There’s a litter problem on 34th Street.
Look along the busy roadway and you’ll see the detritus blowing around: plastic bags, crushed beer cans and limp cardboard, cigarette butts sprinkled as far as the eye can see.
This is where to find Trash Wolf in his natural habitat.
He wields a collapsible waste bin and a long trash grabber stick in his fuzzy paws. He peers down at the chip bags and takeout cups from underneath a $250 hyperrealistic wolf mask. He announces his presence with a throaty, “Howl yeah!”
The man in costume, halfway between eco-influencer and vigilante litter police, is on a mission to make us all aware of how much junk is in our neighborhoods. Trash Wolf hunts thoroughfares across Tampa Bay to rescue pounds and pounds of filth — over 5,000 so far — and posts videos on Instagram, where over 2,300 followers watch his cleanups. He does not mind the cars speeding right next to him, the sights and smells he finds along the way or the Florida sun baking into his fur.
“At the end of the day, Trash Wolf is a sex symbol,” he said. “He’s got to be hot, literally and figuratively.”
The lupine warrior behind this task is 40-something St. Petersburg resident Mateo Smith. He’s lived around Tampa Bay since he was 7, from Ybor City to Pass-a-Grille. He has a career in beverage sales and loves performing in weekly drum circles at the beach. And he spends his lunch breaks, commutes home and weekends scanning the side of the road — sometimes in costume, sometimes in street clothes, always hunting in a Trash Wolf mindset.
“It’s actually really fun,” he said. “Going to downtown St. Pete and buying a flatbread and an $18 cocktail, that’s boring compared to Trash Wolf.”
Smith’s social media posts have attracted features in Real Simple magazine, the Weather Channel and Bay News 9. The publicity is a key part of his quest. He’s knows he can’t pick up every piece himself — but he can assemble a pack to help.
“I could go out there today and come back tomorrow. It’ll look the same,” he said. “The number one thing I’m pushing is awareness. Just notice how much trash is out here. You don’t have to go full-blown Trash Wolf, though I would like you to.”
Smith usually collects rubbish about four times a week. Quick post-work trips are mostly maskless, but his long weekend hunts may feature his full getup, which includes black leggings and a black, long-sleeved undershirt for the full animal effect. This is also when he shoots batches of content for his social posts, which range from weekly trash-collecting playlists to garbage montages set to rock music.
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The inspiration came a few years ago when Smith took the bus in Hillsborough County for the first time.
“All the bus stops were just trashed,” he said. “As I was riding, I realized it’s not just the bus stops … everywhere you look there’s trash.”
Tampa Bay is home to numerous cleanups and volunteer groups that patrol waterways, parks and beaches. But the more Smith looked, the more he saw debris in urban spaces, like parking lots and neighborhoods.
“What if there was a way to make people nervous or afraid of littering?” he thought. Some creature out there lurking … prowling …
“I think of a wolf as a leader. Obviously intimidating, right?” he said. “They’re fast, they’re agile, they work on their own but they also work in a pack.”
He worked up the courage to buy a mask about a year ago, though the first one was not conducive to slinking around. It was rubbery and plastic, and “it just looked stupid.” So he scoured Etsy until he found a handmade wolf head from Ukraine that looked as realistic as possible, with icy blue eyes and pointy fangs.
“People are gonna laugh at this and they’re going to do that anyway, but I at least want to be proud of what I’m doing,” he said.
Though Smith has created an identity that involves dressing as an anthropomorphic animal, he is adamant that he is not among the furries, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a person who identifies with and enjoys sometimes dressing as anthropomorphic animals.”
This has not stopped people from sending him rude, sometimes explicit messages.
“When I first started it, I didn’t realize how much people hate furries,” he said. “That’s not what I’m trying to be. Trash Wolf is supposed to be intense and like a serious thing.”
Smith has gained fans despite the haters. His most enthusiastic followers, he said, are children and middle-aged women. But all are welcome to join his pack.
“This is a war that we’re all fighting together. We are all victims of litter,” he said. “It’s never a blame, it’s never a ‘Look what you’ve done!’ It’s ‘What can we do?’”
Follow the Trash Wolf
Trash Wolf, Tampa Bay’s litter-fighting environmental advocate, can be found on Instagram and TikTok as @therealtrashwolf.