The Messy History of Poop Scooping

Other approaches were proposed, some of which now seem absurd. Some argued that dogs should never go on public property, but only on paper in their owners' bathrooms. Another idea, impractical for a cash-strapped city, was to hire special workers to clean up, at an estimated expense of a million dollars.

The most complicated scheme would have the city provide trainers to teach dogs to go only over sewer drains, which the Department of Sanitation would flush out twice a day. Owners of dogs who couldn't be persuaded to stand on the open gratings would be provided with paper that they could spread out nearby; then they could toss the droppings in the drain. But, again, budget constraints intervened and a pilot program was canceled.

Seven years after the original proposal in 1970, the law seemed to be at a dead end. "City politicians shied away from it because elected leaders were threatened by dog-owning groups that if they supported this, they shouldn't bother seeking re-election," Brandow says. "It got that ugly."

The Mayor and the Pooper Scooper

Credit for breaking the impasse is usually given to Ed Koch, who as mayor-elect in 1977 decided to take the law to the state government level. But credit is also due to the assemblyman who, during hearings, demonstrated a pooper-scooper device consisting of a bag on a stick that snapped shut. Brandow says that the show caused "a lot of laughter," but it also convinced legislators that the elderly wouldn't have to bend down, and no one would have to use their hands.

Just passing the law, of course, was only the first step, because police could never write enough tickets to persuade everyone to scoop. "It's not the law, it's the custom," Brandow says. "It was about public education and changing our perception of what our individual duties were."

And at first, many were not eager to embrace this duty. To avoid picking up from the sidewalk, one owner reportedly lined a room with Astroturf to persuade his dog to go indoors. The owner of Sandy, the dog starring in the Broadway show Annie, moved to the suburbs in protest.

Fights also arose over the details. At first, people weren't allowed to deposit their bagged poop in public trash cans. A court case had to clarify the language of the law so that anyone walking a dog, not just its owner, had to clean up. Yet another case determined that requiring Orthodox Jews to scoop on the Sabbath was not a violation of religious freedom.

But with the first successful poop-scoop law in a major city, New York started a trend that spread all over the country and the world. One city that followed quickly was San Francisco in 1978: The 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk immortalizes a moment where the mayor steps in a pile as part of a publicity campaign for the proposed law. And while many companies got into the business of selling elaborate poop-scooping technology, most people got over the public embarrassment of bending over and realized that they could reuse all kinds of bags — a fact that may well keep some subscribing to their print newspaper, since Internet news will never be delivered in a handy plastic bag.


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