Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Who let the damned dogs out?

Since my low-class car doesn’t merit entry into our single-car garage, it remains outdoors where it has become a depository for avian waste. A large tree extends over our driveway and the curb in front of our house so there is no parking space that is out of the line of fire. One particular evening, what had to have been an entire softball team of geese returning home after an evening of beer and burritos at Xochimilco, took a rest stop in our tree and rained the remnants of their fiesta down upon my Sentra. I couldn’t help but feel victimized by the assault, although my more rational side knew that this was a random act and that wild birds, especially those that have had a few, are not beholden to the rules of common decency. Not so for pets.

Allowing one’s hound to seek relief on a neighbor’s yard is bad form, plain and simple. Refusing to clean-up that waste is barbaric. Yet many dog owners, at least in my neighborhood, have no qualms about letting their canine charges stoop in foreign territory and feel no responsibility to remove the offending matter once planted. Is it laziness or something else that causes humans to take such a cavalier attitude?

Perhaps the disinclination to scoop doesn’t arise from imposition, but from a feeling that the natural order is disturbed when we set boundaries on how and when animals are allowed to answer nature’s call. I’m thus given to wonder if certain dog owners don’t live vicariously through their pet’s public defecations. If the ability to eliminate upon first instinct and without impunity doesn’t appeal to a deep-seated desire to be free of the repression that is placed upon them in a sanitary society. To them, it may be, that freedom isn’t represented by a torch-bearing personification of liberty that welcomes immigrants to our shores, but by a crouching mutt doing his business wherever he damn well pleases.

But perhaps I’m over-analyzing. It’s certainly laziness, coupled with a significant degree of disgust, that keeps most people from doing the right thing. But identifying the cause doesn’t always lead to a solution.

The county is currently undertaking a campaign designed to keep pets from laying waste to public spaces, citing potential health risks. They hope to persuade pet owners of their duty to protect public health. There is also the matter of a public ordinance that carries a penalty for such an offense. But as the SJ-R noted in an editorial today, the potential $500 fine is inconsequential if it is never imposed. There is another problem as well - the fine is much too high.

No one would ever imagine that a park police officer would write them a $500 citation because Mr. Biddles went poopers near the playground. So it serves as no deterrent. If the fine were $20, payable within 10 days or animal control pays a visit, that sounds much more plausible and people would be more likely to head to the dog park for their canine constitutionals.

Economists will tell you that people act based on incentive. The reason that many people don’t clean up after their dogs is the same reason that they don’t return their shopping carts to the designated corral or dispose of their cigarette butts in an appropriate manner, there isn’t sufficient incentive for them to do so. Yet Aldi’s shoppers can witness how a measly quarter, that is used to obtain a cart and is refunded when the cart is returned to the proper place, can alter people’s behavior and get them to act in the desired manner.*

The key is finding the right incentive. A $10 refundable shopping cart rental fee would surely cause people to do their shopping elsewhere, while a one cent fee is too expendable and would lead to a cart-littered parking lot. In the incredibly insightful book, Freakonomics, they provide a case study on how finding just the right incentive to effect behavior in the desired manner is a delicate proposition.

A daycare center had a problem with parents picking up their children after the 5:30 PM deadline. A consultant recommended that they begin charging an overtime fee for parents who show up late. They were careful not to set the fee too high, for fear that parents would become resentful, so they decided to levy it at a flat $5. Weeks later, the problem became worse – not despite of the fee, but because of it.

What the consultants found was that some of the parents who always picked up their kids by 5:30, because that was the rule, were now arriving later. They felt justified in doing so because the fee established a new rule that allowed them to be late provided that they paid their $5. And it was worth it to them to be able to stay at work a little longer or to run a few errands before picking up the kids. In this case, a higher fee was probably needed or perhaps some other type of incentive, such as leaving the children outside of the locked building at 5:31.

So I believe that a $20 fine is just the right incentive to get people to scoop. And I won't have to look for landmines each time I mow my front lawn.

*Although I’m sure in some circles, leaving your cart in the middle of Aldi’s parking lot and forfeiting the quarter is an ostentatious display of wealth similar to when tycoons use rolled-up thousand dollar bills to light their cigars.

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