Look around the great city of New York and you’ll find, on most residential streets, a blight of garish “NO DOG PEE” signs strung up on nearly every sidewalk tree and garden plot. Some trifling busybody gardeners in my neighborhood have even created an elaborate webbing of fishing line and metal stakes over these little green tax-payer funded squares, ruining the aesthetic of the land they’re so hellbent on protecting. All of this just to keep doggies from sniffin’ and peein’. I beg of these people to get a hobby, specifically one like indoor herb gardening. Maybe adopt some colorful betta fish or get around to reading Wolf Hall.
I always let my dog pee on sidewalk trees, even when there’s a sign cautioning me not to. I don’t do it to be a menace — I’m just not sure how else to fight canine nature. I admire my dog for his instincts toward soft surfaces. Nevermind that he seems to be afraid of concrete every third day — universally, dogs like to pee on grass and wood chips, not cement. Plus, sharing resources like outdoor space is just the reality of living in a city. There are always more trees to plant, and just as sure as there will always be more dogs to piss on them. It’s a rhythm.
I understand that people feel connected to their Plant Daddy identities, and I respect the concept of nature on an intellectual level, but I respect my dog Mars more. The sanctimony of these sidewalk tree people has always pissed me the hell off.
Apparently, I’ve been enraging them, too.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” a man yelled from his window the other day as I let my dog sniff around in a stoop planter.
“I know, right?” I yelled back, thinking he meant “Are you kidding me?” in a “How can a dog be this cute?” sort of way. I was wrong.
His issue, as he explained to me in a series of follow-up shrieks, was that Mars — who is only four and cannot read — had ignored the condescending homemade sign affixed to this particular oak. It was laminated and warned of the grievous danger that dog urine can perpetrate against the tree.
I promised it wouldn’t happen again, but I didn’t mean it. The world outside that man’s window should not concern him. Humans, in my opinion, cannot truly “own” trees, no more than they can bottle the light that streams through a window on a late September afternoon, or quantify in monetary value the warmth that they feel for their dogs.
Mars has so few passions outside the home, and peeing on trees makes him so happy — he always does a little kicky dance afterward, sending wood chips into the air that unfortunately act as shrapnel against passersby’s shins — that I resented this bellicose loser who evidently has so little going on in his personal life that he has to occupy himself claiming ownership of a tree.
But I needed to see about this pee thing. Was my dog, along with all the other dogs in New York, seriously posing some kind of threat to the trees with their urine? I consulted some arborists, all of whom I had assumed would be busy doing more important things like massacring spotted lanternflies, but who were actually very helpful in answering my questions.
It turns out that, scientifically speaking, dog pee is quite acidic, and it can bleach or even burn away bark on the trunk, which can invite pests and funguses that will eventually kill the tree. Pee also adds salts into the soil, which reverses the salt concentration between the soil and the roots, which apparently is bad.
Michael Victor Ruggiero, a certified arborist and landscape designer in New York, told me that when salt concentration is higher in the soil, it draws water out from the tree roots, and the whole tree suffers as a result. “[Urine] reverses the natural process of osmosis, which all trees and plants depend on to live and grow,” he explained over email.
Reviving a tree that has died of murder by dog pee is rare, Ruggiero said: “Remediation is difficult and rarely happens. It’s feasible to remove all dead branche and drench the soil to drain off the salts, but the tree will look disfigured, and corrective pruning is needed afterwards.”
And I wasn’t even going to bring up dog poo (which you cannot compost in New York City), but Benjamin Osborne, NYC Parks Chief of Forestry & Horticulture, mentioned it first in an email. Contrary to everything you might believe, not all poop is manure-grade, and actually, typical dog feces is more like reverse fertilizer because of its origins. “Most dog food is processed meat, which contains a lot of chemicals that are difficult to break down naturally,” Osborne said. “If too much is left in a tree bed, dog poo can similarly contaminate the soil and cause tree decline.” Cow shit, in comparison, tends to be good for plant and root growth because cows typically eat plants instead of mystery processed meat.
Once my eyes were open, I started seeing the devastating upshot of pee everywhere All week, I’ve been staring at tree trunks.I see what I hadn’t even known to look for before: Almost every sidewalk tree in New York City — which, by the way, mostly belong to the city, with few exceptions, according to a rep with NYC Parks — without a cage or siding around it has some brittle, bleached bark starting about a foot up from the roots, right around the height a dog would pee from. Look up, and you’ll notice that those trees likely have tufted growth and a sparse canopy, both signs of a less-than-healthy tree. All from a little pee from 100 different dogs, every single day of the tree’s life.
I hate learning lessons, especially when there’s a screaming guy involved, but I the takeaway here is that my dog should be pooping and peeing in the street or on the sidewalk, not on living fauna.(And, at the risk of sounding like a guy who laminates scolding signs, please pick up the poop.) We haven’t gotten there yet. We probably won’t get there. Mars’s wolf blood precludes him from doing anything but peeing on trees, and I still have a chip on my shoulder. I am wrong, and will probably continue to be.
Looks like Mars and I owe that tree guardian in the second-floor window an apology. He won’t be getting one, but he deserves it.