In a city so deeply touched by pressing social issues like homelessness, affordable housing, or crime, who’d think that what our furry friends leave behind would make the list of the city’s quality of life issues that need solving? In fact, combing through the government’s fiscal reports shows that boroughs want funding to clean up streets from dog-poop. In fact, Bronx’s Community District 4 statement of needs specifically reads: “Canine waste is a huge problem district wide and there is a tremendous need to increase enforcement.”
There were 2,458 dog poop complaints to 311 in 2017, and the Bronx seemed to be the poopiest borough of New York City, according the number of unique complaints. The Soundview-Bruckner neighborhood in the Bronx averaged 46 yearly complaints of unattended dog waste for every 10,000 households, compared to Stuyvesant Town-Cooper Village in Manhattan with 0.8 average yearly complaints.
Not picking up after a dog has been illegal since 1978, when the Pooper Scooper Law were implemented. So not surprisingly, the numbers of complaints have been decreasing steadily over the years, by more than 20 percent since 2011. Today, the Department of Sanitation can fine a New Yorker $250 for dog waste under law 161.03 of the New York City Health Code. Last year, for the 40th anniversary of the law, NYC Parks even announced that it installed 1,000 canine waste bag dispensers in a $86,000 project. Yet, the complaints are omnipresent at community board meetings and in conversations with residents, so much so that Mayor Bill de Blasio was once again vocal about the need to crack down on canine waste in an interview with WNYC radio last year: “I’d say to people if you’re not going to bother to clean up after your dog, don’t have a dog.”
It’s a popular complaint on neighborhood blogs too. “Some turds left behind are big and shaped like pinecones; others are smaller and resemble blackened golf balls. Sometimes the turds are piled atop one another into a mound; other times they’re just resting there alone, unloved and abandoned,” wrote Yaron Weitzman, a Riverdale resident, in a blog piece on The Outline. After realizing that he was smearing feces al over his living room every time he took his child out in a stroller, he felt compelled to go on a dog-poop hunt and try to catch someone in the middle of leaving their best friend’s doo-doo on the sidewalk. He never managed to scold somebody in the act.
“There’s still shit everywhere,” said Weitzman, acknowledging that he still doesn’t fully understand why people leave their dogs’ poop all over the sidewalk. “It might just be laziness,” he said, “or the fact that nobody is watching.”
But why do people not pick up their dogs’ excrements? And what does that mean about our city, and how does it affect our lives? Here’s New York City’s shit-show, explained.
TALLYING THE TURDS
New York City has 84,000 registered dogs and, according to a 2017 study conducted by the real-estate company RealtyHop, had an average of 8.12 complaints about dog poop per square mile in 2017 . If you look at the raw totals, though, by borough, that number seems very small: Brooklyn had 5,691 complaints for dog poop, Queens had 5,593, the Bronx registered 5,442, Manhattan had 2,359 and Staten Island had just 1,362. Unfortunately, this data does not explain why Staten Island has better stats.
RealtyHops’ analysis of 311 complaints also showed that neighborhoods farther away from the city center have more poop complaints and that the lower the median home value within a zip code, the higher the number of complaints for dog waste. The company’s study summarized it as: “If you live in TriBeCa or SoHo, both have some of the most expensive zip codes in New York City, you probably do not see many brown poopsickles around.” That’s because if you’re not being looked at or you aren’t surrounded by people, you’re less likely to feel compelled to clean up after your dog, and less likely to get a fine for not doing so.
“Unless there’s somebody from sanitation staring at you and catching you in the act, nothing can be done!” said Nilka Martell, a Bronx parks advocate. “That’s why we encourage more community effort, and more eyes on the ground,” she said, explaining that when there’s an active community effort to take care of the neighborhood and its parks, there’s less animal waste misdemeanors.
According to Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, the Pooper Scooper law doesn’t have to be enforced all the time to work. Even if it’s enforced periodically, it can get the community back on track in cycles, while still saving the budget. But that hasn’t always been easy.
When canine waste curbing laws were first introduced in New York City, dog owners were outraged and thought it was “anti-animal.” In fact, Fran Lee, a public health advocate, who founded Children Before Dogs to prove that dog-poop on the streets would harm children’s health and went around advocating for the Pooper Scooper Law, would get dog poop thrown at her. Beck, who worked alongside her to promote the Pooper Scooper law, said that dog-owners perceived these policies as “animal brutality” and advocated that dogs should be free to live naturally, instead of being punished for their doo-doo.
“No politician wanted to go against dog owners. It’s sort of like going against gun owners,” said Beck. “There was a fear that people would surrender their dogs, that there would be a flood of dogs turned into the shelter,” said Beck, explaining that policymakers worried owners would think cleaning up after their dogs was too high maintenance and would get rid of their pets. However, there was only “a tiny little blimp” of this at the beginning. The policymakers, it seems, had underestimated the bond between owners and their dogs on a larger scale.
Now the debate is probably more a matter of “awareness and reporting,” and people trying to keep their neighborhoods cleaner, especially in “up-and-coming neighborhoods,” with new city efforts to re-zone and make neighborhoods more affordable, said Beck.
In fact, the Pooper Scooper law was initially born as a “broken-window” kind of policy. It was an effort to clean up neighborhoods with the thought that less dog poop lying around would incentivize more dog owner to clean up after their dogs and make neighborhoods more welcoming, just like repairing broken windows would make neighborhoods less afflicted by crime. This was especially true for boroughs like the Bronx, where because of high levels of crime, residents were more likely to own guard-dogs, according to Micheal Brandow, author of “New York’s Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process.”
“It’s just a matter of perception. It’s much better than it used to be. We’re in a wonderful place now,” said Brandow about New York City, who analyzed the change of enforcement of this law over decades. When told community boards were asking for help to police dog-waste problems, he sighed: “Oh come on! Politicians use it as an issue to draw attention to themselves, and the press has something to write about! And nothing makes people madder than getting to blame dogs for something.”
In his view, the problem feels bigger and more widespread than it actually is. “It looks like nobody is picking up, but in reality, it’s just a couple of dogs, maybe just one,” he said, hypothesizing that it’s probably just a minute number of dogs who aren’t being cleaned up after and the same two or three people callingl 311 to complain, making it seem like a neighborhood wide issue. Brandow thinks that some residents are so aggressive about cleaning up their sidewalks that they turn into vigilante groups going around and making it a mission to check on people.
As a dog walker for decades, he personally said “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t pick up!”
SHITTING FOR THE STARS
Making sure neighborhoods aren’t completely submerged in dog-poop is not an exclusively New York City issue. It’s been troubling cities for a long time. Urban planners and health departments across the world have come up with ingenious solutions of all sorts. Here’s a sampling:
Jacques Chirac, former president of France, introduced poop-scooping-scooters, Yamaha motorbikes with vacuums, which later proved quite ineffective. Some communities go so far as to use DNA analysis of dog-poop to identify who the owner is and punish them: Malaga in Spain, Barking and Dagenham in the United Kingdom, and Petah Tikva in Israel have tried it. Now there’s a Tennessee born company called PooPrints raking in $7 million a year by spreading the technology around the United States too. Some cities in Canada, like Waterloo, Ontario, and the Parks Sparks project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have an environmentally friendly solution: dog poop is converted into fertilizer and lamp fuel though technological bins. In Mexico City, free internet connections in public places, Poo Wi-Fi, is offered to dog owners who toss their baggy of waste into special dispensers, where the pile is weighed and the free internet minutes are activated. The heavier the poop, the more minutes of wi-fi. Hmm, LinkNYC administrators: are you listening?