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Photograph by Flor Hernandez

Curb Your Dog’s Enthusiasm

New York City is a wonderland for dogs—to defecate on, and for their owners to look the other way. An argument for a more civilized scenario, where dogs aren’t encouraged to kill plants.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I took a walk with my family through Greenwich Village. Just a few blocks from home my husband accidentally rolled the left front wheel of our stroller through a fresh pile of dog doo. Over the course of the next several streets, we made sure to run through every bit of gravel and grass we could find, even plowed through a murky puddle of sludge, but by the time we got back to our building there was still a fair amount clotted on the wheel. We asked the doorman what to do because it didn’t seem right to roll something so unsanitary into the building. He agreed, and, moreover, was surprised he’d never been asked before. Eventually he helped us find a cup of water and some paper towels, and it took my husband five minutes of pouring and spinning and wiping to get the wheel clean enough to roll inside.

How is it possible that in a city where people can’t smoke in bars and restaurants because of second-hand smoke, you can still find yourself wiping someone else’s dog shit off your property?

Perhaps I should admit to something I’ve been worrying about for a time, something I suspect will make me unpopular with a wide range of people, some of whom are literary and I admire: I don’t really like dogs. It’s horrible to admit to this kind of thing. People make character judgments. Does it need to be such a big deal? As a child, I read and loved The Incredible Journey. I enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay a few years back about walking his dog in Prospect Park. “Effortlessly, joyfully, she runs quite a bit faster than the fastest human on the planet.” That must be nice. One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, doesn’t live in New York, but she adores her dog, and if I’m ever lucky enough to meet her I’ll be very polite. As for writers who have lived in New York and kept a dog it is a long and intimidating list that includes Dorothy Parker. (Would she be polite to me? I don’t think so.)

But here’s the truth: Unless you are blind, I don’t know what you’re thinking living in a city with a dog.

Setting aside quality of life issues for the dog, the logistics of clean-up are troubling and always have been. In 1978 New York City passed Health Law 1310, the first enforced “poop scoop law” in the country. Mayor Koch is largely credited with getting it through a reluctant legislature, and its passage is linked by many to the beginning of the city’s urban renewal. All good. But the fine for not scooping had to be raised last year (from $100 to $250), and with 1.4 million dogs now panting in the 305 square miles that is New York City, there is still a staggering amount of dog waste on the city’s sidewalks. In my completely unofficial survey of friends, residents of all neighborhoods complain.

How is it OK to let your dog pee anywhere? The answer is it’s not. It’s not sanitary, courteous, or legal, but it is common.And it’s not just the poop, though historically that has been at the crux of the debate. Urine glistens everywhere. A few days ago, on Grove Street, I was stopped by a typical dog/leash/owner bottleneck on a narrow sidewalk. The dog was peeing against a little iron railing that demarcated a small garden around a city tree. Some of the urine flowed toward the curb, much of it flowed back toward the bottom step of a brownstone. The dog must have been holding it all night: torrents steamed in the cold morning air and when he was done, the sidewalk was nearly impassable. My stroller wheels sprayed up urine like an Escalade on a mountain in an SUV commercial.

The woman said nothing.

I muttered, “That’s lovely. Thanks,” but I don’t think she heard me.

Clearly I’m not alone in liking to be clean. Americans brought soap to the first World’s Fair and now the experts say we’re rubbing so much waterless sanitizer onto our hands that we’re killing off all the good bacteria. So how is it OK to let your dog pee anywhere? The answer is it’s not. It’s not sanitary, courteous, or legal, but it is common. Practically every tiny little green space in New York where a gardener has tried to encourage something to grow is adorned with a sign begging dog owners to “curb” their dogs. This means, by the way, not just to scoop (which is what my friends, in another completely unscientific survey, thought). It means, Train the animal to go in the gutter. Otherwise our sidewalks are flooded with urine and marred by the little poop pockmarks that sometimes even the most assiduous scoopers leave behind.

People who don’t live in or particularly like cities might dismiss this as an urban problem, so I’d like to point out that it’s not. The discourteous leaving behind of dog waste might be, along with the current financial disaster, one of the few things Wall Street and Main Street share. In the small Virginia town where I used to live, I once watched a man leave a pile of his dog’s waste on the edge of a lawn where children were playing. When I summoned my courage and said, “I hope you plan to pick that up,” he ignored me. I thought the exchange was over, and was happy to have said anything at all (I’m usually too scared). But then, a block later, he passed me again (a problem with walks in suburbia) and he said, “Little plastic baggies don’t biodegrade, you know.” I thought he had a point until I realized that that still didn’t give him the right to leave the shit where someone else might step in it. I circled the block three more times, looked for him on all my walks over the next several weeks, but I never saw him again to tell him so.

“Dog Urine Kills Plants.” It’s true. Though this deterred no one the day I stood for a half hour and watched dogs of all sizes relieve their bladders on the pachysandra.In the city, I’m often amused by the differences in curbing signs. They range from the commanding, “Curb Your Dog!” (almost everywhere) to the pleading, “Please no Pee-Pee” (cute for the too-cute boutiques of Bleecker Street). Sometimes they’re wholly pictorial (a squatting dog with lines to indicate shaking hindquarters) and in the Hudson River Park, the New York City Parks Department seems to be trying a scientific approach: “Dog Urine Kills Plants.” It’s true. It’s the nitrogen content that does it, though this deterred no one the day I stood for a half hour and watched dogs of all sizes relieve their bladders on the pachysandra, the owner at the other end of the leash attached to a cup of coffee or an iPod, feigning invisibility. My favorite sign is on Bedford Street, where someone is defending the honor of a couple of square feet with a rhetorical argument: “What is a garden?” followed by three pictures with a diagonal line through them, the universal symbol for negation: not a Garbage Can, not an Ashtray, not a Toilet!

I recognize that in the history of human civilization we are living in unprecedentedly clean times. That we can complain about dog waste over the earlier problems of horse manure and human sewage is a sign of progress. And things are looking up, literally. Mayor Koch, worried about the streets, enforced the poop scoop law in the 1970s; Mayor Bloomberg, worried about our air, wants to plant a million trees. The city currently has 592,130 trees, making the current dog-to-tree ratio approximately 2 to 1. Two dogs per tree? That doesn’t seem right. And if the current numbers hold, won’t all the new saplings Bloomberg plants be killed by dog urine?

Maybe in the name of progress it is time to say that not everyone who lives in the city can have a dog. Already, the shelters are stuffed with unwanted dogs, some of whom will be euthanized. Clearly we need to achieve the right ratio here so that canines and humans can be happier. To begin reducing the number of dogs, maybe we could tax dog owners, or start waiting lists for dog ownership in neighborhoods much as buildings have waiting lists for bicycle storage. Each neighborhood could decide on its ideal people-to-dogs ratio. For Greenwich Village, let’s say, 10 dogs. (All right, maybe that’s too few. We’ll consult the experts. Who would that be? Calvin Trillin?) And then, to address any residual sanitation problem, the city could install those disinfecting mats the British use in places infected with hoof and mouth disease. Put them in entryways everywhere. Hell, install them on every street corner because, you know, there’s a lot of gross stuff out there, if you think about it.

The trick, I know, is not to think about it. I saw a video recently of one of the Improv Everywhere stunts—people dancing in the grid of windows made by a series of department stores on Union Square. Four stories of lighted windows filled with people dancing, and then, at a signal, one row held up letters to spell out: Look Up More. In the video, the camera turns on the crowd to show the onlookers’ reactions. To a person they smiled, with joy and something a little like relief.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane