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Perhaps one of the worse jobs in nineteenth century Paris was being décrotteur. These were men and women who picked up dog mess from the city streets to sell to tawers (mégissiers) in the tanneries near the Bièvre River who used it to taw sheep skins: 10kg of dog faeces could treat 12,000 skins.[1] Picking up dog mess formed part of the city’s economy that relied on the recycling of waste products.

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Once doctors and others had identified dog mess as a public health issue in the late 1920s, the question of who should pick up the merde had to be addressed. After being elected city mayor in 1977 Jacques Chirac promised to clean up the city’s streets by encouraging owners to make their dog perform in the gutter or newly constructed dog toilets. Dog owners were not expected to pick up the shit (unlike in New York, which introduced a poop scoop law in 1978).

Rather than require owners to scoop the poop, Chirac’s administration relied on street cleaners to pick up the dog mess, as depicted in Chéri Samba’s 1989 painting Paris est propre. It also launched the “caninette.” The latest in a long line of vehicles designed to cleanse the Paris’ streets, these motorbikes seemingly offered an effective way of removing dog faeces. Also known as “motocrottes” (“poop-scooters”), these adapted Yamaha motorbikes vacuumed up canine excrement into a tank on the back of the bike and Parisians quickly associated them with Chirac’s governance of Paris. Ever anxious to assess the public reaction to his policies, Chirac commissioned a survey on the motocrottes in October 1982. Initial results seemed positive. 83% of respondents thought that it was a ‘very useful’ or ‘quite useful’ initiative which integrated well with urban life. Only 14% found the bikes noisy and 80% felt that the scheme should be developed. However, 61% felt that the motocrottes had little or no impact on the street cleanliness. [2]

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Further doubts spread about the bikes’ effectiveness. For the leftwing press, they became a symbol of Chirac’s ineffectual liberal approach to the dog mess problem: the bikes sent a message to dog owners that they could let their dogs foul the pavement with impunity as the motocrottes would remove the mess.[3] It was as if his administration realized from the outset that its educational campaign would not succeed in reforming dog owners’ behaviour. Communist newspaper L’Humanité, meanwhile, critiqued the motocrottes’ effectiveness and cost. The main beneficiary, it argued, was Decaux, the company that had secured the contract to operate the bikes. It presented the “cyclo-propre,” an alternative vehicle deployed in the staunchly communist town of Argenteuill, as a cheaper and less capitalist option.[4] Although politically motivated, there was some truth in L’Humanité’s attack. The motocrottes were indeed expensive: by 1995 the city was spending 50 million francs a year to operate 100 bikes. Yet beyond showing Parisians that the city’s authorities took cleanliness seriously, the motocrottes only collected 4 tons of the 20 tons of canine excrement estimated to hit Parisian pavements each day.[5]

The motocrottes became a source of amusement for Parisians who directed jibes, jokes and eggs towards the demoralized décrotteurs [the bike’s operators], holding their noses as they passed on their bikes whilst café-owners turning them away from their premises. Décrotteurs became the latest in a long line of often marginalized and discredited municipal workers charged with handling urban waste.[6] The shiny modernity of motorbikes did not glamorize poop scooping.

The bikes did not last long. Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, elected in 2001, disbanded them and introduced a 183 euro fine for owners who failed to pick up their pet’s merde. The responsibility of scooping the poop now rested with dog owners.

 

[1] Rodolphe Trouilleux, Histoires insolites des animaux de Paris, Paris, 2003, 121.

[2] Ville de Paris, Bibliothèque administrative, ‘L’expérience des caninettes à Paris: le jugement des riverains,’ October 1982.

[3] Goutorde, ‘Le boom du marché de la crotte de chien, Libération, 17 January 1984, 15.

[4] Christian Ferrand, ‘Le cyclo-propre supplante la “caninette”,’ L’Humanité, 16 June 1984, 10.

[5] J.-P. Houbart, ‘L’animal dans la ville,’ Bulletin du Conseil général vétérinaire, numéro spécial, August 1995, 46.

[6] Nicole Penicaut, ‘Le spleen des décrotteurs,’ newspaper clipping in Archives de la Préfecture de Police, Paris, DB 230.