About a year ago, Steve Smith rode his mountain bike through Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park carrying a small plastic bucket in his backpack. Smith routinely picks up the trash that other trail users leave behind, and on that day, he packed out no less than 25 plastic bags of dog poop.
“It was unreal—it was mind-bending,” Smith said.
And of course, it was disgusting. “My backpack was filled with other people’s dog shit,” he said.
But it was actually nothing new for Smith, a 46-year-old Oakland-based writer who uses the pen name Stevil Kinevil. For several years, he has been pushing an informal campaign to stanch a bizarre but growing trend of dog walkers abandoning plastic bags full of poop in parks and other public spaces. Several years ago, Smith printed out fliers and posted them at trailheads throughout the East Bay asking dog owners to clean up after their animals.
“And the fliers kept getting torn down,” he said. “That was baffling to me—that people were being defiant, almost as though it was their right to leave their dogs’ waste by the trail.”
Smith is one of many park users who are scratching their heads over the dog poop baggie phenomenon, which many trail users agree is worsening. It’s also not limited to trails and trailheads. Poop baggies are frequently left abandoned in gutters, in the street, on sidewalks, and even in otherwise untrammeled forest throughout the Bay Area. Many of the bags are old and decaying, indicating that no one has plans to come back for them.
And neither park staffers nor dog walkers themselves know for sure why the problem is exploding. “It’s like people don’t understand the extent of their responsibilities,” said Sean Dougan, trails development program manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. “It’s possible they think they’re doing the right thing and that park staff will pick up the bags.”
Suzanne Valente, a San Mateo County activist who has fought for increased public access for dog owners, said she thinks most dog walkers are placing the poop baggies on the ground with the idea of picking them up later when they return along the same trail. “The intention, almost always, is to pick it up later,” said Valente, the founder of the Ocean Beach Dog Owners Group.
But even if that were the intention, not everyone thinks it’s a legitimate excuse. “If I eat a Clif Bar, would it be okay for me to leave [the wrapper] on a rock if I say I’m going to get it later?” said Berkeley mountain biker Austin McInerny. “No—it’d be littering. But if you go on almost any day to any trailhead, I guarantee there are going to be three or four bags of dog poop. It’s disgusting.
“And it seems to me, in the last couple of years, it’s just boomed,” added McInerny, who has been mountain biking in the East Bay for more than 20 years. “The propensity of this is just weird.”
Terry Noonan, unit manager of interpretive parklands for East Bay Regional Parks, said he has observed an increase in the littering of dog poop baggies over the past five years. But he’s also at a loss to explain it. “Why someone puts the poop in plastic and then leaves it? I don’t know,” he said.
Whether or not dog owners feel it’s acceptable to temporarily litter, the park district says it’s not. “It’s littering, and if you’re seen doing it, you will be cited,” said Carolyn Jones, who until January was the park district’s public information officer.
While park staffers talk a hard line against dog poop scofflaws, in fact, the district has issued zero citations in the past three years for violations of dog waste rules, according to Alan Love, a park district police lieutenant.
Emails sent to three East Bay dog-walking services seeking comment generated no response.
But Smith said he has personally asked dog walkers for an explanation. “The best answer I get is that they intend to come back for it, but I can’t count the times that I’ve seen a bag by the trail and then hours later, or even the next day, seen it still there,” he said.
Valente speculated that the increasing frequency of abandoned poop bags could have something to do with increasing cellphone use. “Maybe [the dog walker is] on their way back, meaning to pick up their bag, and then they get a call that distracts them, and then they walk right by it,” she said.
She also blames, in some areas, the lack of trash cans at some trailheads, or in San Francisco, beach access points. “Nobody’s going to bring their dog poop into the car with them,” Valente said.
But Norman LaForce thinks they should. The chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee argues that there is no excuse for leaving dog feces on the ground—in a plastic bag or not. “It’s irresponsible behavior, and it’s up to the dog-walking community to take responsibility for it,” LaForce said. “And if they’re serious about it, they need to see that others in the dog community pack out their dogs’ crap, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t be out there.”
Smith continues to pick up discarded plastic baggies of dog poop when he hikes and bikes, and he remains hopeful that pet owners will eventually follow his lead. “If dog walkers see people like me packing out their bags, maybe they’ll think, ‘Oh, that guy doesn’t even have a dog, and he’s carrying a poop bag; I guess I should be doing that,’” he said.
On the other hand, his efforts could be inadvertently establishing an unsavory status quo. Dog walkers, Smith said, may “leave their bags of shit since they know others will pick it up.”
Main article photo by: Illustration by Gemma Correll