By Randy Gaddo
Dog poo is a subject that most people would prefer not to touch—literally—but it has actually become big business, with industries emerging to provide related goods and services.
As a result, it’s one in which parks and rec professionals are involved up to their necks (yucky pun intended).
America has about 83-million pet dogs that produce almost 10.6 million tons—yes, tons—of poo annually, according to Susan Freinkel, who writes about such topics. To put it in perspective, she says that 10.6-million tons would fill a line of tractor-trailers from Seattle to Boston, as calculated by one waste-removal service.
A great deal of that tonnage is found in the many dog parks that have sprung up across the nation over the past two or three decades; most of the parks are on government-owned land and, by default, end up in the purview of parks and recreation.
So it behooves parks and rec maintenance professionals to have in-depth information about the latest methods, materials, and equipment being used to handle the poo.
Now, some might say, “Well, most of the dog parks are run by volunteer associations, not parks and rec maintenance crews.” To that I would reply, “That may be true (though I’d guess it’s more like a 50-50 split), but if the parks are on public land, they are, ultimately, the responsibility of the governmental agency.” Since dog parks are considered a recreational activity, parks and rec ultimately gets involved—especially if there are complaints.
The Job Of A 10-Year-Old
In fact, the business of dog poo is so advanced that there is an association—the Association of Professional Animal Waste Specialists, or aPaws (www.apaws.org). Formed in 2002, it exists to increase the level of awareness in the animal-waste industry, and to raise the level of the public’s awareness of the profession.
“We do a job that any 10-year old can do, but we get paid to do it,” jokes Timothy Stone, co-founder and current treasurer of aPaws. He explains that an entire cottage industry has emerged in which someone will go to clients’ homes and parks, mostly private, but some semi-public, and pick up dog waste.
Stone was at the forefront of this movement, starting in 1988, as a means for him and his wife to spend more time with their infant son. “I got the idea from a friend of a friend’s, whose cousin had such a business,” he says, adding that the business was called Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind. A good sense of humor is a prerequisite for this job, I would say.
“So I said, yeah, I could do that, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” says Stone, who started “Scoop Masters.” He notes that most professional scoopers work private property, such as individual homes, apartment complexes, or homeowners’ association property. “The only time I’ve done a public dog park is when I got a free booth at an annual pet fair in our city in exchange for picking up pet waste the day before the fair,” says Stone, who lives on the West Coast. “I would do public parks, but the city says they have people who do that.”
If a municipality doesn’t require pet owners to pick up after their pets, as it should, then the “people” Stone refers to are probably going to be parks and rec maintenance staff.
While dog waste is predominately what Stone scoops, he also has picked up after pet pigs and even a turtle or two. But not too many people bring their pigs or turtles to a dog park.
Methods of keeping public dog parks clean and free of dog poo vary from place to place. In a perfect world, individual dog-park users pick up after their own pets; in the real world, according to several studies referenced in a USA Today article, an estimated 40 percent of Americans don’t pick up their dog’s feces.
Make It Easy On Dog Owners
Stone was at the forefront of filling that need, but others have taken advantage of the opportunity, such as Le Ann Frost, an aPaws board member and founder/co-owner and president of East Coast-based All Dogs Poop, Inc., since 2008.
Her drive was a desire to “leave corporate America, and I was looking for something I could do,” she says. “I have three dogs and six cats, and it seemed like there was a need. When I was working full-time, I had trouble finding time to get into my own yard to clean up, so I assumed others struggled with it as well.”
She says she got into the business at a good time because dog ownership has increased, spawning a growth in the pet-services industry; she now has a partner in the business and nine employees, who mostly work for residential properties. Even though she rarely works at public parks, she has some suggestions for keeping them clean.
“Installing and maintaining pet-waste stations is one of the best ways to make an impact,” she says. “Make sure the bags are there, all the time, and that the waste cans are emptied. Having the stations there serves as a reminder to do the right thing, pick up after your pet and, oh, you don’t have a bag? Well, here they are.”
Who is responsible to replenish the bags and empty the trash cans with bags of poo? Generally, that task falls on the parks and rec maintenance crews. However, that is only one of dozens of other jobs they are tasked with, so there can be times when the bag receptacle is empty or the trash can is full. “People who use dog parks regularly will often bring their plastic shopping bags to help keep bags replenished and the park clean,” says Frost. “But in case the bags run out, having the phone number displayed gives park users the option to alert the appropriate department to take action on it.”
