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Snows of Alaska winter melt and reveal tons of unscooped dog poop

Sean Doogan
Christine Cikan, a member of the organization Anchorage Unleashed, picks up dog poop at the Connor's Bog dog park. Sean Doogan photo

Anchorage has a lot of dogs -- an estimated 74,000 of them, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And they poop a lot, producing 8 million pounds per year, according to the city department that monitors such things, Anchorage's Animal Care and Control Center.

That's about 11 tons a day. Imagine 4,900 Chihuahuas running around the city, visualize them as poop piles, and you get the idea of just how much canine fecal matter the city deals with.

Anywhere people go, pet poop is likely there, too. Lawns, trails, dog parks, playgrounds and ballfields can all yield an inevitable squish underfoot, and the need to scrape stinky goo from the bottom of your shoe.

And this year, the people that pay attention to dog droppings say Anchorage's pet poo problem is bigger.

Their evidence is mostly anecdotal -- seeing more feces at dog parks and along the Campbell Creek greenbelt, and hearing more complaints about it from neighborhood groups. But, the pet poop dilemma is only as scientific as a whiff here or a sighting there. There is no way to measure how much of the city’s dog feces are picked up and thrown away, ultimately ending up at the landfill, and how much is left on the ground to decompose. Some of what’s on the ground finds its way into local streams and creeks and, depending on the levels, can be unhealthy.

Anchorage residents with and without pets seem to agree that owners need to be more responsible about the smelly stuff their dogs leave behind.

Scoop the poop

“Scoop the Poop” is a decade-old effort to rid the city of unretrieved dog droppings.  It’s headed by the Anchorage Waterways Council, but includes officials from city, state, and federal agencies, as well as a cadre of committed volunteers.

Each spring, a number of towns across Alaska, including Anchorage, sponsor clean-up events. But at a recent meeting, some on the Scoop the Poop committee worry their efforts may perpetuate the problem. If volunteers clean up the mess, some argue, individual dog owners may decide why bother?

“We spend at least $24,000 per year on the “Scoop the Poop” educational outreach program each year in Anchorage” says Cherie Northon, chair of the committee and executive director of the Anchorage Waterways Council. But the actual costs of educating people about the problem, and cleaning up after those who didn’t get the message, are far higher -- the value of hundreds of volunteer hours and similar clean-up events by other groups are hard to calculate.

Water problem?

“The feces isn’t just a problem for people walking through it,” Northon said. “It has to go somewhere, and what does not get picked up decays and through rainwater runoff can find its way into local streams, bringing with it the fecal coliform bacteria, which can sicken animals, and people."

According to the EPA, every stream and creek in the Anchorage bowl is “impaired,” a term given to waterways where people come in contact with water containing bacteria exceeding federal standards of 100 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.  

“While natural causes are common, especially from the birds, moose and beavers -- DNA testing administered in 2010 by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation shows dog feces is a major contributor,”  Northon said.

Tension rising at dog parks

A trip to Connors Bog and University Lake, two of Anchorage’s off-leash areas for dog owners and their pets, demonstrates some of the issues. Dog parks are a natural collection point for feces. Despite free disposal bags, posters, and signs explaining the rules, some people simply watch as their dog does its thing a few feet away. Another problem common at dog parks are people who do only half the work -- picking up and bagging their dog waste, only to drop it on the trail or hang it from a tree, forgetting to take it to the trash on their way out.

At both parks, nesting waterfowl are only feet away from people, their pets, and poop that has been left behind.  At Connors Bog, a pair of loons has gained a worldwide following after the installation of a special breeding float and so-called “Loon Cam” that is annually viewed by thousands. Volunteers frequently clean up the area's dog parks, and some are getting frustrated by the poop and the attitudes of the some pet owners.  

“I don’t even have a dog, and I spend hours cleaning up poop and stocking disposable pick-up bags at Connors Bog,” said Fred Sorenson, a volunteer and member of the Scoop the Poop committee.  “And people are yelling at me. The other day, a neighbor of the dog park got really angry because she thought we didn’t have enough collection bag stations near her home.”

Enforcement problems

But the Scoop the Poop group says the problem is more widespread than just at a few public use areas. Dog parks may be the most visible, but many more feces are left on Anchorage streets and lawns. People can get in trouble for having too much poop in their yard, or failing to clean up after a dog that poops in a public place. But year after year, just a handful of tickets are written -- hardly enough to deter bad owner behavior.

“We can go to someone’s home if their yard is covered in feces, but making a citation stick on poop left in public is very challenging,” according to Brooke Taylor of Anchorage Animal Care and Control. “We have to prove the excrement belongs to an individual dog and then show the owner never picked it up. And with six officers patrolling from Knik to Girdwood, we just don’t have the resources to constantly patrol parks and local trails.”

In 2012, only seven citations were issued for poop-ridden yards.

This year, just a day before the Scoop the Poop meeting, an enforcement officer busted an owner for a dog that pooped in public -- the first public poop ticket written in two years.  No yard-based poop tickets have been written so far this year.  “But, its early, and we usually see those increase as the snow melts,” Taylor said.

None of the committee members believe there are easy solutions. Some of the ideas floated Thursday included expanding educational outreach efforts at community events, working more closely with neighborhoods, and finding ways to make it easier -- and less confrontational -- for people to police each other.

Local students are also pitching in. Kids from Girdwood just finished a five-minute outreach video about dog waste, and children at Polaris have completed a series of 30-second radio ads highlighting the issue.

Girdwood School Wetlands Project from Mrs. Hickox on Vimeo.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com