nearby people do clean up after their dogs—when there is no one around they simply don't bother. This is actually experimentally confirmed by Matthias Gross of the University of Jena, Germany, who noted that the likelihood that a dog owner picks up their pet's feces is much higher when they notice that someone is watching.
Prior to DNA testing, a number of other techniques have been tried to get dog owners to comply with clean-up regulations. Some cities in Spain and England have hired "dog doo detectives" to track down offenders. These enforcement agents go through town looking for owners who refuse to scoop. They then snap some photos or take a video of the offense, and pass the information to city officials. Those who have been caught can be slapped with hefty fines.
Perhaps the most severe response to those who leave their dog's mess on the street comes from Madrid. The city announced a "shock plan" where those who have been caught must either spend a few days as substitute street cleaners or face a $1,700 fine.
Credit for innovative thinking by a municipality goes to Brunete, a suburb of Madrid. In 2013, the municipality boxed up dog feces and mailed the packages to miscreant owners. This took a lot of effort, where volunteers spied on dog walkers, noted who didn't pick up, and then approached the dog walker and asked the name of their dog in a friendly manner. Because most dogs were registered with the city, and the neighborhood was known, it was usually enough information to determine the owner's address. A note accompanied the package and it said, "It's your dog. It's your dog poop. We are just returning it to you." According to subsequent reports, these unwanted postal "gifts" improved the situation by 70 percent.
Is DNA Registration the Solution?
The sudden interest of the media in the DNA testing of dogs in Beziers is a bit surprising. Since as early as 2015, a host of cities worldwide, including Tel Aviv, Valencia, and some areas of London, have insisted on DNA testing for dogs to help to identify wrongdoers who do not clean up after their pets. Several companies offer DNA registration based on a simple cheek swab from the dog and claim a 99+ percent accuracy in identification.
In addition, landlords in some residential complexes, and strata councils for a number of condominiums in Florida, New York, California, and a few cities in Canada also have passed regulations to record canine DNA to help enforce local rules requiring dog poop to be picked up on their premises. Reports suggest that this high-tech innovation is reducing offensive waste by over 80 percent where it’s in use.
The Problem of Dog Pee
As a bit of a postscript to this discussion, there are other waste products that dogs produce, namely urine. I was talking about the above political responses to dog poop with a friend of mine who is an architect. He came to Canada around 2015, from England, and reminded me that nearly a decade ago the effects of dog urine on the environment received a good deal of media attention in the UK. As a response, in Derbyshire, England, the City Council spent approximately £75,000 to check all of the lampposts in the district. This survey was commissioned after a report found that years of exposure to the highly acidic urine from dogs can cause the base of the posts to crumble away. This was part of a national campaign that was triggered after someone died when a lamppost collapsed.
Similarly, the Municipal Council of the City of York said dog urine was one of several things that had been causing corrosion at the base of both steel and concrete lampposts. The council claimed that it has to replace 80 street lights a year, at a cost of £1,000 for each and they noted that the public would have to continue to foot the bill until a solution could be found.
He then quipped, "Don't let the politicians get a hold of this information. Their solution to the problem of dog urine would probably involve passing laws that require people to carry water bottles when they walk their dogs so that they can wash anything that the dog pees on."
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