The walk from my apartment to the closest subway station takes about 10 minutes. I usually try to zone out. There’s not much to look at. Most of Beijing’s neighborhoods are packed with high-rise apartment buildings that clog the skyline, each as forgettable as the next. Mine is no different. Except for the turds.
Dog turds are everywhere. And by everywhere I mean every few yards: one stinking, sticky landmine after another. Worse yet, the same turds often sit on the sidewalk for several days before they’re either washed away or scooped up by street cleaners. I know because I walk the route several times a week.
One day I kept a tally of the turds I passed. In the middle of the sidewalk. On a curb. In front of a school. Outside the entrance of a chicken feet restaurant. By the time I got to 40, I felt like gagging and stopped looking down.
Before I moved to Beijing, I was warned about the risks of eating street food, the potential for respiratory problems because of the polluted air and the challenges that come with the language barrier. But the abundance of dog turds caught me by surprise.
In the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government spent billions of dollars on infrastructure improvements. Subway lines were extended and factories that emit large amounts of pollution were closed a couple of months ahead of the Opening Ceremony to ensure clean air. The makeover included etiquette, and locals were encouraged to improve their manners and refrain from actions such as spitting on sidewalks or shoving to get in and out of subway cars.
During the same time period, several laws were passed regarding dog ownership, including an ordinance that required owners to pick up after their animals. People who didn’t comply could face a 50 RMB ($8) fine.
Mary Peng, one of the founders of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing, said she believes most dog owners are respectful of the law. “Dog owners sometimes don’t pick up their dog’s waste when in public areas and if they are caught unprepared without something to pick up after their dog,” she said in an email.
I’ve never seen anyone ticketed for breaking the law. And perhaps that’s because, compared to some other cities in the world, Beijing’s ordinance is not very strict. In New York City, for example, dog owners who don’t pick up after their animals can be fined up to $250, according to state law. People who abuse the “dog fouling” law in the town of Richmond, England, may be prosecuted and fined up to 1,000 pounds. The town has even set up an online reporting system, where users can “describe the fault” and pinpoint the location of the fouling.
The laws are strict because animal feces left on streets and sidewalks can end up in storm drains, polluting the water with bacteria harmful to people.
Complicating efforts to keep Beijing’s sidewalks clean is the number of dogs in the city. According to the Associated Press, after the Communist Party took power in 1949, dog ownership was discouraged. It later tolerated after Mao Zedong died in 1976. By 2001, there were at least 100,000 dogs in Beijing.
In 2006, the government implemented a policy restricting residents of Beijing to one dog per household. The measure did little to keep their numbers down, and today there are between 2 million and 3 million dogs in the city, Peng said. But official records only reflect 30 to 50 percent of the actual number because many dog owners do not register their pets.
A few days after the unscientific turd count, I set out for the subway station, this time determined to ignore what the neighborhood dogs had left behind. I looked up at the sky and began to daydream of spring, my favorite season. But before I could step outside my body, I stepped into something else.