Post by Tom Webb, Department of History, University of Liverpool
Dog excrement has been identified as a major public health concern in the United Kingdom and beyond. It also provokes feelings of disgust and raises questions about cleanliness and civility in the city. This public lecture explored the past and present of dog mess in the city through its history, in modern art and in current efforts to deal with the issue at the community level.
Historian Chris Pearson (University of Liverpool) opened the lecture by charting the history of dog mess within Paris, London and New York. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Chris argued that dog faeces emerged as a problem at a moment when engineers, doctors and city officials strove to produce a hygienic city that was protected from human and animal wastes. Anxieties over the spread of Toxocoriasis through contact with dog faeces in the 1970s, especially within Britain, ensured that it became a public health threat in the latter twentieth century. This not only resulted in campaigns and legislation to tackle the issue, such as the pooper scoop law in New York (1978), but dog mess also acted as a way for people to articulate their wider fears about socio-economic problems and the stresses of urban life.
Chris’ talk demonstrated that the history of dog mess offers a conduit for exploring varying themes within environmental and urban history. As a filthy yet fascinating taboo within our supposedly clean cities, Chris acknowledged that it is a “reminder of our cities’ histories of public health, human-animal relations and fears and feelings sparked by dirt and disgust.” As he concluded: “If it’s any consolation, each time we step on dog mess, we’re stepping on history.”
Following on from the history of dog mess, David Joseph-Goteiner (a French-American artist based in Paris) offered a fascinating talk about his films that are inspired by Parisian dog mess in public spaces. Set against the backdrop of Paris as an iconic city of art and fashion, David’s films used dog mess to subvert and nuance this image of Paris, where dog ‘poop’ became the ‘paint’ to create art on the blank canvas of the city street.
In one his films David walked through the streets of Paris in a brand new pair of Adidas Stan Smith trainers – as a symbol of fashion – and trudged through, spread around, and kicked, around 300 pieces of dog mess during a 24km walk. In another, he wore a pair of pink marigolds and picked up dog mess, which he collected in a Chanel No.5 – or ‘Chien No.5’ – bag. Abiding by Parisian law that dogs are allowed to defecate in the gutter, he placed these collected dog poops along the gutter of a particular street, raising the issue of dog mess and responsibility in the public domain. David’s subsequent encounter with a disgruntled local resident showed how the intersection of art, everyday life, and encounters with dog mess, could come to a messy head.
The final talk by veterinary scientist Eric Morgan (Queen’s University Belfast) took these everyday urban encounters with dog mess into the British context through a discussion of the Poo Patrol project. Coming from a public health perspective, Eric outlined how an interdisciplinary team based at the University of Bristol have been working on creating a toolkit to help local communities tackle the issue of dog mess and raise awareness of Toxocoriasis.
Eric’s talk offered interesting insights into how the academy can engage with local communities to help foster solutions to the issue of dog mess from the ground up. Their Poo Patrol Big Spray Day last month, which involved 40 schools and community groups going on their own poo patrols with stencils and spray kits, demonstrates how academics can successfully interact with the local community.
As a historian, I came away from this event thinking about how useful dog mess can be for exploring and creating connections between the environmental, medical, political, cultural and social histories of urban life. The success of an interdisciplinary panel also highlighted how dog mess is a useful way of connecting varying approaches and forms of scholarship, and could act as a template for further interdisciplinary collaborations in the future.
The public lecture was, in no doubt, also strengthened by the ways in which dog mess provoked both laughter and disgust from the audience, as well provoking their own recollections of their everyday messy encounters with this issue.