Having warded off bankruptcy, this city has now turned its full attention to a serious issue - the dog-manure crisis.
The controversial material has in effect been designated a controlled substance by a strict new state health law that went into action this week in New York City and Buffalo. The law stops short of prohibiting dogs from making deposits - the legislature was not prepared to go that far - but instead compels an entirely different species (humans) to remove from the street the end product of their pets' lively digestive processes.
Police, sanitation officers and meter maids have been instructed to first advise violators of their legal responsibilities and then, if escape is attempted, to ticket without mercy. Fines of $25 to $100 await those convicted of reckless dogging.
What we have here is an issue that pits the age-old right to eliminate freely in public against society's responsibility to protect the shoes of its citizens. Much is a stake. For centuries, the dogs of New York have been addicted to this pungent form of self-expression. Why they do it no one knows. Perhaps defiling the sidewalks is a form of revenge - their only way of protesting the theft of the dogs' natural birthright: that of romping through woods, hills and meadows rather than concrete. Or maybe it's just something they ate.
At any rate, the practice has grown increasingly tedious to non-dogs. A tolerant breed, New Yorkers have come to accept being mugged, shot, burglarized and run down by taxicabs, but there are limits even to their patience. The legislator who sponsored the bill, state Sen. Franz Leichter of Manhattan, asserts, though not with a sense of civic pride, that New York City leads the world in accumulated dog waste. Few New Yorkers would dispute him for they are a people long used to walking with eyes downcast, a people perpetually poised to leap aside, a people bearing a long history of prematurely discarded footwear. Through hard experience they have learned that a dog's worst feature is neither its bark nor its bite.
The relevant statistics are suitably revolting, if (understandably enough) inexact. There are said to be a million owned dogs in New York and 400,000 strays. The city health department estimates their annual rate of production at 20,000 tons a year. (Mercifully, it has spared us the if-it-were-all-laid-end-to-end statistic.) Ecologically, this inundation seems the urband equivalent of a continuing major oil spill. It was clearly time for law and ordure to prevail. As Sen. Leichter put, "There is no inalienable right to pollute the street."
Many dog owners have been compliantly bending to their lawful past. For others, however, it's business as usual. This new criminal class can be divided into two basic packs. There are the militants, vowing open defiance, quoting from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and demanding jury trials if brought to justice. Then there are the skulkers. You see them out nights prowling stealthily in the shadows, peering about with furtive giances before permitting their charges to evaculate.
Rear guard legal actions are still being fought. The dog lobby almost stopped by the narrowed margin. When the law took effect Tuesday, an organization called the Pet Owners Protective Association went to court seeking an injunction went to court seeking an injunction to stop it. Its president, Max Schnapp of Brooklyn, proclaimed that he thought there was a vendetta against dog owners and that the law would not work and that furthermore, it's unconstitutional.
One suspects that the real motive behind this dogged resistance is the loss-of-dignity factor. This powerful element cannot be ignored. A Freudian would have a field day analyzing all the psychic implications in the act of scooping, as it is known here. It is enough to observe, however, the pervasive sense of shame evident in the words and expressions of those affected. After all, it was hard enough on the egos of dog owners having to accompany the animal day after day on its annointing rounds. Now they are reduced to the status of latrine orderly. Sensitive passersby can only politely avert their gaze from the offal spectacle unfolding before them and attempt to suppress giggling, which merely increases the stigma.
It is also significant that Schnapp is the owner of a Great Dane. Owners of Great Danes, it has been noted, seem to find the law more odious than the owners of, say, Chihuahuas.
The drastic change in relations between dog owners and dog droppings here has caught the technological sector unprepared.The state of the art is depressingly primitive. Generally employed for the purpose are plastic bags (which may be placed over the hand inside out for the grab, then reversed) pieces of cardboard, paper towels, newspapers (a TV newscaster reported the New York Times perfect for the task) and a specially made long-handled shovel, regrettably known as the pooper-scooper, which is selling briskly in pet shops. There have also been reports of experimented dog lavatories in various stages of development and at least one dog trainer is advertising that she can teach your beast a new trick, namely to relieve itself catlike in a small carton or pile of papers in the privacy of your own bathroom.
Perhaps the future will bring a scientific breakthrough of epic proportion, some now-unforeseen spin-off from space technology, for instance, that will revolutionize emission control.
Or perhaps not.
By far the most deplorable aspect of the fecal crisis here has been the accompanying verbal pollution. The perception of respite from the traditional boredom of the journalistic dog days of deep summer has unleashed transparent media glee. TV news cameras, with their customary delicacy, have not hesitated to zoom in on the very act of scooping itself, carrying it right into the living room and with prurient zeal rubbing the viewer's nose in the big story. Frustrated print journalists, barred by family newspaper tradition from employing the One True Anglo-Saxonism applicable, all to eagerly regressed to such puerile euphemisms as "poop" and "doo." The Daily News reported a "poopetrator brought to justice." And the New York Post, in what was hailed in some quarters as classic in the field, bannered: "City dog owners doing their duty."
It's enough to make one long for the return of impending bankruptcy.