I met a woman in the woods this morning (not the first, by the way), who was shocked that I had picked up my dog’s poop.
When I say “not the first,” I don’t mean not the first woman. I mean that this particular woman was one of a long line of individuals who have found it very surprising (and communicated as much) that I pick up my dog’s poop. This woman gesticulated wildly, sweeping both arms to encompass the surrounding area, while proclaiming that I should “let the poop return to nature.”
Of course, this entire conversation took place in French, so it was difficult for to explain the dog poop is not actually natural. I tried to say to the woman that Fox poop was natural but not dog poop. She pooh-poohed me (no pun intended), asking, “and what am I supposed to do, pick up the poop of all of my dogs?” She had about seven dogs with her, give or take.
Side note: I think I might like to live in this woman’s utopia because it sounds like a lot more fun than my jaded, bummed out reality.
In my reality, I responded, “Yes, if you have dogs you should be prepared to pick up their poop.” And I meant it. I mean, to begin with her dogs were all about the size of my dog’s head, so their poop would be quite small and not particularly taxing to “ramasse.” Also, while it’s true that this is a big forest and may appear akin to wilderness for people who have not spent time in the wilderness, it is still finite, a microcosm of our finite planet. The number of people who walk their dogs in this forest on a regular basis adds up to more poop than the forest can handle. This is no different than people thinking larger ecosystems like the earth’s oceans can handle an unlimited amount of pollution. Sadly, this reality does not seem to shift behavior all that much, certainly not in the case of the forest by our home (part of which is, by the way, protected as a World Heritage/Unesco site).
In brief, poop (or scat) from animals that live in the forest will biodegrade because it’s all material that comes directly from said forest. Companion animal poop is not the same. Studies have shown that the bacteria from their poop does not breakdown of the same way and can cause dangerous increases and bacteria in the water of an area. My dog has regularly contracted some nasty bacteria from drinking out of puddles around our neighborhood and in the forest where we walk. Most people do not pick up their dog’s poop in the forest or around our neighborhood. In fact, one fellow has actually trained his dog to poop in the middle of the street so that cars run over and flatten it and he no longer has to pick it up.
It rains a lot in Belgium. What happens to the poop when it rains? You do the math.
Explaining all of this in French, of course, is not entirely possible for me and not all that enticing. To be honest, I really don’t enjoy confrontation, even in English. I avoid it like the plague.
This whole conversation came about because one of this woman’s dogs, the chocolate labrador that was a “normal “size (and by normal, I mean relative to the amount of poop she would have to pick up), was continuously jumping up and trying to eat the bag of poop I was holding a loft in my hands.
In the greater scheme of things, this interaction and what it communicates may not seem like a big deal; however, to me it is an indication, however small, of a much bigger problem. The problem is that there are many people around the world who simply do not reflect on their actions or the repercussions for the planet. As a species, we are not the best at seeing the rippling effect and big picture from our actions in the present; forget about the future.
Having a dog and several cats, I recognize that already I’m not really doing the earth a favor. Simply by existing, I’m not really doing the earth a favor. However, as my father told me years ago when I was bemoaning the damage I would do to the planet if I had a child one day, “you cannot be a martyr to the cause. You still need to be happy, and some things are not worth sacricing.
I never did end up having a child (that’s a different story), but I have had several dogs and cats over the years and more than a few chickens. I am not a martyr; of this I am certain. I regularly participate in consumer society when I am stressed out or in need of a pick me up. I buy things I don’t need, and I eat a lot of dairy and fish. Every few months, I crave more substantial meat and get some chicken or salami. I feel bad about it. I have no illusions about what these animals suffer so that I can for fulfill a craving.
I also know from years of experience working in customer service, which is essentially the main role of an interpretive park ranger, that simply providing facts will not convince someone of your position. In fact, most of the time when people are very convinced of something (regardless of whether this belief is grounded in any kind of reality) there is very little chance they’ll change their mind. Most of my training was to learn how to communicate compassionately en lieu of debate or attempting to change a person’s mind, and this is what I did for the most part. I did this with visitors to national parks and also with my neighbors. At the end of the day, being kind and understanding at least seemed to shift their opinion of me (and subsequently, my belief system) from enmity to respect, even if it was begrudging. They might not believe what I was saying or share my values, but at least they respected me. One small, but significant, step for humankind.
The thing is, after all of my compassionate communication and empathy practice, I can’t say that I really respect this woman in the forest. I know that I am supposed to empathize with her and try to understand and appreciate where she is coming from. However, I sometimes feel like she is behaving from an uninformed, selfish stance. I will continue to smile and wish her a “bonne promenade” when I see her, which is often. However, I can no longer operate under the assumption that she is making choices that reflection taking responsibility for her actions (i.e., having dogs that poop and taking them for walks outside). I know beyond the shred of a doubt that she does not pick up after them. She told me so and suggested I do the same. I also know that she believes this to be fine and “natural” behavior. She told me so and did not seem to harbor any concern for the forest or future generations of people or other species.
What to do?
Do I print out articles in French that show her position to be false? Somehow, I just don’t think this is going to change anything. I also do not relish creating conflict out of a desire for self-care and sanity. I know that I would experience an elevation in stress every time my dog and I walk in the woods (which is just about every day), anticipating that I might see this woman and become the brunt of her ill-conceived sense of citizenship. I already experience enough stress in the woods from so many dogs attacking my own on a regular basis (another area where people seem to be operating in denial). There are definitely some people who keep their dogs on a leash and who will let me know from a distance that their dog is not friendly, but there are others who will watch their dog biting my boot as I try to kick them away from my dog and say, “Oh, that’s totally normal. He bites me, too.”
As has become a regular habit, when these instances occur I tend to reflect on my husband’s advice:
Don’t sweat the small stuff. You can’t solve every problem in the world.
This may be sage advice, though it can feel like a cop out. I feel my heart break every time I witness a situation where this poor planet experiences yet another injury/insult/slight. I suppose the most innocuous recourse I have found is to write about it. This is a way for me to communicate my despair and disappointment while also experiencing some kind of catharsis through the creative process.
On several occasions, I have picked up my dogs poop, put it in the trash, and then instantly stepped in dog poop. One time, I texted my husband to ask what he thought it all meant.
Hold on tight, planet earth. We are on one hell of a Sisyphean ride.