I live in Riverdale, a quiet neighborhood at the Northwest tip of the Bronx that’s as close to suburbia as New York City can get. The blocks are lined with small residential buildings, many of which date back to World War II. The closest subway is a 20-minute walk away. There are a few restaurants and bars, but most close by about 10 p.m.
Yet every time I venture outside I feel like a marine carefully navigating a minefield. I’ve lived in New York City for 11 years now. Like all New Yorkers, I’ve had to clean excrement off the sole of my shoe. But moving to Riverdale has transformed this occasional chore into a once-a-month affair.
There’s shit everywhere. By the hydrants and the small trees, but also blocking entranceways and, often, smack in the middle of the sidewalk. The laziness and apathy of my neighboring dog owners knows no bounds. Some turds left behind are big and shaped like pinecones; others are smaller and resemble blackened golf balls. Sometimes the turds are piled atop one another into a mound; other times they’re just resting there alone, unloved and abandoned. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, hot or cold — though rainfall, which melts feces and dispenses it to all corners of the concrete, presents the most and worst challenges.
Ten months ago I became a father, causing what was once an annoyance to a source of full-on fury. It’s not uncommon for me to look down and notice splotches of light brown clinging to the wheels of my daughter’s stroller. I’ll then glance at the apartment floor and see a trail of feces leading back to the door. My wife and I, like most New York families forced to live in cramped apartments, dock the stroller in our living/dining room. And so recently I decided that it was time to take matters into my own hands. I’d had enough of this, well, shit. I’d sniff out the perpetrators and bring these miserable miscreants to justice. But first I had to figure out what bringing them to justice actually meant.
For one, were these soulless reprobates breaking an actual law, or is the whole clean up after your dog slogan more of a Good Samaritan thing? And if it was a law, who, then, was in charge of enforcement, and, more importantly, who could I direct my complaints to? Also, does Riverdale actually have a dog shit problem or is was this equivalent to a single black dot on a clean white page standing out?
Some Googling revealed that, in New York, dog shit falls under the Sanitation Department’s umbrella and that there is, indeed, an official law: New York State Public Health Law 1310, which, among other things, states that, “It shall be the duty of each dog owner…to remove any feces left by his dog on any sidewalk, gutter, street, or other public area.” That law, which, amazingly enough, is known bureaucratically as the “pooper scooper law,” was instituted by Ed Koch — the colorful, shrewd and tenacious mayor of New York City from 1978-1989 — eight months into his first term. “It was really an aesthetics thing,” Alan Beck told me over the phone. I called Beck, a professor of animal ecology at Purdue, because he was New York City’s Director of the Bureau of Animal Affairs from 1975-’80. His job back in ‘78 was to travel to communities and explain to residents why the law was necessary. “The Post once referred to me as someone who made shit his bread and butter,” Beck boasted (I tried to find documentation of this on the New York Post's web archives, but they only go back to 1999, essentially leaving this claim unverifiable. Then again, it doesn’t exactly sound like the type of brag someone would wish to dream up). Beck knows New York City dog shit like few do. He keeps a framed placard of one of the first $100 fines ever issued for violating Health Law 1310, signed by the former commissioner of the Sanitation Department, in his basement.
Beck was able to relay a bit of the law’s history to me. The CliffsNotes version: Prior to 1978 New York had a “curb law” on the books, which directed animal owners to have their pets relieve themselves in street gutters. This law was largely ignored—both by dog owners and enforcement agencies. Then in the late ‘70s a local activist named Fran Lee founded Children Before Dogs, an organization described by the New York Times in 1972 as “easily the most persistent anti-dog dirt lobby in existence.” This ended up being an easy political win for Koch — nobody likes stepping in dog shit — and became a symbol for his effort to “clean up” New York City.
I spoke to Beck, now 75, for about twenty minutes, but before hanging up he gave me a name of another man I should call: Michael Brandow, a dog walker in New York who literally wrote the book on dog shit. New York's Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process was published in 2008. Not quite coincidentally, it was published by Purdue University Press, where Beck serves as an editor and actually worked on the book.
Dive into the world of dog feces and you quickly learn that puns and wordplay is not wanting.“It’s good to shoot the shit again,” Brandow said when I reached him on the phone.. Brandow, 58, provided some more background info. For example, he said, one reason this was such an issue in New York City in the ‘70s, a decade where crime in the city — particularly the Bronx — soared, was because so many residents had bought dogs for safety reasons. “Back then people thought the police couldn’t protect them so they got dogs,” Brandow said. For Koch, Brandow added, the pooper-scooper law became “sort of a broken windows thing,” referring to the theory that visible signs of disorder, such as broken windows, promote crime.
