[SCMP Column]Scooping up the Mess

April 10, 2017

I am tired of talking about Trump and trade. Perhaps you are tired of listening to my rants too. Let me talk about something bothering me closer to home – dog poo.
For the past 15 years I have lived in a clan village out in Clearwater Bay. That brings peace and quiet and a weekend sense of calm that is never possible in a 40th floor apartment in Sheung Wan or Hung Hom. But country living comes with its downsides. Apart from having to comply with the peccadilloes of clan law and order, perhaps the single most irksome daily reality is dog poo.

Hong Kong today apparently has over 65,000 licenced dogs. Most of them are marvelously pampered pooches, carried in handbags and even dog-prams. One of my neighbours has a home helper dedicated exclusively to looking after her pooches. In homage to the average miniature Hong Kong home, the favourite Hong Kong dog is a poodle, followed by yappy Pomeranians, schnauzers and scrawny Chihuahuas – hardly the kind of dogs to constitute a dog poo threat.
But village and New Territories dogs are a different matter. First, most clan village dogs are only “owned” in the most technical sense. Over the decades they have been resident scavengers tolerated for their valuable guard-dog services, barely domesticated, and not to be messed with at all. The wife of one German neighbor regularly fulminates over the late-night eruptions of village-wide dog barking if even one detects a disturbance, but she is kept in check by those of us who value their role in keeping burglars at bay. For these minimally civilized clan mongrels, poo spots are all part of territory marking, and heaven help a visiting dog that encroaches on their territory.

But over the past decade or so, a generation of foreigners and Hong Kong-Chinese returned from Canada have moved into the New Territories to give outdoor space not just to growing families, but to dogs – “the children we were too selfish to have”, as one quirky neighbor quips. You see these paraded every weekend along the Sai Kung waterfront, and along the country park trails. These are as pampered as the Pomeranians, but big. And I mean sometimes really big.
One neighbor and his wife living in a single floor of a clan village house shared their single small bedroom with a series of huge grey Napoleon Mastiffs – my kids called them Hagrid’s dogs for those of you that are familiar with Harry Potter. In cool European climes, these awesome giants live to 15 or 16 years. In my neighbour’s 700-sq-ft apartment in steamy Hong Kong, they seem to survive an average of 5 or 6 years.

Another neighbor has two magnificent blue-eyed huskies. One died three years ago on a country trail from overheating. It is hard to imagine the innocent cruelty of bringing a dog designed for arctic temperatures around minus 20 degrees into Hong Kong’s sub-tropical summer.

Hong Kong vets estimate that 40 per cent of our pooches are obese because of being over-fed and under-exercised. I am witness to that every day as I leave my home. At a junction just 200 yards from home Philippine home helpers gather daily to chat to each other, or on their smartphones to friends and relatives. The dogs sit or stand restively nearby. They are out “dog-walking” for owners who have neither the time nor the energy to walk their dogs themselves. And many of these helpers are reluctant to perform the irksome task of poo-clean-up.

I think Hong Kong is relatively new to the dog-poo challenge, in part because of strict rules on ownership, bans on keeping dogs in public housing estates and many private apartment blocks, and refusal to carry them on public transport and most taxis. But the challenge should not be underestimated. In many countries worldwide, media report a dog-poo crisis, and have contrived dozens of imaginative schemes to try to tackle it. So far, few are succeeding.

As one correspondent in a British newspaper recently commented: “There are only so many times you can clean dog crud from your shoes (or the shoes of your toddler) before you start loathing dog-owners.”

In New York, which apparently deals with 100,000 tonnes of dog-poo a year along its 12,750 miles of sidewalk from its population of 600,000 dogs, former-mayor Ed Koch introduced the Canine Waste Law almost 40 years ago. That was when the “pooper-scooper” was first invented, and pooper bags first started to be distributed, often for free.

The problem is that many dog-owners still remain reluctant to handle their pooches’ odorous deposits, and this has led to dozens of imaginative – and only partially effective – schemes. In New York, vigilantes draw chalk “murder lines” around abandoned poo, and spray-paint the offensive deposits in the hope of embarrassing offenders.

In London, Camden Council gives away bright coloured spray for vigilantes to use. In Bristol, posters were put up of a young girl whose face was smeared with something brown alongside a picture of a pile of poo. The caption read: “Children will put anything into their mouths.”

In Paris – widely recognized as the dog-poo capital of the world, with the city’s environment chief Yves Contessot blaming his city’s failure to win its bid to host the 2012 Olympics on Japanese attacks on its poo-littered boulevards – they introduced a moped that vacuumed up street poo. That initiative was abandoned in 2003: it was expensive, and often seemed to make matters worse rather than better.

In Taipei, the government offered lottery tickets to people who handed in their poo bags. They collected 14,500 bags from a total of 4,000 people. I have seen no reports of whether any dog-owner won the lottery.

But it is in Spain where the imagination has run most free. In some cities, authorities insist on DNA records for dogs, so that abandoned poo can be tested and traced back to the owner. In the town of Colmenar Viejo they use private detectives and videos. Most imaginatively, in Brunete, a suburb of Madrid, they box up offending poo and mail it to the owners, marked “Lost Property”. Last year in Madrid the punished offenders by offering them a choice between a US$1,700 fine, or several days as substitute street cleaners.

As a non-dog-owner, with daughters blessed with a passion for cats, it is perhaps easy for me to criticize. We don’t yet have the kind of crisis shared by Paris, Madrid or New York, but long may that remain so. I don’t want to come to loathe my dog-owning neighbours.
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