I know there's an awful lot going on in America right now. But we need to talk about Boston's poop problem.
It seems like everywhere you go, dog feces litters the sidewalks and parks. It's bad enough when it's warm out, the odor attracting flies and making matters even worse. But the winter poses its own unique set of disgusting realities: When it snows, inconsiderate dog owners suddenly feel liberated to leave their pets' waste wherever it might fall, safe in the ridiculous assumption more snow will soon cover it up. But when the snow melts, our neighborhoods become literal manure minefields.
It's the same year after year in neighborhoods all across Boston, Cambridge and beyond. Speaking for Charlestown, where I live, I can say it's gotten really bad. Last year, around this time, I was walking my dog around the Bunker Hill Monument on an unseasonably warm day in February. The area, as it so often is, was teeming with tourists, families taking in the sights, snapping pictures, even sitting on the grass enjoying a coffee and the breeze.
I felt fortunate to live near such a beautiful destination. I felt embarrassed, too; there was dog poop everywhere – on a one-block stretch along the Monument, as I picked my way through stroller-pushing couples and people out for a run, I counted more than a dozen different droppings. It was the same story around the whole block (pictured above).
I was so disappointed in what I was seeing that I contacted City Hall last February. Mayor Marty Walsh had just announced a "Neat Streets" initiative discouraging smokers from discarding cigarette butts on city streets and sidewalks. Might there be a similar initiative in the works tailored toward dog owners discarding their pets' waste, I wondered? I was then redirected to Dolores Randolph, the deputy director of communications for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
"The City of Boston’s Dog Fouling Ordinance requires dog owners to remove and properly dispose of any feces left by their dogs," Randolph told me then, adding that one of the commission's "environmental messages that we plan to highlight this spring is, 'Scoop the Poop.' We target spring because the snow has melted, and the visuals are impactful."
The city ordinance governing this is Section 16-1.10A, more commonly referred to as the Pooper Scooper Law. It mandates anyone who "owns, possesses or controls a dog to remove and dispose of any feces left by his/her dog on any sidewalk, street or other public area" and private property, too. Having a means for removal, i.e. a poop bag, is required as well.
"While cleaning up after our pets is a neighborly thing to do, the goal of the campaign is to educate residents of the importance of proper disposal of pet waste and elicit their help in preventing the contamination of local waterways and parks," Randolph said last year. "Dog waste should be placed into a trash can. It should never be placed into the catch basins or in the street, as these lead into Boston’s storm drain system and flow directly to Boston Harbor and other local waterways."
I think it's safe to say that everyone knows this. That it's not a decent thing to leave dog waste on the sidewalk or in your neighbor's yard. That doing so is not only a blight on the aesthetic of the place you call home, but poses potential health risks to adults, children and other animals who might come in contact with it.
So why is it so pervasive?
"Violation of this regulation shall be punished by a fine of fifty ($50) dollars for each occurrence." The ordinance, Randolph told me, is not enforced by the BWSC. Or, really, by anyone, for that matter.
Between our exchange last February and another inquiry this week, I haven't gotten an answer from the BWSC if there are any plans for enforcement going forward, or if Boston has ever levied fines for offending parties.
What I do know is it's a practice that's gone unchecked for too long and is getting out of hand. I've personally (and very politely) confronted a number of people in my neighborhood after witnessing them walking away from their dog's waste. Asked why they didn't pick it up, I'm typically told they forgot a bag. When I offer them one of mine, the vast majority blow me off and walk away. I have a dog, which I got understanding fully that cleaning up after her would be part of the deal. I also have a son, who will be walking soon. The sidewalk should be a space for bikes and skateboards and street hockey. But only after dad cleans up after everyone else's dogs first.
I'm not pointing blame in any one direction, aside from directly in the faces of guilty dog owners. But unlike, say, parking space savers – another practice with a tacit set of guidelines largely ignored by city residents and near-impossible to enforce by the City – I think the Pooper Scooper Law could probably be enforced much harder, perhaps with escalating fines for repeat offenders. Sure, BWSC personnel, police officers, public works and the like often have bigger fish to fry. But crack down hard when you can and maybe word will spread there's a new Doo-Doo Sheriff in town.
One final parting thought: The "Neat Streets" initiative made tossing cigarette butts into an interactive experience, asking participants a question ("More essential Boston winter gear? Hats or boots?") that they answered by way of tossing out their smoke into a transparent receptacle with the answers printed on two separate sides (image above). This would be gross if applied to dog poop – nobody wants to see it – but it brings up another issue. Namely: It can be hard to find a place to dispose of pet waste. Perhaps a City initiative adding more disposal options in higher trafficked areas would help matters.
Until then, be wary of the manure minefields my friends.
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