Downtown Dumping, Dog-Style

Is a businessman's problem a preview of the poop ahead?

Bill Thompson is the grandfatherly type -- very accommodating, kind of quiet, very relaxed in his decostyle office. At 64, he's come out of retirement to do what he likes doing best -- running a steamship line. Throw in the excitement of downtown living and his four-legged companion, Anastasia, and he gives every appearance of a contented man.

However, that contentment was nowhere to be found on a recent day when Thompson marched his way through the residential floors of the Houston House high-rise apartment complex.

By the time he finished his rounds, occupants of the more than 200 apartments knew what instigated his ire -- dog owners allowing their charges to relieve themselves outside his place of business at 1100 Leeland.

Thompson slipped letters under the doors of every resident of the nearby 30-floor complex in the 1600 block of Fannin. He vented his rage throughout an entire page of sometimes crude writing on a crude subject. Thompson told of his final disgust at finding a particularly impressive pile of dog poop on the front stoop of his business entrance.

"If I had not known it was a pet, I may have gotten the idea that it may have been human," he wrote, without revealing how he could distinguish the source of the excrement.

Thompson loaded up legal threats in his written warning shot to residents. "This walking of your pet in this area will cease immediately."

Many Houston House dwellers were merely amused by the angry notice, although others note that such canine crap may not be a laughing matter, not with the current trends.

Population of the central city is rising with the expansion of housing units. Commercial office development and the opening of converted lofts -- the Rice Hotel is the largest -- are revitalizing the area. However, as pet owners join the parade, downtown is also going, at least in part, to the dogs. The building boom will further shrink the available fertilization space for man's best friend.

Results of this mix are not pretty, because nature doesn't provide call waiting for its non-humans.

Some large urban areas, most notably New York City, have tried to legislate away the problem with pooper-scooper ordinances requiring pet owners to pick up what their animals put down. Houston is not likely to follow suit anytime soon.

As the law stands now, a dog could stroll up to the entrance of the downtown police storefront at 1415 Fannin, lift a leg or worse, and let loose -- without committing any legal infraction. City officials said the only applicable ordinances on animals require them to be vaccinated against rabies and be controlled on a leash in public. Poop is permissible.

A law requiring an owner to clean up the mess would be hard to enforce, said Kathy Barton, chief of public affairs at the Houston Health Department. She freely admits that this is "pretty low on the totem pole" of concerns about animals.

Houston police report few complaints about animal droppings, although District C Councilwoman Martha Wong says there are weightier problems -- as in horse excrement. In her five years on the council, she has been very outspoken that horses in parades should wear aprons -- diapers of sorts -- to catch the waste before it becomes trouble for other parade participants and spectators.

"Why should we stop at poop?" asks Wong. "If someone has to walk through grass that has been urinated on, I don't think that's very sanitary either."

Patricia Mercer, executive director of the Houston SPCA, understands that animal excrement is a sanitation problem, but doesn't see why this point is being exaggerated over others that animals face.

"I can see how this might be a problem with the dense population in Houston, if we promote good pet ownership, then something like this won't be taken so seriously."

Janet Pyle-Dallas, co-proprietor of Animal Behavior Associates, said the answer may be for apartments to have designated "potty spots" for animals, with requirements that the owners have their pets use them.

Pyle-Dallas teaches animal obedience and says there can be many problems in animals adjusting to a downtown lifestyle. They can be taught to avoid defecating in certain areas. Pyle-Dallas advised pet owners to just pick up their animals' poop and place it where the owner wants the dog to go. Then the dog will catch on eventually.

But this obviously would require some time and scooping.
"There are little baggies that you can get from the dollar store that smell like baby powder," said Pyle-Dallas. "That way it doesn't get on anybody's shoes, you're a good citizen, and your hands are devoid of a crappy smell."

Pyle-Dallas also recommends that owners should get to know their pets' digestive timing; something that requires a little time and observation. This will avoid the problems that come when the pooch can't hold back.

But when all else has failed, why not try some finer points of common courtesy? "If my baby farts in a grocery store, I say excuse me, because he doesn't know any better, but I do," said Pyle-Dallas matter-of-factly.

Houston House resident Sue Smith, who doesn't scoop alongside her dog Sam, says that there are enough little pieces of grass downtown that there shouldn't be a problem finding a legitimate place for a dog to do its business.

"I don't think there's enough people downtown yet to warrant a law about this," said Smith, who relocated three years ago from suburbia.

Thompson and Anastasia, a miniature champagne poodle, are Houston House residents themselves, but he said too many neighbors were ignoring common decency with their dogs in front of his office.

"It's embarrassing to have one of your clients ask for a tissue after they've stepped in some dog business; what do you say after that?"

Thompson understood that the occasional dog relieving itself in front of his offices was no big problem. But, when the excrement situation turned to extremes, so did he. His allegations about the source of the crap are circumstantial -- Thompson said animal control workers rounded up strays in the area, so he is convinced the culprits are companions of the apartment residents.

Houston House manager Sandy Bodman bristled at Thompson's allegations as well as his letter.

"I've been in property management for over 20 years and I've never seen something like this happen; the letter was deplorable," she said. "He doesn't even know if it's our pets that are doing this."

Bodman issued her own follow-up letter to residents, saying most pet owners there are great. She guaranteed that the complex would not allow future annoying letters such as the one by Thompson.

"You have to know Bill to understand the letter," Thompson's neighbor Smith said. "Many people were outraged over it because it sounded accusatory and kind of threatening, but Bill was just upset ... I don't blame him about the letter. I'd have a problem if the mess was on my steps too."

Common sense is the ultimate solution, say Bodman and Pyle-Dallas. Thompson says there are still unwelcome daily dog deliveries around his business, but the problem has diminished somewhat.

In what may become a sign of the times for downtown's future, he has resorted to what the Houston House already has done along its front shrubbery: Thompson posted placards -- universally understood by humans if not canines -- warning that the property is a designated poop-free zone.

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