Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Britons at war over dog fouling

In the UK, entire communities are divided over the issue of what to do about the mess dogs are leaving on the country’s streets and public spaces. In one corner stand British dog owners, who need to take their pets out to exercise. In the other: their increasingly vocal opponents

By Jon Henley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

VIEW THIS PAGE In Edinburgh,they use a mobile CCTV van. In Lincolnshire, it’s enforcement agents on 650cc motorbikes. Kennet in Wiltshire has dished out half a million bags for free. Liverpool got council officials to pose undercover as courting couples in its parks. And Hinckley in Leicestershire hired a team of private detectives. In Cheltenham, for a while, operatives from the local authority painted pretty colored circles — one red, one yellow, one white — around every bit they found.

Abroad, the struggle has reached a higher plane. In their search for incontrovertible scientific proof, Germany’s Cologne and Dresden, Vercelli in Piedmont, Italy, and Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv in Israel, have resorted to DNA testing. Paris has adopted shock tactics in the shape of some truly revolting posters. Geneva, being Swiss, simply fines first-time offenders US$2,500. Then US$12,000 if they do it again.

Dog mess. It’s war out there.

Sorry, that sounded flippant; this is a subject that invites humor. But it’s actually not funny. A lot of people feel very strongly indeed about it; as a nation, according to Keep Britain Tidy, Britons write more letters to our elected representatives, locally and in Westminster, about dog fouling than we do about anything else. Questioned, we invariably rate it a top priority for council spending (which is fortunate, because they’re already devoting an eye-watering US$33 million a year to it).

Dog-do is, in short, a serious and emotive issue, doubtless in part because dogs themselves are now a serious and emotive issue. And nowhere — or at least, nowhere I’ve been recently — is that more evident than in the small and otherwise pretty tranquil east Devon town of Ottery St Mary in southwest England, birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and home of the Night of the Flaming Tar Barrels (I hadn’t heard of it either, but the photos look spectacular).

In the dog poo war, Ottery is something of a frontline town, with serious talk right now of banning dogs from its parks. Battle lines have been drawn. “We are witnessing,” mutters a steely-eyed man to me in the primary-school playground, “an aggressive and thoroughly unpleasant campaign by the dog lobby. I don’t want my name in the paper. But certain people in this town should be ashamed of themselves. It’s got nasty. Personal. We’re doing this for our children’s safety. Everyone should understand that.”

Rubbish, says a bitter Monica Palfrey, 74, crossing the rainswept Land of Canaan park on a mobility scooter with Kiki, Bo and Amy, her three shih tzus, perched on the front. “I’ve lived here all my life; I remember when this was just a field. Never, ever has there been talk of actually banning dogs. What are they even thinking of? Where else could people like me exercise their pets? It makes me sad. And very cross.”

At the end of last month, public consultation ended on a proposal by Ottery town council to ban dogs completely from one of the town’s two open spaces, and oblige owners to keep them on a leash in the other. As is now the case in most public areas in Britain, Ottery’s dog owners are already obliged by law to pick up their pets’ mess (“Bag it and bin it,” exhort a myriad stickers), and to keep the animals clear of the swings and slides and climbing frames of the children’s play areas.

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