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Washington City Paper

Jan. 27–Feb. 2, 2006

The Origin of Feces

By Sarah Godfrey

Illustrations by Deb Hoeffner

An urban naturalist’s guide to crap

In community meetings and on neighborhood message boards, there are few hotter topics than poop. While talk of dog-curbing dominates the discourse, plenty are eager to identify varmints in or around their homes by examining the stool samples they leave behind. Turns out, though, most of us don’t know crap.

Over the summer, for instance, one city resident shared with a community message board his discovery of feces “deep brown/black in color, and shaped like Jordan almonds and about the same size.” He attributed the Italian-wedding-favor-shaped dung to a deer, claiming to “have seen deer scat many times.”

Many poop watchers attribute the droppings they find on their properties to deer, eager to believe that the pellets fertilizing their shrubs have been deposited by a majestic buck or gentle doe. The truth is, unless you’ve spotted deer in the area—as the poster did—turds of candied-nut proportions could easily have come from a large rabbit. Furthermore, mealy little pebbles of dung probably mean a rat infestation, and that big steaming pile likely came out of not some sort of wild pony but rather a neighborhood pipehead using a secluded toolshed as a lavatory.

So, to help local residents better figure out exactly which animals are scampering, scurrying, and, of course, shitting in their backyards, the Washington City Paper has assembled a team of experts to describe, in detail, the droppings of creatures most commonly sighted in the Washington area.

The Experts
John Adcock Jr., owner, Adcock’s Trapping Service, College Park, Md.
Mike Hurley, owner, Animal Control Solutions, Fredericksburg and Sterling, Va.
Steven Smelgus, owner, TrapPro, Bowie, Md.

Deb Hoeffner

Rattus norvegicus
(Rat)

Rat droppings can range from a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch in length, with a diameter similar to a pencil’s, or, says Smelgus, “from the size of a Mike & Ike to as small as a dried-up raisin.” Adcock says that, like a No. 2 sharpened on both sides, rat feces have “pointed ends.” Hurley says location is key to identification; find tiny bullets of crap in attic insulation, he says, and you’ll likely be dealing with rats, since they “drop fecal while they’re walking.” Black is the typical color, but Smelgus says the droppings’ hue can vary. “Whatever their diet is, you can see it,” he says. “We’ll see green, and we know he’s eating poison.”

Deb Hoeffner

Procyon lotor
(Raccoon)

Raccoon feces are similar to what one might find in a household cat’s litter box, but they’re a little bigger. The one thing that might help the untrained eye distinguish between raccoon droppings and cat droppings is contents. In raccoon scat, Smelgus says, “you’ll find seeds, uneaten berries, grubs—the majority of time, seeds. In D.C., [raccoons] are raiding people’s bird feeders.…With cats, you wouldn’t see berries, seeds—they mostly eat meat, cat food.”

Deb Hoeffner

order Didelphimorphia
(Opossum)

The droppings of an opossum, the experts agree, are almost indistinguishable from those of a raccoon. “[With] both the raccoon and possum—it has a lot to do with the diet. Both are carnivores, somewhat scavengers—they eat very similar diets,” says Adcock. Smelgus says opossum droppings are slightly smaller than raccoon waste; the chunks are about index-finger-sized. Hurley says, when in doubt, assume raccoon. “Possum—that’s something you don’t see very much, not in the yard,” he says.

Deb Hoeffner

Odocoileus virginianus
(Deer)

Deer drop pellets of widely ranging sizes, resembling either small pieces of dried fruit (think raisin) or large pieces of dried fruit (think prune), typically clumped together. Adcock likens the look of deer dung to that of rabbits, “similar to marbles in size.” Hurley says spotting deer feces is “easy—it looks like raisins.” But Smelgus prefers the visual of “a bunch of Lemonheads stuck together.”

Deb Hoeffner

family Canidae
(Dog)

Figuring out whether long chunks of brown doo belong to a domesticated canine or a wild one requires a thorough content analysis. “I know that really sounds disgusting, but…normal dogs eat normal dog food,” Hurley says. “A fox, coyote will have hair—they eat rabbits, birds.” For Smelgus, smell is the best indicator of dog poop. “Dogs smell like dogs,” he says. “A lot of times with, like, a raccoon, you won’t even get an odor—it depends on what their diet is—but dogs—it all smells the same to me.”

Deb Hoeffner

Homo sapiens
(Human)

Mistaking human feces for animal feces isn’t a common occurrence, but it does happen, says Adcock. “We’ve had cases where people were convinced they had a possum, raccoon, or some animal in their house. They’re finding feces behind the sofa every day—then it turns out it’s their toddler,” he says. The dead giveaway for human waste is its size: Homo sapiens drops among the biggest turds of any mammals. “Your adult fecal is larger in diameter than any animal you’ll ever run across, except a bear,” says Hurley. “And we don’t have to worry about bears here. There are no bears in D.C.” CP

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