Sonny's Corner: The Impact of Dogs on Omaha’s Turner Park


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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

By Robert Klein Engler

“A stench rising from downtown streets in San Diego is drumming up a controversy…Reviews speak of … the large number of dogs that reside in that particular building. ‘The streets reek all the time of dog urine and excrement,’ says Laura H. Still.”

If Laura lived near Turner Park in Omaha, Nebraska, would she have the same complaint? And if she did have a complaint, who would listen to her? To raise the issue of dogs as a source of urban pollution is to buck the trend that sees a dog as man’s best friend. Laura and others have an uphill struggle to have limits placed on dogs in the urban environment.

Nevertheless, consider that when someone moves to Midtown Crossing in Omaha, Nebraska they expect peace, quiet and a healthy environment. Instead, it may seem they are living in a dog kennel.

A resident near Turner Park can be surrounded by dogs that bark all day while their masters are gone to work, then bark at night when they return. They may live above an open-air dog toilet, where renters let their dogs use the patio instead of walking them. They may have to step around dog urine and dog hair in an elevator and puddles of fresh dog urine outside a building’s front door every morning and evening.

Dogs are now allowed at some Midtown Crossing restaurants, too. Some restaurants boast a dog friendly patio. Regrettably, the dog friendly patios are just a few feet away from where dogs urinate and defecate.

Dog Feces and the Environment

There are more than 83 million dogs in the United States. That’s about the population of Germany living as dogs amongst us. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that a single dog excretes .75 pounds of solid waste per day. The average dog will deposit approximately fifteen thousand pounds of poop in its lifetime. By weight, that’s about four Toyota Corollas worth of dog feces.

At Midtown Crossing, that .75 pounds of dog poop per day, equates to about sixteen thousand pounds of dog poop per years deposited at the Turner Park. The carbon paw print of dogs is enormous.

When it comes to dogs, environmentalist seem to have a double standard. They worry about the damage to the environment caused by SUVs but give little regards to damage caused by dogs. Robert and Brenda Vale, two researchers from Victoria University in New Zealand, have released a study claiming dogs have a larger carbon footprint than gas-guzzling SUVs.

The Vale couple compared the average dog against a 4.6-liter V8-powered Toyota Land Cruiser and discovered that the SUV makes a 50 percent less carbon footprint than a dog.

“We’re not saying that we think SUVs are a good idea,” said Robert, “but we do find it interesting how they have been vilified for their damage to the environment while pets have been completely ignored.”

Why would damage to the environment by dogs be ignored when it is known that dog feces is an environmental pollutant? In 1991 dog feces was labeled a nonpoint source pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency, placing it in the same category as herbicides and insecticides; oil, grease, and toxic chemicals; and acid drainage from abandoned mines.

Uncollected dog feces regularly pollutes air and water sources. “A University of Colorado study found that the air in Detroit and Cleveland contains high amounts of bacteria from dog feces.”

Besides bacteria in the air, “In Gabon, a team from the French Institute of Research and Development (IRD) has detected the presence of the anti-Ebola antibody in dogs exposed to the virus. This species could thus constitute a new contaminating vector for man.” The number of Ebola cases in the US are so far few. If the disease spreads, it can also be spread by dogs, especially larger numbers of dogs in a confined environment like Turner Park.

Many dog owners believe they are being environmentally conscious if they pick up after their pets, wrap the feces in a plastic bag, and place the bag in the garbage. What they do not know is that this package of feces may end up in a landfill where it can pollute the environment for years.

Our current plastic grocery bags are made of LDPE low plastic. “If exposed to ultraviolet light, these bags have been estimated to break down in as little as five hundred years with a conservative average time of one thousand years. If there is no exposure to a light source, say at the bottom of a landfill, the plastic may remain intact indefinitely.” Some plastic wrapped dog feces from Midtown Crossing may outlast our civilization.

Dog Urine and the Environment

Dog urine isn’t any more environmentally friendly, either. The amount a dog urinates varies depending on the size and age of the dog, the content of its food, and the breed. According to Dr. Kristy Conn, “The average healthy dog will produce approximately ten to twenty milliliters of urine for each pound of body weight per day.”

There are an estimated 120 apartments in the Midtown Crossing area that surround Turner Park. With a 40 percent rate of dog occupancy, that would be forty-eight dogs. Add to that about 10 percent of dog owners having two dogs and about ten dogs coming to the park from the surrounding neighborhood, we can expect about sixty dogs each day, two times a day, will be using Turner Park as a toilet.

