Animal stuff is hard to talk about because it mostly involves four subjects: birth, death, sex and excrement. I’ve debated with myself and others which one is the most emotional subject. Certainly the treachery of over-zealous potty training becomes evident. Like the man who called to complain that the dog from next door habitually came over and... right on his porch... he could hardly bring himself to tell us, then burst out... “The dog TINKLES on my porch!!” His indignation was more understandable when he told us it was a St. Bernard.
A far more philosophical sort was Greg, one of our most unflappable shelter attendants. He was helping officers unload their trucks and brought a St. Bernard into the little breezeway where the impoundment slips were written out. “What a beautiful animal!” said Greg. “I hope the owner shows up.” The dog, which was very polite and had not tinkled all day, smelled lots of dog urine, thought this must be the place, and lifted his leg. By chance he aimed right into Greg’s knee-height rubber boot and filled it to the brim.
“What do you think of the dog now, Greg?” we asked.
“Grateful,” he said. “First time my foot has been warm all day.”
Greg was less grateful when it came time to clean out the sump filters where the hosings from the kennel accumulated. The job meant going down into a cement hole and digging out the muck. Well-mixed with dog hair, the dog droppings plugged up every system devised to prevent exactly that. Burgwin apologized to Greg for even asking him to do the job, which was truly Augean, but Greg never complained. He was a farm boy and he know some jobs weren’t very nice.
I read what little material I could find about canine excrement, in hopes that I could find something useful to do with it. Unlike the excrement of ruminants, it is not good for yards -- but you already know that from the spots that develop to mark the scene of the “crime.” One kennel owner had ingeniously started to raise fishing worms in a sort of sordid torte of cardboard and dog poop. The worms thrived. There were two problems: no one wanted to harvest them and no fish wanted to bite them.
People sometimes got rather ingenious about stopping unwanted contributions. One woman kept a little pile of plastic bags by her door and when she saw a dog-owner with a dog on a leash stand patiently waiting while her pet squeezed out its business, she’d go out with her rather small bag, pick up the poop in it, and rush after the dog owner, calling “Hoo-hoo! You forgot something!” By reflex that person usually held out their hand and the lawn-owner could put the bag into it -- squeezing. Usually that meant no return visits.
Another man created a huge cement dog turd for his yard. Dogs looked at it and backed away. (In fact, alert officers didn't enter fenced yards without checking for large calibre turds.)
We constantly got complaints about parks where the patrons expected the grass to be like a carpet where they could spread out a picnic or let their kids roll around. The sandboxes in some parks also generated complaints, though cat droppings are so high in protein that generally rats or dogs will eat them, thus removing solid evidence.
When Dr. Watts came on staff, I talked to him about pet excrement and we decided to make a survey. From somewhere he produced paper snowcone holders that said “Yum Yum” on the sides, plus some little wooden ice cream spoons. I contributed plastic "evidence" bags and off we went to see what we could collect. We would have attracted fewer stares, maybe, if Dr. Watts had worn his nice white coat. We developed some theories about high-income parks versus low-income parks, parking strips, and so on. We figured there would be lots of worms, esp. in places where people pretty much avoided vet bills.
But when the turds were dissolved in water and screened, there were very few worms. And the samples sent for lab bacteria culture came back mostly negative. We were surprised and no one believed us, but it was a bit of a relief in some ways. I mean, as a kid, I probably had ringworm four or five times and pinworms at least once. None of them were pleasant. I was wary about mangy shelter dogs. Renee, who knew much more about diseases, said we should worry about rickettsia, like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
In truth, there aren’t a lot of diseases that cross from one species to another, at least without mutating. Even dog or cat fleas that get on humans usually won’t stay that long. We’re just not to their taste. Nevertheless, cross-species biting arthropods are one of the effective ways that bad diseases travel -- like the Black Death Plague of Bubonic Fever carried by rats that killed one-third of the population of Europe -- and we were in a port city (Portland, Oregon) where ships from the entire planet docked -- not out on the edge of civilization but right in the middle of the Willamette River downtown. We thought about things like bird flu long before the recent excitement and Dr. Watts’ public health education was both reassuring and scary. We worried about catching something from all the dead animals we picked up, but once an animal is dead and cold, the arthropods will have left. Of course, if it appears the animal host is just that moment cooling, the arthropod will be looking for a place to jump or scuttle.
At one point I composed a little essay called “The Terrible Truth About Dog Turds” which included bits about every nasty contagion I could think of. I’d intended it to encourage officers and shelter attendants to wash their hands, but it turned out to be very popular as a flyer dropped into the mailbox of a dog owner with low consciousness. In fact, people liked it so well that when Burgwin and I took some copies to the regional animal control council, other animal control people asked for permission to reprint. Alas, their county commissioners turned out to be rather prissy. One county had to change the title to the “The Terrible Truth About Dog Excrement” which destroyed the alliteration and another county had to burn all the copies they’d made, as though talking about the subject had besmeared the handouts.
In many countries dogs are hated and feared -- we know how Iraqis feel about them. This is because rabies is still common in Asia and Africa. The disease is a death sentence if treatment is not immediate. And because many dogs there act as pariahs, along with pigs, who constantly search the streets for the most unsavory garbage, including human bodies. It’s a useful service in places with no other way of getting rid of offal and even in the cities the crows and rats go about the same duties. People who deny death, disease, garbage, and misfortune, who would steam-clean the streets and fumigate the houses, are remembering this in some kind of near-unconscious way. Dogs are dirty in an almost metaphysical way.
Some dogs are like street people, hardy and independent, adjusted to a life based on the discards of people, and they often accompany street people either willingly or on an improvised leash. But it is probably the excrement of the people, left in the bushes or secluded alleys, that is more of a danger than the excrement of the dogs.
Actually, in some places where parks combine with bodies of water, it is goose poop that carries disease and mucks up the grass.