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Fido's footprint

Pets are a growing part of the climate change conundrum

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VANCOUVER -- Increasing numbers of Canadians accept that burning fossil fuels is mostly responsible for toxic greenhouse gas emissions that are overheating our atmosphere and threatening our way of life.

They know there is a scientifically proven link between the continued use of coal, oil and gas and our dependence of these forms of fuels is likely to grow as emerging economies demand refrigerators and automobiles. All of this is occurring as the Earth's population is expected to grow from seven billion to nine billion by mid-century, putting even more pressure on our already stressed planet.

As a consequence, people may start walking more or riding a bike or taking a bus. They'll dutifully recycle, turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, encourage the use of birth control and talk about the need for a clean, green revolution.

But they don't seem to be curtailing their love for fluffy Fido, even though rampant pet ownership is doing its bit to raise the environmental stakes. That's because pets have become the ultimate taboo topic at the same time as urbanization continues to redefine the way we live.

It's a growing conundrum in Vancouver, and the surrounding suburbs, as the city attempts to be the greenest municipality in the world by 2020. Simply put, people are in near-absolute denial that their dog, or cat, is, just like us, part of the climate change problem. But Fido is a consumer, too, and the end result is just plain nasty.

Consider dog feces. Despite ongoing educational campaigns, posters and signs about the need for "poop and scoop" bylaws, too many Vancouver residents are not cleaning up after their dogs and disposing of their feces properly.

Metro Vancouver alone says about 500 tonnes of dog feces are deposited in the region's 22 parks each year. (Not included in that total is a veritable mountain of dog crap dumped in all the various municipal parks, boulevards, streets and private properties throughout the region.)

While numbers of the dog population in Metro Vancouver vary, one Vancouver Sun columnist has calculated the estimated 500,000 dogs in the region would produce 61,000 tonnes a year of fecal matter. In addition, the columnist added, those same dogs would urinate enough "to fill 55 Olympic-size swimming pools each year."

All that waste from man's best friend raises immediate landfill and health problems, to say nothing about cleanup costs. Don't tell a pet owner this, but it also contributes to global warming.

"Dog poop is not fertilizer. It's full of bacteria, nitrogen and salts which don't dissolve and can be harmful to plants, aquatic life and people," one Metro Vancouver report notes. "Since dogs are meat eaters, their feces can carry pathogens including coliform bacteria, salmonella and giardia which can contaminate soil and water (and make people sick). Some parasites can linger in soil for years. This can put young children at risk if they inadvertently eat contaminated dirt or grass. Persons confined to hand-activated wheelchairs and active sports participants may also be at risk."

The regional district also encourages owners of dogs to flush their pets' waste when they get home, something that is hard to believe many people -- even so-called tree-hugging environmentalists -- ever actually do.

"Dog waste can be flushed in the toilet, and treated at a waste-water treatment plant with other sewage. Don't put it in a storm sewer (on your street) as these carry rain to natural creeks," the district says. "We want to limit the amount of dog waste going to the landfill. It's potentially hazardous to staff and it also produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas."

In a video, the regional district notes that dogs, like humans, produce waste. "Unlike humans, dogs don't use the toilet," the video says, adding the dog feces that is actually placed in about one million plastic bags each year in Metro Vancouver creates another environmental stress on plastic-rich local landfills.

Joti Samra, a Simon Fraser University adjunct psychology professor who specializes in animal hoarding, said it is clear the impact pets are having on our society is part of the overall environmental footprint since they couldn't exist without human beings.

Pets were required to do certain chores generations ago when more of us lived on farms, Samra said, adding now in urban settings "they are more of a recreation instead of a necessity."

She suggested people in cities today have pets because they have fewer children or none at all. In addition, many urban people often have a relatively high level of expendable income that can be lavished on their pets.

"I think a fundamental need that all of us have is to be needed," Samra said. "For some people, pets can serve that function."

That is very probably true. In the meantime, though, that adorable scamp Fido is eating too much, crapping too much and making a bigger environmental footprint than he was originally bred to do. Just like human beings, dogs are part of a problem that needs to be acknowledged, and soon, especially by their doting pet owners.


Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free

Press West Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2013 A9

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