This may not seem like much at first, but consider that the average dog weighs about thirty pounds, and there are at least sixty dogs visiting; that’s about 600 milliliters per day, per dog, or about 10 gallons of dog pee a day, or 3,650 gallons a year.

The damage done by dogs to the urban environment can be serious in the long run. The components of dog urine can be corrosive. “Urinating dogs are being blamed for a rash of collapsing lampposts in Croatia. A report from the state-run power company says the urine left when male dogs mark their territory is corroding lamp posts to the point where they collapse after a few years.”

Furthermore, when a pedestrian was killed by a falling lamp post, “An investigation revealed the cause: dog urine had corroded its base. In response, Derbyshire County Council commissioned a survey … to monitor and study the problem… If dogs are destroying lamp posts, think of the damage they’re doing to trees…”

“It has been estimated that a single gram of dog waste can contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, which are known to cause cramps, diarrhea, intestinal illness, and serious kidney disorders in humans.”

“The EPA … estimates that two or three days’ worth of droppings from a population of about 100 dogs would contribute enough bacteria to temporarily close a bay, and all watershed areas within 20 miles … to swimming and shell fishing.”

In light of these data, if you don’t feel well after attending a concert at Turner Park, don’t blame it on too much tequila. The blame may be on the dog urine and feces you inadvertently sat in. Even if the feces is picked up, it leaves long-lasting residues that may harm humans, especially children.

It is ironic that many residents living near Midtown Crossing claim to be environmentally conscious yet overlook the damage dogs do to the environment. Two New Zealand scientists claim that “Pets have a carbon footprint that is about twice the size of the gas guzzling SUVs that have long been a bane of environmentalism.”

In their book, Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, Robert and Brenda Vale charge that a medium-size dog has a footprint of 2.1 acres compared with slightly more than one acre for a standard sport utility vehicle.

Because of these health and environmental hazards, why is there is no designated dog walk area at Turner Park, when so many dogs foul the complex? We require that people smoke in designated areas only; why can’t we do the same for people who want to walk their dogs?

Do you expect a mother with children to let her children play in Turner Park an hour after a dog has left its diarrhea on the lawn? Do those visitors to Jazz on the Green know what they carry home on their blankets and clothes after a roll in the Turner Park grass?

If a roll in the Turner Park grass is discounted, the recent news that a Colorado man was diagnosed with the rarest form of plague, pneumonic plague, an airborne disease he caught from his dog, which tested positive for the pathogen, ought to make one sit up and take notice. You’re not barking up the wrong tree if you claim dogs are a health problem at Turner Park.

Complaints about Dogs Are Real

Some property managers will say that complaints about dogs are made up. They will say this in spite of the evidence that “The barking of dogs has been shown to have an adverse effect on peoples’ physical and mental health.” (Bell et al., 1978)

Even when complaints about seemingly dangerous dogs are off leash, and ruining the lawn with their urine, some managers will not take action. Their reason for lack of action can only raise rents and insurance rates along with raising an eyebrow: “Please note we are not going to take any action for the older dog and the brown grass. Allowing pets … anywhere around Midtown Crossing brings work for our lawns, and we will continue to repair/replace every so often throughout the growing seasons.”

Bringing work for our lawns also raises rents. A recent study by Petfinder suggests that rents would be lower across the board if pets were limited in many buildings. Petfinder reports that “The data indicates there was a clear, statistically significant rent differential between housing that allowed pets and housing that did not, with pet-friendly housing charging more in rent. The rent premium found was between 20 percent and 30 percent of the average rent.”

So, we get it. A financial decision has been made by some property managers in Omaha to rent and sell apartments to people with dogs. Health and environmental concerns take a back seat to profits. The nuisance dogs cause to renters or owners is not important. Dogs help the bottom line go from red to blue. At least for now.

What can a rational person do about dogs, especially when some people are irrational about them? Many believe that just because they like dogs and are blind to the environmental and social problems dogs cause, everyone likes and can put up with dogs.

Isn’t it rational to think that if you or I went out everyday, unzipped our pants, and urinated on the flowers or sidewalk, we would not be arrested, but if Lassie does it, depositing prodigious amounts of urine, people and the police will just ignore it and walk by? It is more rational to think, “If you’re going to prohibit people pissing in public, then prohibit poodle pissing, too.”

