Spanish city puts its foot down on dog-do plague

by Ed Gutierrez

MADRID — To keep them clean, most cities have their own army of street cleaners. More meticulous cities employ leaf blowers and tree-branch cutters. Madrid goes so far as to employ its own force of dog-poop cleaners.

Riding scooters with high-powered vacuum cleaners on the back, they putter along public streets and pathways on the lookout for fecal matter. Once a suspicious pile is detected, they pull out a long nozzle from a space-pack in back, take careful aim, and press a button. Only the stain remains.

The city refers to them as “eco scooters” or “green scooters,” but everyone here knows them as motocacas (pooper scooters). Certain residential sectors of Madrid are more mined than battlefields, and a moment’s inattention can have disastrous consequences for both foot and nose.

So, to try to reduce the dogs’ collateral damage, Madrid began experimenting with the mobile scoopers in 1995. Until last year, the fleet numbered just 18, barely enough to make a Hell’s Angels gang, but there are now 84 zooming around the city.

And none too soon. The city estimates that the fleet’s nozzles will suck up 440 tons of feces this year. According to one study a few years back, the amount of dog excrement in Madrid has somehow doubled in recent years.

In the city, man’s best friend can also be man’s worst enemy. The city is acutely aware that it has 150,000 dogs officially registered, and goes out of its way to provide parks and plazas with canine areas. These are basically marked-off sandpits where the dogs can frolic about with their kin and do their thing.

New Yorkers religiously clean up after their furry charges — or else. The peer pressure and fines are so great there that negligent dog-owners are chastised by everyone from the postman down to drug addicts and the homeless. The Spanish, however, have been more loath to clean up after the party.

“They are much more likely to give you an earful if you tell them what to do,” said a receptionist at an environmental-information booth opened by the city in January, where cleaning up dog poop and saving the environment appear to be closely linked concepts. Last year, Madrid stuck up hundreds of sanitary cans throughout the city to aid city cleaners and dog-owners. The green cans dispense condom-like plastic gloves so that pet-owners can quickly and hygienically dispose of the dog’s doodahs. In 1999 the city supplied the cans with 14 million gloves, but that was nearly doubled to 27 million last year.

The city has also started education programs for dog-owners, and last year more than 100,000 neighborhood residents watched skits and listened to lectures that leave little to the imagination.

In the meantime, the city’s lone rangers ride around seven hours a day battling the canine calls of nature. Andres is one such unsung hero whom I caught during his coffee break near the Royal Palace, glowing in his fluorescent green-and-yellow suit, but surprisingly odor-free.

“Every morning I have to clean up after a man who lets his bulldog defecate right in front of the Felipe III statue in Plaza Mayor,” said Andres, white helmet and black sunglasses at his side. “He always has an excuse. The owner, I mean, not the dog.”

Motocacas drivers like Andres are powerless to castigate wayward citizens like the man with the bulldog. Only officials in green vans, a stronger arm of the fecal team, can do that. They have the authority to dish out fines ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 pesetas (6,500 yen to 16,250 yen). However, the fines are rarely levied.

Andres also said that people often confuse his bulky get-up and the flashing light on the back of his scooter for the real police. “A woman recently ran up to me after her bag had just been stolen and wanted me to chase after the guy,” he said.

Jose Luis is another young motocacas driver I flagged down early one Sunday morning as he was vacuuming up dogs’ heaps from the cobblestones of central Madrid. Commenting that the poop problem is especially bad in the summer, on Mondays and the day after public holidays, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more dogs in Madrid than any other city in Europe.”

He may have forgotten about all the dogs running wild in Sofia and Bucharest, not to mention the infamous scats of Amsterdam and Paris — where similar scooters servicing Parisiens’ pooches are called