Excrement: messing up city streets since the 1800s.
At the northern end of Manhattan, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits wedged within walking distance of three parks: Central Park to the south, Morningside to the east, and Riverside to the west. Needless to say, it draws some foot traffic—and by extension, a lot of dogs.
The latter of which posed a particular problem to the church grounds. Yes, this is a post about dog poop, and its long, storied history of defouling city lands.
The cathedral took a uniquely hilarious approach to curtailing dog detritus: signs on their lawn, printed in bold neo-gothic, read “Thou Shalt Not Poop.” The campaign has been so popular and well-received that the signs are now available as laptop covers.
As long as dogs have been a part of urban life, cities have issued attempts to control them; anti-excrement campaigns are just a more recent and ongoing example.
While pets were features in cities before the 19th century, it was really during the 1800s that more and more people began to bring dogs into their homes, says Chris Pearson, a lecturer in twentieth-century history at the University of Liverpool who is researching a book on the history of dogs in London, New York, and Paris. During the 19th century, a host of services and products sprung up to cater to owners and pets, says Pearson: dog care books, veterinary surgeries, breeders selling puppies, canine medicines, dog biscuits, and leashes.
That last item became an distinction between pet dogs and strays. While pet dogs in cities grew increasingly common and pampered, residents became anxious about strays as rabies fears proliferated. Paris police targeted stray dogs in the 19th century, eventually banning them from the street. In New York, the 1811 “Law Concerning Dogs” established a city Dog Register and Collector to gather a tax from dog owners; the city also made it legal to kill stray dogs in some parts of the city. In June 1867, The New York Times reported:
THE DOG-LAW.—Dog owners should remember that the Dog-Law goes into operation to-day. All stray dogs will be captured and destroyed unless redeemed by their owners before sundown.
In cities like Paris and New York, residents often resisted or ignored laws permitting animal cruelty, but these efforts persisted as “part of the nineteenth century public health movement’s attempts to cleanse the modern city,” Pearson says.
By the early 20th century, however, public health concerns took a different form—poop. “Doctors and concerned councilors in London and Paris identified dog mess as a problem in the 1920s and 1930s,” Pearson says. “The demise of horse-borne transportation and more effective street cleaning measures meant that the streets were less covered in manure, rubbish and sludge. The cleaner pavements offered a blank(ish) canvas for observing the quantity and variety of mess left by dogs,” he adds.
This is around the time that the first regulations targeting dog excrement cropped up in cities. A 1935 London bylaw declared:
No person being in charge of a dog in any street or public place and having the dog on a lead shall allow or permit such dog to deposit its excrement on the public footway. Any person offending against this byelaw shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings. This byelaw has proved of considerable assistance in preventing serious nuisance.
Signs encouraging New Yorkers to “Curb Your Dog” first appeared around this time, too. The phrase was vague, so much so that in 1956, a Harvard Law student and a friend from New York fell to debating the sign’s meaning. Unable to agree, they wrote to the Department of Sanitation, which responded:
Little did I think that the personal habits of dogs could be of even academic interest to students of Harvard Law School...The sign has both meanings. It means, Restrain your dog. It also means, get him off the sidewalk and into the gutter…
Where, presumably, business could more acceptably occur.
Later in the century, broader anxieties over health and urban cleanliness played out over dog poop. In the 1970s, excrement became the target of the Children Before Dogs movement, whose staunchly anti-canine founder, Fran Lee, incited nationwide panic about diseases—particularly toxicara canis, a roundworm parasite which children could contract via their propensity for ingesting dog shit off the street (a fear still being hawked in anti-poop campaigns today). Cities across the world latched on to dog poop as a platform to address wider issues of urban filth; in San Francisco, the future mayor Harvey Milk made an example of his own experience stepping in shit to connect with locals fed up with the city’s stench.
Subsequent local efforts to directly tackle dog mess varied. In New York, the city took a slap-on-the wrist approach with its poop-scoop law, introduced by the mayor Ed Koch in 1978, which levied a fine of up to $250 dollars on any violators. But in Paris, Mayor Jacques Chirac went a different route. “Rather than actually force the owners to scoop the poop, Chriac tried education and persuasion, and technological fixes such as dog toilets and moto-crottes (poop-scooters),” Pearson says. But the latter—Yamaha motorbikes affixed with vacuums designed to funnel excrement into a tank as they zipped through alleyways—were so ineffective and universally mocked that they were abandoned in the early 2000s.
Cities today are still as determined as ever to curtail dog waste. They’ve just gotten more creative with it. Four dog-poop receptacles, each labeled with the country’s four main political parties, recently sprung up in a Madrid park, encouraging passerby to cast their vote by depositing their pet’s shit (this is just one of Madrid’s poop-problem crackdowns). Mexico City’s efforts involved the exchange of feces for public wi-fi access. A London borough required its residents to submit DNA swabs from their dogs’ cheeks, so rogue offenders of the clean-up laws could be identified and fined through their dogs’ “pooprint.”
But outside these more radical efforts, modern poop-pickup campaigns mostly involve cities begging their residents to show some municipal love. “J’aime mon quartier,” reads a sign in Paris featuring an owner dutifully scooping. A typical sign in New York urges dog owners to keep their pets away from greenery, saying: “Be kind to city trees—they have a hard life.” In contrast to the stringent and often violent regulations on urban dog ownership in the past, Pearson says the laws in place now exist not only to keep streets sanitized, but also to “persuade dog owners that picking up after their pet is a civic gesture that will keep their city clean and their fellow citizens happy.”