Argentine politicians, particularly Porteño-based pols, have been exceptionally parsimonious about proffering solutions to the city’s polemical and seemingly intractable poop problem. But is the problem, which persists tenaciously decade after decade, really that hard to vanquish? It shouldn’t be. After all, the solution is more attitudinal than physical or intellectual.
Extirpating the fecal menace would require no grand piece of legislation, no massive social movement, no overly-demanding change in behavior or habit. Nor would it require any new taxes or new foreign direct investment. It would require, simply, a mere change of attitude and a corresponding will to pick up after oneself, or rather after one’s dog’s (or cat’s) doings.
Is this really too much to ask? Apparently, as history and the streets and parks of Buenos Aires show us, it has been too much to ask. And yet this clearly is unacceptable. The problem is more than a mere aesthetic demon. The poop that pervades the city’s parks and passageways contains parasites and bacterium that cause disease and infection.
Countless local and foreign observers, including newspaper editorials and television commentators, have pontificated on the (fecal) matter. There is even a blog (“I’m Tired of Dog Shit” or, in Spanish, “Estoy Harto de la Mierda de Perro”) dedicated exclusively to documenting examples of dog excrement around the city.
Still, nothing seems to change. But it must. It is not just a visual and a tactile problem. It is an issue of public health, especially for children who play in public parks. According to the Pasteur Zoonosis Institute, there were roughly 426,000 dogs in the city as of 2004. That’s about one dog for every seven people. If half of those mutts poop on city streets, this would mean that dogs excrete about 72 tons of fecal matter and 127,000 liters of urine in Buenos Aires every day. The institute says that if only 20% of those dogs had parasites, they would dump 14 tons of infected excrement on the city’s streets daily.
In one experiment in the 1990s, the institute examined 29 city blocks for evidence of excrement. They found an average of nine distinct dung droppings per block. The institute examined the “stool samples” and found 32.2% of them to be contaminated with parasitic eggs. Many of those samples had more than one species of parasite. Seven of the eight species encountered are known to cause illness in humans, especially in infants.
In some cases, parasites and bacterial problems can spread to humans through mosquito bites. Because of this, pedestrians in Buenos Aires are most vulnerable to infection between December and March, when warmer temperatures and higher humidity encourage the presence of mosquitoes. The following maps show contamination levels in March and May 1999, respectively.
But the problem might be even more pervasive than is thought by the Pasteur Institute. A representative of the Argentine Society for the Protection of Animals told The Argentine Post that there probably is one dog for every three people in the city of Buenos Aires. That would put the canine population at around 1 million, which would more than double the amount of excrement dumped on the city to about metric 140 tons or 308,647 lbs – every single day. Even if that figure is wildly exaggerated, the problem is not one to be scoffed at.
Public health issues and aesthetic offenses aside, the poop predicament raises worthwhile questions about the state of mind of those who allow their pets to indiscriminately empty their bowels on city sidewalks. What type of person would subject his fellow man to such an experience? Is a person who is content to let his animal defecate on the sidewalk a shitty person? Would it be vulgar to even think this? Certainly, in a literal sense this seems to be at least somewhat true.
Few things foster total repugnance with greater facility than the unexpected knowledge that one has touched – or is about to physically encounter – fresh fecal matter. Humans have an almost biological reaction to the mere sight of feces. Our sensitive reaction to such discharge may even have an evolutionary origin. It may be a reaction designed to keep us away from diseases that can weaken our immune system or even worse. Whatever the case, there is nothing positive about encountering such noxious material on the bottoms of our shoes or elsewhere on our person or clothing. What’s more, there is no need for this to happen.
Of course, Buenos Aires is not alone in this matter. Freakanomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steve D. Levitt have written provocatively about the “DNA of Dog Dirt” in New York City.
They proposed using DNA to catch offending dogs and thereby penalize their owners. Dog poop, they say, is a “robust” source of DNA. So why not create a city-wide DNA registry and require every owner to submit DNA samples so that dogs and their owners can be cataloged and, therefore, tracked and caught in the event that they leave feces on public grounds. Meanwhile, residents of of The Hague in The Netherlands sent a letter to the mayor protesting the presence of poop in the city.
“We the undersigned state our dissatisfaction with the high level of dog excrement on the streets of The Hague. We want to see dog owners held accountable for their pet’s litter. Accountability means, we want monetary fines to be actively issued by the City of The Hague to dog owners who fail to pick up their dog’s litter. The time has come for The Hague police to be more active in enforcing the rules!”
The city of Buenos Aires actually has a law that calls for dog owners to be fined if they allow their animals to defecate on public land. But the law is virtually never enforced. Two years ago La Nación published a story that said the city had 15 officials assigned to enforcing dog laws. But in all of 2005 the officials gave out just two excrement-related fines. The fines totaled just 25 pesos each. So, in total, in 2005 Porteños were fined only 50 pesos for allowing their animals to dump 25,500 tons worth of feces throughout the city. Clearly, another approach is needed.
Perhaps more fines would work. But it would cost more money to hire more enforcement officials. Moreover, how can we be sure that hiring more manure police would actually clean up the streets and parks? One can easily imagine an irate dog owner trying to bribe his way out of a larger fine. How about trying to palliate the problem by giving residents an easy way of cleaning up after their animals themselves?
How about posting “Scoop Dispensers” like that pictured in the photo above around the city? Why not place them strategically around the city’s parks and walkways, making them easily available to dog walkers? Instead of punishing the evildoers for doing something bad, this approach might actually positively encourage them to behave more responsibly out of their own free volition. It would give them an incentive to do something good instead of a disincentive to do something bad. It would empower them to be more considerate. Perhaps this is pure naivety. Or perhaps its a proposal that’s been touted before.
Whatever the case, something must be done. Action must be taken. And if the so-called “broken windows” theory has any credence, ridding the city of fecal matter could have more profound consequences than anyone could imagine.
Link: Wikipedia on “Zoonosis”
Link: Power Point Presentation from the Pasteur Institute (this is dated but the data still seem to be relevant)
Link: Broken Windows