He then asked why I was interested in this topic. I explained my situation, that my neighborhood had been transformed into one giant doggy toilet.
“I think it’s usually perception,” he said. “[The problem] usually isn’t as bad as it seems.” He pointed out that if you consider how many dogs there are in New York the fact that the streets aren’t literally blanketed in feces proves that, for the most part, owners and walkers are good about cleaning up. Also, he said: “You can’t really catch anyone anyway unless you want to be a police state.” I told him that was precisely my plan. He disapproved. “If you come along a stray turd here and there, is that really a problem?”
However, data provided by the Sanitation Department seemed to support my hunch that my life had become uniquely shitty. In 2017, the department’s Enforcement Unit, which must witness the act of the poop and lack of a scoop firsthand, issued 214 total summonses to individuals for violating Public Health Law 1310 — incredibly, 171 of them from the Bronx. The reason for this disparity, according to a department spokesman, is that the Bronx has a higher number of complaints, which leads to Enforcement Unit follow-ups and investigations. Now, to be fair, Riverdale was not one of the more ticketed Bronx neighborhoods — the chief offender is Community Board 6, an area about six miles from where I live — but by this point my inner vigilante had already been unleashed.
“If you have an animal that’s sick and it lays down its stuff on the ground and it’s filled with bacteria and another dog steps in it or eats it, that’s the worst thing for an animal,” said Rachel Hirschfeld, one of the country’s preeminent animal rights lawyers. I asked her why, then, some owners don’t always scoop the poop. “I think [if] they realized the effect it could have on their animals they would,” she said. I never relayed to her my plan to take out my Sherlock Holmes pipe and confront violators in the tradition of heroes like Buford Pusser and Batman, but as far as I was concerned, knowing that dog poop could pose an actual health risk was tantamount to a green light telling me to unleash my inner Philip Marlowe on the leashed menace.
It was sunny and cold outside the next morning, like a cooked egg left out overnight on a frying pan. I rummaged around a drawer for a pair of aviator sunglasses, came up aces, and set up shop behind the light pole across the street from my apartment. 15 minutes passed, then 30, then 45. Time, it seemed, was in on this racket, too.
A Suspect emerged from my apartment building. He was in his mid-50s and wearing a flannel shirt, resembling an off-duty construction worker up to no good. He was walking a four legged cottonball, clearly an Accomplice. I kept my eyes down and let them walk about 20 feet ahead before turning to follow. The Accomplice stopped inches from a fire hydrant. Removing my phone from my trousers, I opened my camera. The Accomplice raised one leg, released a clear stream, and moved on. Clearly our canine culprit was in on this caper, as well.
Dancing the most dangerous tango of them all, the perps inched their way down my street, the canine pausing every few feet to sniff a stray leaf or paw at a wayward plastic bag. They proceeded slowly, allowing me to maintain my tail, but these were experienced outlaws. They knew the game we were playing. I passed them and set up a new post, behind a small bush outside an apartment. I hunched there, taking cover in its branches, and allowed more distance to grow between us. I was ready.
They stopped, and I leapt out, ready to pounce. But the Suspect didn’t budge. Instead, he stared me down, eyes narrowed, his lips curling into a sly smile as if saying, Nice try, Slick.
What kind of monster is this, I thought. I darted back to my original post, with the white shoes I was shaking in scraping against a tiny turd left at a second hydrant — a sign, no doubt, left there to make clear who it was that owned these streets.
Frustrated, I thought back to something Brandow had said: “Dog owners get a lot of shit,” a joking attempt to talk me off my stance. He’d also explained that other cities had developed new methods for keeping their streets clean. The Israeli city of Petach Tikvah is experimenting with an elaborate system in which its doggie denizens’ DNA is used to track whether their owners are depositing their excrement in bins — in which case they get free coupons for pet supplies — or if they’re leaving them on the street — in which case they get fined. Other cities, such as Waterloo, Canada and Cambridge, Massechussets are appealing to dog parents’ green thumbs and installing bins that convert poop to fertilizer and lamp fuel, respectively — and last year, anti-fascist activists in San Francisco began stockpiling dog shit as part of a plan to protest an alt-right rally which was eventually canceled. And while I’m all for the de-policing and/or radicalization of dog doo, until that happens in my neck of the burbs, the onus will be on crusaders like me to save the innocents from falling knee-deep into a pile of shit.