Stone points out that his West Coast city recently banned plastic shopping bags, an emerging environmental measure that is being implemented, or at least considered, in many places across the nation.
Thus far, the ban doesn’t apply to the much smaller dog poo bags, but even a ban on grocery bags may have unintended consequences at dog parks. If people have been relying on these bags for pet waste, they might decide not pick up after their pets.
Cheresee Rehart has a theory about that. She has been operating Yard Guards On Doody for the past 13 years in Florida. She has come to believe there are basically three kinds of people. “There are some people who will always pick up after their pet; there are people who will never do it; and there are people who only do it if someone is watching,” she asserts.
Rehart actually went into the dog poo pick-up business after seeing Tim Stone on a game show titled I’ve Got A Secret, and when she heard what he did for a living, she said, “I can do that.” She ran the numbers on her calculator, and they worked out for her. “I have been so happy doing this. I never get out of bed and don’t want to go to work.”
She predicts there will come a time in the not-so-distant future when hiring someone to pick up after pets will be as common as hiring someone to mow the grass or do the landscaping.
Rehart believes that educating people about the environmental and physical impact of not picking up dog waste is important and part of her overall mission. “There are many misconceptions about it,” she says. “I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that dog poop is not fertilizer for your vegetable garden, which many people think; horses and cows are herbivores, but dogs are carnivores, so their feces can contain harmful parasites.”
There is also the physical unpleasantness of stepping into the waste of someone else’s dog (or your own dog and bringing it back into the car or home. Even worse, if your pet steps or rolls in it and then brings it back to the car or home, it is a bad day for everybody.
People also think that just mowing the lawn will get rid of the problem, but Rehart notes that is not true because most people don’t set their mowers low enough, and besides, it only serves to spread the problem around. She says some people think heavy rain will wash the waste away, but it may get into the local water system, which can cause more widespread issues.
Returning to her theory of the three kinds of people, she believes the younger generation is more apt to pick up after pets than older generations, because they may have grown up believing that picking up poo is more of a punishment than a good deed. “It’s almost a status symbol now to be seen with a full dog poop bag,” she says. “People need to see that bag swinging when you’re walking your dog so they know you’re picking up after them.” Older generations didn’t know about the harmful effects that dog poop may have on the environment over time; younger generations are better educated on that subject, so may be more inclined to do something about it.
Dog parks validate Rehart’s theory: If many eyes are watching, people will tend to pick up after their pets or face harsh peer pressure. Even so, when people socialize at the dog park, they don’t always keep their eyes on their pets, so the dogs can drop bombs that aren’t discovered until someone steps on them.
Dog parks are becoming accepted local amenities. Some cities even develop dog park master plans, such as the one that Denver, Colo., designed in 2010. At that time, Denver had eight existing and two planned dog parks in a city of nearly 700,000 people.
Denver’s dog park master plan provides an excellent model for others who may be considering such a measure. In addition to a detailed inventory of all the dog parks, the plan also lays out the basic rules that govern them consistently.
There are several points of interest in the plan. First, responsibility for picking up after pets is squarely placed on each dog owner who brings a into any of the parks. How is that enforced? “We post signs if compliance is lacking, or close the facility if it doesn’t improve,” says Mark Tabor, assistant director of planning for the Denver parks and rec department. “However, I don’t believe this ever led to any actual closures.”
Second, it is up to pet owners to supply their own bags, as the city of Denver doesn’t provide any on-site bag stations; however, it is up to parks maintenance crews to empty trash cans.
When asked if the city has ever considered hiring an outside contractor to help keep the public dog park clean, Tabor effectively notes, “This would undermine pet owner responsibility.” This perhaps explains why none of the professional pet-waste scoopers I spoke with worked for any public parks.
A thorough dog park plan can help promote understanding of the issues. As Tabor recalls, “The public process and plan preparation increased awareness and likely improved compliance.”
A plan gives the parks and rec staff a codified leg to stand on when conflicts arise about care and maintenance of public dog parks, whether there’s only one in a city, or 10 as in Denver. Developing awareness and understanding among users can alleviate what can be some fairly emotional—and even violent—interactions among park users.
With dog ownership remaining high and possibly increasing, cities, whether they have a park or not, can anticipate requests for more. It’s a good idea to develop a plan sooner than later so the parks and rec staff can get ahead of the subject and not “step in it” in the future.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.