Researchers have calculated how much dog poop is left behind in Calgary parks — it's a lot

A dog owner in Calgary is responsible for picking up all feces their pet produces on and off their property. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC - image credit)
A dog owner in Calgary is responsible for picking up all feces their pet produces on and off their property. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC - image credit)

How often are Calgarians not picking up after their pets? A group of researchers mucked through several parks and came up with an educated guess.

About 127 grams of dog poop, per hectare, per week, is left behind in Calgary parks — that's the equivalent of 169 poops per hectare over six months. According to the city, there are more than 8,500 hectares of parkland and natural areas in Calgary.

In randomly selected places within city parks, Alessandro Massolo and other researchers would put a stake in the ground and use a 10-metre length of rope to plot out sites.

"We would define the area and then look for feces of coyotes, dogs, and other animals in that area to estimate the amount of fecal matter," said contributing author Massolo, who is an associate professor at the University of Pisa in the department of biology.

"We started thinking, 'Oh my God, this is a lot of fecal matter.'"

The data, and poop, were collected in 2011. But a recently published paper gives the public an on-the-ground look, and something to think about.

Because, according to the research, not all parks are created, or treated, equally. Off-leash areas were considered the most contaminated with feces.

That could be because owners aren't supervising their pets as closely, said Melanie Rock, who also contributed to the paper and works as a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Calgary.

Another reason she says poo may go unpicked in off-leash areas is that dogs have the instinct to seek cover when they do their business, as it puts them in a vulnerable place.

Dog poop could carry parasites, disease

Coming across poop in a park isn't just gross. Massolo said it could also have health implications for you and your dog.

He's been studying a tapeworm that can infect people, coyotes, foxes, and dogs. In some cases, the tapeworm, called Echinococcus multilocularis, can cause a tumour-like disease in humans.

The tapeworm lays its eggs in animals' intestinal tracts, so when a dog or animal poops in a park it can find the ideal host — Massolo said that's typically a mouse. Finally, to complete the cycle, a dog will find and eat an infected mouse and bring that tapeworm home.

When he lived in Calgary, Massolo said he'd always keep a close eye on his dog on and off leash, because that's where you risk picking up this tapeworm.

WATCH | What researchers found when it comes to dog poop in parks:

As a social scientist, Rock has done other research on Calgary's parks, and what factors influence the collective governance of these shared spaces. Dog poop, she said, is something that could be a conflict.

"That can make people feel as though they are themselves being neglected and that their neighbours are not respectful," Rock said.

With spring in the air, a trip to a park might show just how much poop owners have left behind.

John Merriman, a community strategist with parks and open spaces at the City of Calgary, said feces isn't on the city's spring cleaning list.

"We just don't have the capacity to go through all of the parks, all the off-leash areas; we've got over 150 of those," Merriman said. "We do rely on dog owners to pick up after their dogs any time of year."

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

City workers and contractors do try to ensure garbage bins in parks are well-maintained, Merriman said, and some locations need to be picked up more frequently than others. But their best gauge to help ensure parks don't see overflowing bins are 311 reports.

That goes for dog owners who aren't picking up after their pets, too, Merriman said.

"It's difficult for our community standards bylaw people to catch somebody in the act," Merriman said. "If citizens are aware of particular parks where people are not picking up … we'll loop in our community standards group and ask that they try to do some extra enforcement in the area."

While Rock said personal responsibility is important, there's also room for good deeds.

"As long as you're in the park and you have a plastic bag to hand, and that can be anyone, I don't feel we have to feel uncomfortable about removing someone else's dog poop," Rock said.

City alone can't keep parks poo-free

She also expressed that the city's reach in maintaining parks can only go so far. Community buy-in plays a big role in keeping a shared space clean.

"In terms of the theme of the tragedy of the commons, where it's difficult to govern a common resource, the larger the area, the more we diffuse the authority or the capacity then the more these kinds of problems take hold," she said.

Since researchers collected their doo-doo data, the City of Calgary has changed its responsible pet ownership bylaw. It addressed the maximum number of dogs one single person can bring to an off-leash area.

Rock said their study could be a good baseline to explore how this new policy affects things, on the ground, with those changes in mind.

"It won't make any difference if people don't feel it's something that can and should be taken care of," Rock said.