Wild Animals Poop in the Woods, So Why Can’t My Dog?
It’s a beautiful day, so you head to the woods for a hike. You grab your dog and pack a lunch, along with a leash, extra water and a bowl for Fido, and last but not least, the poop bags. But if you’re hiking in the woods, and no one is around to see that you didn’t pick up after your dog, does it really matter? After all, the deer, squirrels, birds, and bears all poop in the woods, and no one picks up after them. So what gives?
Well, the first and foremost reason is safety of other visitors. Assuming your dog just did his duty on the trail, the next person to come down the trail shouldn’t have to dodge his landmines. You wouldn’t want someones kid to step in that, or for our own child to step in someone else’s dog feces. Therefore, they must be picked up and deposited at the nearest poop station. True, poop is not exactly an environmental threat on the order of carbon pollution, nuclear waste, or a Superfund site. Still, the risk from poop can be more than just a mess on your shoes. Dogs can harbor lots of viruses, bacteria and parasites — including harmful pathogens like e coli, giardia and salmonella. A single gram of feces contains an estimated 23 million bacteria! Studies have traced 20 to 30 percent of the bacteria in water samples from urban watersheds to dog waste. Just two to three days of waste from 100 dogs can contribute enough bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorous to close 20 miles of a bay-watershed to swimming and shellfishing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also can get into the air we breathe: a recent study of air samples in Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., found that 10 to 50 percent of the bacteria came from dog poop.
When it comes down to actually being responsible, only about 60 percent of dog owners pick up after their pets. Among the excuses offered by the 40 percent who don’t pick up: “Because eventually it goes away;” “too much work;” “small dog, small waste;” “it’s in my yard;” or my personal favorite “it’s in the woods, and that’s where other wildlife poop.”
There is some truth to this last statement…wild animals do go to the bathroom in the wilderness. It’s clear that the scat from wildlife provides an essential benefit to the ecosystem. Wild animals are consuming resources and nutrients from the ecosystem, and then promptly returning those same resources and nutrients. Essentially, the system is a closed loop with no net gain or loss in nutrients or resources. In fact, some research as shown that seedlings are much more likely to germinate after passing through a bear’s internal system compared to simply dropping off the plant. This is because seeds from plants like Chokecherry have a thick, durable seed coat that needs to be broken down for the seed to germinate – a service the bear’s stomach performs remarkably well.
When we start adding in nutrients from pet waste, the ecosystem balance is thrown out of equilibrium. Our dogs likely aren’t eating wild-grapes, Chokecherry, or other native plants from the ecosystems they leave their waste in, but instead eating nutrient heavy pet-foods designed to give them a complete and healthy diet. Unfortunately, these same pet foods result in excess nutrients in our outdoor spaces if pet waste isn’t picked up.
Pet waste adds excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the environment. Excess of these nutrients in many ecosystems creates unstable conditions that allow algae blooms to cloud our rivers, lakes, and streams, and create an easy habitat for invasive weeds to grow. Although it’s easy for us to say, “Well, it’s only my dog pooping in the woods,” across the US, 83 million pet dogs produce 10.6 million tons (that’s 21,200,000,000 pounds) of poop every year, each pound adding excess nutrients to the ecosystem if the waste isn’t disposed of properly.
Responsible pet ownership means doing our “doody” to pick up our pet’s waste. Pet waste needs to be bagged and packed out. Or if you are adamant that you don’t want to carry a baggie of dog feces for the remainder of your hike, pack a small trowel with you and in back-country environments, pet waste (and even human waste) can be deposited in a 6-8″ deep hole at least 200 feet (70 big steps) away from any water sources. Always remember to leave no trace and pack out what you pack in.