by Terry Barr
“Take him down by the vacant lot on the corner,” Dad said, “That way no one will mind what he does.”
The thought of cleaning up after Sandy never entered our heads, and so I’d lead him by the leash to this open area and watch as the poor guy nervously did his business. He’d leave an impressive mound and sometimes Jim Terry, the bird dog who lived across the street, would join us. If my brother were with us and saw either dog hunched over and defecating, he’d point and laugh at them. The dog in question would then shake all the more, as if he knew to be embarrassed. Upon completion the dogs would proceed to scratch up some earth, believing as dogs do that just a few scratches of soil will cover their solid remains. I would then lead Sandy back home, back to his dog house where he’d spend every night – rain, sleet or snow – huddled in his blankets.
The vacant lot was way at the end of our street, and at ten years old I was a little terrified at the overgrown bushes and what could be lurking behind them. So I’d walk only a little ways and let Sandy do his pooping in the McEniry’s yard, or the Bruce’s. It was dark, I figured no one would see and in the morning, who was to say which dog did it? I confess to feeling a little guilty at my laziness, my fears. I knew that I’d made work for these elderly neighbours, that they would have to clean the mess up themselves or have their “yard men” do it. Whatever guilt I felt, however, did not stop me from encouraging my dog to fill their yards with his waste.
Sandy died when I was a junior in college from a fast aggressive cancer. My parents had him put to sleep before they even told me he was sick. I knew he had been losing weight, but being away, I didn’t see him often or much at all. My parents kept up with his daily routine. They knew what he was consuming and producing and dealt with it as they saw fit. I remember my Dad saying too often to my dog, “You stink,” but no one guessed the cause of this stench, the one that smelled like poop even when there was none.
I didn’t wonder then, but very much do so now, about what we fed our dog (the same meal of Purina Prime every day) and if whatever went into that food caused his cancer. I wonder, too, about his poop. Did it affect anyone else? What could or should we have done differently? I so loved my dog, yet I let him eat unhealthy food. I let him be blamed for soiling other people’s space.
What sort of owner was I?
Thirty years passed and I never owned another dog. Once, when my daughters were seventeen and thirteen, they found a stray dog in our yard. He looked liked some sort of Labradoodle, a dog someone wanted. So we kept him overnight in our basement, and the next morning I walked him through our neighbourhood, hoping he would lead me to his home. I had no sense of the right direction, and the dog seemed convinced that the streets to our south pointed homeward. It was an early Sunday morning and I hoped that people going to church might pass and recognize their pooch. Looking back, it seems silly and futile that I would go walking aimlessly, trusting on the dog and fate to relieve me of a burden I wasn’t ready for.
Of course the girls asked if we could keep him, and I might have considered it if we didn’t already have three cats. And if, when I saw this confused but happy dog poop that morning, I didn’t see him shake and strain to produce an enormous mound full of white squiggly living things: tapeworms, I assumed.
We kept the dog another night, and then rigged a stake and a rope in our front yard the next day and tied him there with a bowl of water nearby. We went to school and work, and later that afternoon my wife called to say that the dog had been found by his owners who lived just up the street from us in the opposite direction from where he and I had wandered the day before. He’s rescued, I thought, relieved. Yet I kept thinking about that shaking poop and those worms: a clear sign that the dog wasn’t being well taken care of. As well as I would have taken care of him if he were he mine. I didn’t clean his poop up that day even though I knew bagging had become the popular, eco-friendly and neighborly act. I didn’t want to get any nearer to those worms than I already had, so I left the poop to sit, the worms to crawl, and I wondered about all those others crawling inside that friendly dog, the one I never saw again.
For the past two years my wife has clamoured for a dog. She’s never owned one before and, in karmic preparation, she puts pictures of “her dog” around the house.
“I’m gonna find him,” she kind of threatened.
This past May, my wife got serious. We fenced in our yard and finished remodelling our house. “The time is right,” she said, and so she began haunting our no-kill Humane Society. I’ll confess that every time she came home empty-handed, I breathed more deeply.
Then one late Friday afternoon, I got the call:
“We found him [she and my younger daughter Layla, that is]. Do you want to come see?”
“No, if he’s the one, that’s fine with me.”
It was Layla who saw him first, a white Lab-looking six-month old puppy, exactly what my wife was looking for. My wife named him Max and recently I discovered that his true breed is American Dingo, or at least I’m as sure as one can be that he’s got dingo in him.
When we walk our Maxie, I don’t laugh and point at him when he poops; but I do I pick up his poop in our plastic bags, double-lined for maximum protection. Like all the neighbours I see doing likewise, I hold onto the bag until I reach a garbage can at our local park and toss it away, and when we go to the dog park at Conastee I do the same. My wife stands at the spot where our boy has relieved himself amidst the clatter and clamor of breeds and half-breeds, and Heinz 57’s, and we clean his poop in the baggies supplied by the park and throw them right away in the cans nearby. The cans that someone else eventually disposes of.
