ST. PETERSBURG — The words painted on the garbage can radiated with indignation at the end of the driveway.
It was a plea to pet owners in Bayou Highlands, sure, but also the cry of homeowners across the nation, engaged in a searing debate: May one throw dog poop into someone else’s trash?
This great debate has in recent weeks been argued from Pinellas Point to Dunedin, from Ballast Point to Port Tampa City. The balance of opinions appears shockingly even.
Neighborhood-based social media site Nextdoor said it could offer no data, but Shelli Martineau, a social media consultant in Seattle, met with their marketing team a few years ago for work. What was Nextdoor’s most popular topic, she asked. “In unison they responded, ‘People fighting about whether it is OK or not for others to put dog poop in their trash cans.’ ”
The debate is now as indelible to the Nextdoor experience as, “I saw a suspicious truck,” “Why is a helicopter over my house?” and “Were those fireworks or gunshots?” For instance:
I don’t have a dog and I don’t want your %&$#!!! — Hyde Park, Tampa
It’s a trash can!! People should be happy they picked it up. — Coquina Key, St. Petersburg
One of my favorite things is when someone throws dog crap in my bin in the middle of August. I just love the baked dog crap smell that hits my nostrils. … Come back and smell it sometime! — Pinellas Point, St. Petersburg
(Being clean) is not what (garbage cans) are meant for. Your own little garbage shrine. — Crystal Beach, Palm Harbor
The debates start at a point of agreement: People must pick up after their dog. Those who don’t are bad and should feel bad. Beyond that, it gets messy.
“It all goes to the same place,” St. Petersburg’s Mandy Muller, owner of a bulldog (Brinks) and a mastiff (Bellis), told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview. “Carrying a pound of poop with one hand while holding dogs back from chasing squirrels gets a little crazy. … Just be a good neighbor.”
“Yeah? Does that mean I can take my stinking shrimp shells and put them in their garbage can?” Davis Islands resident Jill Solomon, owner of Buckles the bichon, said by phone.
Is there a right answer? Is there an issue so apolitical, so secular, so low stakes and petty that a majority of Americans can agree?
“Where we’re from in Europe there are no doggie bags. You go to the park and there’s s--t everywhere, then the trash guys come and clean it,” said Marko Katanic, who moved to South Tampa from Serbia a few years ago. He grew more agitated by what he deemed a particularly American argument as he went on. “People should be grateful that people pick it up here! It’s a trash can! Are you going to eat from it?”
In search of a tolerable answer, the Tampa Bay Times asked ethicists to weigh in. But first, a brief review of the matter.
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Around half a million dogs drop an estimated 125 tons of waste around Tampa Bay daily, according to rabies tag records and research commissioned by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program in 2010 for a Scoop That Poop campaign. (Unscooped poop contaminates local waters). They found that 3 out of 4 Tampa Bay dog owners claimed to always scoop, while 8 percent rarely did and a shameful 6 percent never did.
Prior to the 1970s, scooping wasn’t a thing. At best, people had their pup go near a sewer drain. The first major city to ponder a “pooper scooper” law was New York in 1971. Animal rights groups — fearful the burden would lead to dog abandonment — and pet owners resisted so fiercely it took seven years to pass. Municipalities across the U.S. followed, including in Tampa Bay.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has received 27 calls so far this year, mostly filed under “neighbor trouble,” that referenced dog poop in some way — shoved toward a neighbor’s face, left on a neighbor’s porch, or placed in a neighbor’s mailbox. While several callers referenced supposed threats of violence, only one incident ended in arrest, for misdemeanor battery.
Legally speaking, it is not criminal in this state to touch a neighbor’s garbage can — or to dig through it. Florida statute deems its contents abandoned, the expectation of privacy void.
Tampa and St. Petersburg do, however, have civil ordinances against placing garbage in the container of another person who has paid for its collection, punishable by a $500 fine. Good luck getting code enforcement out for a little sack of dog doo.
But, as George Costanza once said, we’re living in a society.
“An action can be legally permissible, but still something one morally should not do,” said Michael Bukoski, a philosophy professor at Florida State University focusing on ethics.
A utilitarian would say the morally right action is the one producing the greatest total amount of happiness, Bukoski said. We must compare the pleasure and pain of the dog walker versus the owner of the trash can.
Fat chance neighbors agree on what’s more painful, an afflicted trash can, or a long walk with a precariously full bag.
From a consequentialist view, trash can owners should consider whether banning poop would lead dog owners to commit Nextdoor’s cardinal sin: leaving it on the ground.
“If we wanted guidance from Aristotle on this, he’d say, ‘Ask what a virtuous person would do,’ ” said Arina Pismenny, who teaches ethics and contemporary moral issues at the University of Florida. “Virtues could be diligence, on the part of the dog owner to make sure the bag doesn’t rip, or generosity, from the can owner.”
Perhaps trash can defenders prefer the teachings of Immanuel Kant, who believed that “above all, morality demands respect for all people,” said philosophy professor Duncan Purves at UF. “Never treat a person as merely an instrument to pursuing our own ends … as if they were a tool.”
Using a neighbor’s trash can might be treating your fellow man like a tool — a big smelly plastic one.
Danielle Allen, dog owner and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, went practical. She thinks it’s OK if the trash has not yet been collected, and the poop bag is durable and well-sealed. “Otherwise, I carry my bag home.”
Only the chair of the philosophy department at the University of South Florida, Alexander Levine, took the opportunity to muse on a “classic first world problem.”
When a neighbor put poop in his trash, Levine recalled, it sat in his garage for three days, a “malodorous reminder of the inevitability of poop,” and how “not to have to think about poop, one’s own, one’s children’s, or one’s pets’, is a great privilege.
“However, so long as we choose to live in close proximity to each other, sharing resources and infrastructure and enjoying the economies of scale that result, poop is a social problem,” he said. “As citizens of a democracy, we are obligated to give it some thought. … The neighbor’s actions may have been rude, but speaking for myself, I’m grateful for the reminder.”
Helpful frameworks, but the academics had conducted no field research on the matter.
St. Petersburg’s Kristin Carson runs ByByPoo, which will for a fee remove dog poop in all quantities. Does she think it’s OK to use a neighbor’s can?
“No,” she said definitively. She paused. “But I’m not going to force my beliefs on anyone.”