Now that marijuana is legal, it’s quite possible there’s a new top crime in Durango that goes largely unpunished: pet owners not cleaning up their dog’s poop.
But that might soon change as local officials look for ways to curb a problem that has become a seemingly permanent fixture on every city street, park and trail.
“I think the council would support that cause because we’ve all been victimized by it in our yards, and certainly on trails and public spaces,” Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said.
“It’s just astounding. The people who find Durango an attractive, healthy place to live also seem inconvenienced by picking up their own dog’s poop. If you can’t deal with the metabolic processes of your dog, you probably shouldn’t have one.”
The problem has become a hot button issue around town. In a March 6 letter to the editor in The Durango Herald headlined “Mountains of feces spoil local trails,” Durango resident Susan K. VanDenBerg lambasted “irresponsible dog owners” who leave behind “piles and piles” of animal feces.
“The dog park, Animas Mountain, Colorado Trail, Dalla Park, to name but a few, are no longer pristine and beautifully scented of pine,” VanDenBerg wrote. “They have become mountains of dog poop, caused by the very people who claim to be environmentalists, lovers of nature and sport enthusiasts.”
As it stands, the fine for not cleaning up your animal’s waste is $38 for the first violation, and an immediate summons to court for the second. However, limited staffing at La Plata County Animal Protection makes it difficult to catch perpetrators in the act.
“There’s two of us for the whole city, so we’re pretty outnumbered,” said Kristin Cannon, a field supervisor. “The only thing we can do is pickup patrols, and we’ve arranged with the parks department to cover more ground. It’s definitely on our radar.”
Cannon said she thinks Durango is headed the way of other mountain towns dealing with the same issue. In Telluride, for instance, lazy pet owners can face up to $250 in fines, and even be forced to perform an ironic community service: picking up dog poop.
“If there were to be a community request that we need to change the enforcement or raise fees, it would be my sense it would be collaborative effort with the city and animal control,” said Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz.
Yet, both local officials hope the problem won’t require such action. Metz said the city provides waste bags at many trailheads, and the preferred solution is for pet owners to take responsibility.
“It really boils down to people doing the right thing,” she said.
An environmental issueGiven Durango’s “environmentally conscious” reputation, the indifference to not picking up dog waste is downright inexplicable, many said, as there’s no denying the severe environmental impact dog waste has on ecosystems.
Because of the high nutrient content in dog waste, the Environmental Protection Agency more than two decades ago put it in the same category as herbicides and insecticides, toxic chemicals, oil and acid drainage from abandoned mines.
The Centers for Disease Control confirmed dog poop can easily spread parasites, including whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, parvo, coronavirus, giardiasis, salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis and campylobacteriosis, just to name a few.
And canine feces has been proven to wreak havoc on water systems: Researchers trying to find the cause of elevated levels of E. coli in the middle Rio Grande River near Albuquerque found dog poop was the second most prevalent bacteria source after birds.
“It definitely can add up,” said Melissa May, a natural resource specialist for the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District. “The dogs have pretty much free rein here, and it can be a big contributor, especially in urban areas, with a river in the recreation corridor.”
In 2015, a two-year study found elevated levels of E. coli in the Animas River near the state line with New Mexico, yet May said samples were not tested to track if dogs were a source.
“E. coli is really the ‘dandelion of pollutants,’” said Janice Lopitz, a coordinator for Keep It Clean Partnership in Boulder County. “And it’s one of the biggest pollutants in Colorado.”
Lopitz said in Boulder County, a coalition of local communities created an educational outreach program to address unsafe levels of E. coli in local waterways, which some suspect was a result of a booming population of which about one in three residents has dogs.
The program, which includes a five-week “green tag” training course, is designed to create “social norming” for picking up dog waste. Yet, a few years in, indifference reigns supreme.
“I wish I could say it’s solved, but I think we still have a long way to go,” she said. “It really is just having everyone understand it’s all our backyard, not just theirs.”
Will the rules change?Chris Nelson, director of La Plata County Humane Society, also, cautioned that if pet owners keep up the disrespectful practice, newly imposed regulations on canines could have adverse impacts on the way of life in Durango.
“If it gets so out of control, they could ban dogs on the river trail, and how horrible that would be?” he said. “Everybody says they pick up after their dog, but clearly, some people are out there not doing it. I see it all over the place, and it’s just gross.”
Daisy Dickson, a trainer with Durango Dog College, said the problem got so bad this winter that a group of dog enthusiasts organized an impromptu cleanup.
“We found anywhere we went there were mass loads of dog poop all over city park, trails, sidewalks, even where the city had supplied the poop dispensers,” she said.
Dickson hopes future events, such as the “Easter Poop Hunt,” which awarded prizes to the biggest pooper scoopers, and effectively filled an entire city trash can in one day, will encourage similar cleanup days.
If not, Durango could be headed for a world where dogs, and their owners, are among the town’s most habitual offenders.
“I don’t know what it would take,” Nelson said. “Public shaming?”