Certainly, dogs have a place. No one should object to a service dog for the blind, but beyond that, what purpose do most dogs at Midtown Crossing serve? Yes, some dogs are needed to guard junkyards and to herd sheep, but where are the junkyards and sheep at Midtown Crossing?

How Many Dogs Are Too Many Dogs?

There may come a time when Omaha renters and condo owners will have to do more about controlling dogs. A designated dog walking area ought to be set up at Turner Park. A limit must be placed on the number and size of dogs on each floor and in each apartment building. Some floors should be dog free. A 40 percent ratio of apartments with dogs may prove to be too unhealthy.

Beyond that, the ratio of forty dogs to one hundred people at Midtown Crossing my be even higher because people outside the complex come to Turner Park to walk their dogs. How does this dog-to-people ratio compare to other urban areas at other times?

Georges Seurat’s famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” may help us answer this question about dog-to-human ratios in the past. The painting depicts an urban park at the gates of Paris during the 1880s. In the painting, a viewer can count two dogs, a monkey, and approximately forty-five men, women, and children.

That’s a ratio of about one dog to every twenty-three people in the 1880s at an urban park. The contemporary ratio of two dogs to every three people at Midtown Crossing seems outrageous. With these numbers, the environment at Turner Park could collapse under the weight of dog feces and dog urine.

“Beijing (China) is enforcing a ban on what they call ‘large and vicious dogs.’ Beijing has banned dogs taller than 14 inches since 2003, but a rabies outbreak that killed 13 people last year caused police to be stricter in enforcing it.”

A year ago, KETV in Omaha did a story on the required DNA registration of all dogs at Midtown Crossing. The dogs were to have their DNA on file so if a pile of dog feces was left on the lawn at Turner Park, management could test the feces and match it with the dog who dropped it and the owner who neglected to wrap it in plastic.

So far, no follow-up story has been done on this DNA program. We do not know how many dogs at Midtown Crossing have their DNA on file, nor how many piles of feces have been picked up and tested by management. Nor do we know how many fines have been issued.

Who believes any of these dog feces documents are available for viewing? Furthermore, how is any of this to stop dogs that come from miles around to use Turner Park as a toilet? Add to that, what is to be done about dog urine, perhaps a more abusive environmental contaminant? No one so far has come forward with a program to have dog urine DNA put on file or collected.

Sooner or later, like in China, a country many businessmen praise as a model for economic development, dogs in urban apartment complexes, with their nuisance and waste products, will be seen to be as much of a health hazard as tobacco and smoking.

A visitor to Turner Park must wonder why all around Midtown Crossing, there are signs that say, “No Smoking Within 20 Feet of the Entrance,” yet he will never see a sign that says “No Urinating or Defecating Within 20 Feet of the Entrance?” We hear about the dangers of secondhand smoke, but why do we remain deaf to the warnings about secondhand dog urine and feces?

Besides the damage dogs do to the urban environment, we should consider the damage done to dogs by living in confined, urban spaces. Many people who have concerns about the environment will not wear animal fur or knowingly do injury to a dog, yet they never consider the injury done to dogs by simply keeping them as pets.

PETA, for example, maintains, “we believe that it would have been in the animals’ best interests if the institution of pet keeping—i.e., breeding animals to be kept and regarded as pets—never existed.” They also go on to say, “This selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering.”

Renters and Buyers Should Be Told

Prospective renters and buyers at Omaha’s apartments and condos should be told the number of dogs living in the building and where the dogs reside. Once you sign a lease or get a mortgage, it’s too late to discover you are surrounded by barking dogs.

Nuisance laws are difficult and expensive to enforce. Because of this difficulty and expense, on many occasions property managers will look the other way when complaints about dogs are made. Likewise, many pet owners are beyond caring about dog regulations.

To counter this, renters and buyers must deconstruct what “pet friendly” really means before signing a lease or making a purchase. Does pet friendly mean goldfish or Great Danes? For many, pet friendly could mean dogs barking all day and night, dog urine and feces in the elevator and on their shoes, and malignant odors abounding.

It is time for property managers in Omaha to take a second look at the environmental and health issues caused by large numbers of dogs living in a confined urban area. Dog gone it! Turner Park is too nice a place. It should not be allowed to go to the dogs.


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