Readings — From the August 2015 issue

Doctoral Feces

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From “Natural Waste: Canine Companions and the Lure of Inattentively Pooping in Public,” a study by Matthias Gross, published in the March 2015 issue of Environmental Sociology.

At first glance, dog walking seems straightforward. Walk the dog, let it poop, walk the dog home. But why is it that the poop falling out of the dog is not taken care of, and if it is, how exactly is this done? Around 2003, I started observing dog walkers and taking notes about their relations to dog excrement. (I often did this when I walked one of my three kids to nearby parks. At the time I decided to write a paper on it, I had been observing dog walkers for some ten years in Germany and abroad.) My attempts to ask dog walkers about their habit were often met with aggression (“Mind your own business,” “Don’t you have anything else to do with your time?”). When I asked dog owners why they let their dogs poop here and not somewhere else, a sentiment I often heard was, “When my dog has to poop, it has to poop.” At one point, a dog owner countered: “You have to realize, you are not alone on this planet. Animals have rights, too.”

When a dog owner uses a bag to dispose of their dog’s poop, he or she often seems to take good care that somebody else is watching. In turn, the owner will sometimes pretend that he or she has not seen the dog pooping — for example, by talking earnestly into a cell phone or using an iPad. If the dog has runny poop, skillful dog owners, I observed, reacted quickly, and the bag in their hands deliberately went back into their pockets.

Poop on the sidewalk or anywhere else in public serves as a visual and olfactory (and, if stepped on, a tactile) conduit of communication. It can be seen as a boundary between civilization and wilderness on behalf of the dog owner. Dogs become mediators for humans between wild nature and tamed culture. Perhaps it is the freedom taken away from humans to poop in nature that encourages them to project this freedom onto their best friends.

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