BUENOS AIRES — Stray dogs and beloved pets alike leave behind approximately 30 tons of excrement on this city's sidewalks each day, according to government estimates. Many of these foul-smelling turds inevitably make their way onto the shoe soles of unwary pedestrians, but as gross as this is, footwear may very well be the most dependable dog poop disposal system here.
The dog owners and dog walkers of Buenos Aires are loath to pick up excrement, and it is rare to walk more than a block without encountering a turd. The piles of feces throughout the city are an odorous nuisance that restrict how people interact with public space, visually mar neighborhoods, and threaten public health.
A city ordinance demands excrement be picked up and properly disposed of in garbage receptacles, but with little to no enforcement, dog owners in Buenos Aires regularly flout the law. An 'if-my-neighbors-don't-see-me-it-doesn't-matter' mentality pervades the city and it's become a deep-rooted culture with a powerful feedback loop. Dog aficionados leave excrement behind because other dog aficionados leave excrement behind, and on and on.
"What's been happening is pretty out of control and it's getting worse," says Diana Rubel, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Buenos Aires.
As in other developing countries, flu-like toxocariasis is frequently diagnosed in Argentina and researchers like Rubel have long pointed to the strong correlation between dog feces and the illness. While cities in more developed countries such as the U.S. and Belgium tend show a moderately high incidence of parasites in canine fecal samples, 34.8 percent and 34.2 percent respectively, the prevalence in one Buenos Aires suburb was estimated to be about 70 percent.
The local government in Buenos Aires "is working on a plan to address the issue by following the recommendations of experts on the topic," was the response from a spokesperson at the Ministry of Public Space and the Environment when asked about the problem. "It is a comprehensive work that requires changing the habits of citizens, providing infrastructure to public space and setting up logistics for the proper disposal of feces."
In the past decade as the city's pet population has swelled, the government has instituted legislation to regulate dog walkers, added play areas specifically designated for dogs, and contracted outside companies to clean green spaces. But researchers like Rubel maintain that the city has been far from dogged in addressing neighborhood cleanliness.
"During the past 20 years various policies have been implemented to control fecal and parasitic contamination," she writes in Medicina. "These policies have been applied intermittently in both public space and in time, and no information is available on the assessment of each."
"Even if the city cleans, another dog would come and they'd be here the whole day cleaning," says Enriqueta Rueda, a housecleaner and owner of a chow named Siro. "People have to clean up."
For now at least, woe to the neighbor who needs agility and a little bit of luck to stroll through the city.