I have two questions: the first, as far as I know, is unanswerable. Why does Max immediately poop every time we enter the dog park? Or, as I’ve discovered lately, whenever we take him on a play date to his friend Fin’s house? I know that marking territory with urine is very much a doggie thing, but with poop?
My second question is: Where does the dog park poop go? The city dump? And then what happens? It biodegrades with the rest of the poop accumulated there, all buried in safe, sacred ground?
Another question I ask my wife is what she does when she scoops up Max’s poop from our backyard:
“I throw it over the fence into the wilder part of the yard. Or, I put it in the holes he’s started to dig and cover it. They say that keeps him from digging any deeper.”
Perhaps so, and that seems very responsible of her. In our own yard, I’ve mainly left the poop alone. I figure that when it finally returns to the soil, it will be good for the land, adding richness and cyclical nourishment to our ecosystem. Maybe, however, I haven’t been thinking so clearly. Maybe I haven’t exactly kept up with the latest trends in poop control:
Recently, a number of environmental activist groups have been trying to raise the guilt level of dog lovers because of the faecal matter that their pets produce. We are not only talking about the smelly stuff which gets on your shoe when some inconsiderate dog owner fails to pick up after his pup, or the possible contamination which such waste matter might produce when it gets into water supplies, but rather the larger issue of whether dogs contribute to global warming by producing greenhouse gases. So says Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia:
An average dog will produce approximately 0.75 pounds of faecal matter each day, which, summing across all of the dogs in the city would be approximately 187,500 pounds of dog poop passed in every 24 hour period. Summing the output across an entire year, we reach the astonishing total of 68,437,500 pounds of dog waste per year for this one metropolis.
The city he’s referring to is Chicago. I live in Greenville, SC, a city a tenth the size of Chicago, so maybe our town produces only six million pounds of poop a year. Still, what do we do with all this mess?
Now you might already know this, but when Max’s poop, Jim Terry’s poop, and my old dog Sandy’s poop breaks down, it produces methane gas, a gas much more toxic for our environment than carbon dioxide. In Chicago, this means that the amount of poop-infused methane gas each year totals 102,000,000 cubic feet. I’ve always been sketchy about what a cubic foot looks like, but I’m pretty clear that 102 million of anything is powerfully impressive.
Apparently, Mathew Mazzota is also impressed. A conceptual artist and grad student at MIT, Mazzota wondered whether a by-product so bountiful might not have a productive use. He proposes that this dog-sponsored methane could be used as a power source. He received a grant from MIT to run such a test, called his project “Park Spark,” and installed it at a park in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is actually two tanks; when your dog poops, you take the already-provided biodegradable bags at the exhibit, place the poop inside, and then insert that by-product into one of the tanks. Wheels turn, microbes begin digesting the poop, and before you know it, methane gas results, which is then burned off somehow.
Since I barely passed high school chemistry, I can’t explain it any better. But if you’re unclear about your own scooping bags, you can try http://www.poopbagclub.com and for a nominal price of $10-12 per month, you can get two lavender-scented rolls of vegetable based bags. Will your dog love you for this? Actually, Max doesn’t care for lavender himself; when my wife applies her nightly oils and creams, he flees. Then she has to use some other calming oils on him to get his mind off the lavender. What all this might be doing to his bowels, I’m not sure.
As glad as I am about Mazzota’s experiment, I think back with wonder and longing for those days when Jim Terry roamed the streets of our neighbourhood. When I directed Sandy to Mr. Bruce’s yard and stood there long enough for my dog to get both the message and the urge. In that era, some fifty years ago, dogs came and went, some good and some bad, their poop landing wherever it would. Sure we stepped in it. Sure it stunk, and sure we ingested its fumes.
To be honest, my wife and I complain when neighbours let their dogs do their business in our yard. That is, we complain to ourselves. We haven’t yet placed signs at the curb begging dog owners to “scoop the poop,” and I hope such a sign is not in our planned future. Maybe it’s just my relationship with dogs, but their shakily produced poop has never offended me. Most dogs try to cover their waste by scratching the ground around it. Then they wander off happy, believing they’ve done their best.
We can’t see the other things we’re breathing either, nor can I stop the poop from coming, so I choose not to see it as that big of a problem. There is too much anger in our society anyway. How can we love our environment, the earth, when we get so offended and irate at the way others legally express their love?
It makes me wonder, though, about the hearts of those owners. Are they like I was as a kid: happy to be relieved of my dog’s waste at any cost? Are they simply irresponsible people like I sometimes still am? Or is it worse: one of those problems that cause me to lie awake at night? If someone is so thoughtless of this aspect of his or her dog’s life, what else do they refuse to clean up? What else do they neglect?
What else do they inflict?
Terry Barr‘s essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, is published by Red Dirt Press. His work has also appeared in Blue Bonnet Review, Quail Bell Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, South Writ Large, and 3288 review. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family– and the dog, Max, mentioned in the essay. He has a cat, too, but cat poop isn’t such a problem.