Nature is a big buffet table. One thing eats another – that eats another –
and so on. That’s a fundamental concept of ecology called the food chain.
One city is giving everyone a lesson about a dog’s place in the food chain.
And as Shawn Allee explains, it’s a lesson some would rather not hear:
Nature is a big buffet table. One thing eats another – that eats
another – and so on. That’s a fundamental concept of ecology called
the food chain. One city is giving everyone a lesson about a dog’s place
in the food chain. And as Shawn Allee explains, it’s a lesson some would
rather not hear.
Katherine Raz takes up the leash of a slow-moving, black dog. But she’s not
walking her dog through snow. Raz is a professional dog walker.
Allee: “This is one quiet dog.”
“Oh yeah, she’s pretty mellow. Velvet. Velvet. See, she doesn’t even respond
when I call her.”
Velvet is in no hurry to walk, but Raz has got to hustle. She walks dozens of
dogs each week. And business is growing.
“Since I’ve been up here, we’ve had to hire three other people to cover all the
people who’ve called for walks.”
Some residents say all the new dogs are making a big mess. Velvet stops to
prove the point.
“I’ll use the produce bags to capture this. This is a fine specimen here. As
far as picking up the feces, I always thought it was just a cosmetic thing.”
But a sign informed her otherwise.
“I was walking a dog late at night and I was actually stopping to read the sign
because I was so bored. And it’s like, please, pick up the dog droppings because
rats use them as a primary source of food. I was like, Oh, God that’s horrible.
That just gives an image that’s not pretty.”
Indeed, Chicago’s putting dog owners on notice. The city put up that sign
Raz found. It came from the Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.
Fliers at City Hall say the same thing.
I read one of those fliers to Jose Cruz, Chicago’s rat control Czar.
“They prefer fresh food but will eat many things, such as pet food, dog
droppings, quote – a rat favorite.”
Allee: How do we know that’s the case, that dog droppings are a rat favorite?
“Because we’ve actually come across locations that we don’t see that there’s
not a huge problem with people not containing their garbage.”
The problem is that people are not picking up after their dogs.
Allee: And if I live in a neighborhood where people aren’t picking up after their dogs?
Am I in trouble for a rat problem in the future?
“No, you’re not. Just because there’re lots of dogs, doesn’t mean you’re going to
have a rodent problem.”
Cruz says it all turns on whether people actually clean up. But will enough dog
owners really do that?
Katherine Raz isn’t sure.
“See, there’s a dropping someone didn’t pick up.”
Allee: How often do you see that?
“Oh, all the time.”
Maybe the owners don’t read the signs. Or…maybe they just don’t buy the
dog – feces – rat connection.
I don’t either.
So, one night I meet up with an urban ecologist. Joel Brown is with the
University of Illinois at Chicago university.
Allee: Where are we?
“Right now we’re on the grounds of the UIC greenhouse. It’s a small green patch
that’s bordered by the Kennedy, a large parking garage, and one of the science and
But it’s enough space to let nature run its course. Brown points to a darkened
patch of weeds and trees. He swears I just missed a rabbit.
“You can hear a cottontail running right through the underbrush right here.”
There’s more to observe, though. A falcon dines on pigeons that land here.
Dogs eat the rabbits. And there’s a raccoon that snatches food from the student
Brown says all of these have found a niche in Chicago.
“So what you see is a very dynamic process. Nature is not an art gallery; it works
around us and works in response to us.”
But could rats really take advantage of that neighborhood’s growing dog population?
Brown says, maybe. But perhaps not in the way the city claims.
“It is more likely that a single French fry, or a dog biscuit, pet food left
sandwich left on a park bench … all of the incidental bits of food that we leave
without even thinking about it. Those are much more likely to be feeding and breeding
the rat population than dog poop.”
He says it’s a minor link, but the city makes a good point nonetheless.
“That’s the part that, to me, is exciting. The fact that they’re even thinking about
these connections, shows they’re thinking smart.”
Ultimately, signs with dire warnings can’t control dogs’ impact on the neighborhood.
Brown says the behavior that matters most comes from a peculiar animal.
That’s the one that walks on two legs, has a big brain, and can recognize its own
the natural world.
For the Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.