City Creatures Blog: Break Out the Border Collies

FeaturedCity Creatures Blog: Break Out the Border Collies

CITY CREATURES BLOG is a storytelling community, sharing reflections on how cities can offer opportunities for transformation, intimacy, and connection with other species and one another. Follow @City_Creatures  and its parent https://www.humansandnature.org/blog for more stories on humans intersecting with nature.

Gavin Van Horn, editor of City Creatures and author of “Way of Coyote ” published my essay on fecal matter in Lake Michigan on August 27, 2019. I’m honored to be among his chosen writers. You may have read this story already but if you swim or wade in Lake Michigan, its good to be reminded of what you’re getting into.

Break Out The Border Collies

Nature immersion was about to be my off-ramp from a years-long highway of depression.

Before light bulbs, blinds, or a new shower curtain, I bought clay pots and flowering plants for the balcony of my newly purchased, third-story condo. I had the screen door removed so I’d have no obstruction to the outdoors from the living room. I imagined young, lime-green sweet potato vines and purple morning glories growing up hugging each other, curling around the railings, stretching toward the sun, competing for space on the top rail, then spilling over, and finally hanging down in a cascade of tangled color. I filled the pots with soil and placed them on the balcony to cure overnight before planting, leaving the door open—inviting night breezes to induce a soft sleep. 

In the morning, I shuffled into the living room to find dirt tracked all over the white carpet. 

Usher, a one-year old Scottish Terrier lay with his legs splayed on the balcony floor. He held his head high, eyes half-closed, basking in the light wind, proudly displaying his muddy nose and dirty paws. What do you suppose dogs think? Was he grateful I gave him the opportunity to dig up our new backyard?

Off to Home Depot, I went for another bag of soil and over-the-railing brackets to hold the pots up and away from those ancient digger instincts. I planted and watered. 

My north-facing building juts out on just enough of a curve of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive to have a tree-filled view of Lake Michigan. Only those trees along Lake Shore Drive stand between my balcony and the North Pole—no buildings, no mountain ranges, not much to break the full force of the north winds barreling down the Great Lakes, slamming into my balcony and battering the sweet potato vines and morning glories. They didn’t last the week.

For three years, I potted a cornucopia of perennials and annuals, praying for wind resistance. The master gardeners at Gethsemane Garden Center finally told me I was in a losing battle. 

Abandoning the outdoor garden, I’ve settled for the delight of a tree-filled, panoramic view full of sparrows, chickadees, and starlings. Occasionally I spot a cardinal, an oriole, or a woodpecker hopping through the leaves. One year a crow built a nest in the crook of two high limbs. A lone squirrel used to sit on a branch parallel to my balcony, squeaking and shaking his tail, tormenting young Usher. Across Lake Shore Drive, gulls mind their territory, gathering on the wing above Lake Michigan.

On cloudless summer Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I filled my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, cell phone, and a small purse.

Walking intrepid Usher at the lakefront

I strapped the chair to my back, gripped Usher’s leash, and walked across Lake Shore Drive through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I hurried past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We climbed the cracked cement stairs, landing on the maniacal paved bike path that grips the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Chicago Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Gulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

“Smile, you are on Camera” by bboylanky (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on the Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the cool sand under my seat and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim, and reposition the chair. 

Nearly every week, I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and gulls singing over the water. We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach. “Get your dog out of the water! Didn’t you see the yellow flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.” 

Escherichia coli, E. coli, a nasty bacteria that causes stomach disorders, indicates a high fecal presence in the water. The last thing a dog owner wants for their little housemate is to have intestinal distress. I packed up immediately, ran home, and gave the poor guy a thorough bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for E. coli every day in the summer. In the early 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the E. coli landed on the beaches from gulls and washed into the lake.  

Huh? It was in the sand, too?

The press reported there was a twenty-four-hour delay in test results, so at that time, when a beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day before. The Chicago Park District tamped down outcries from the public by piloting an EPA grant to use Border Collies to chase gulls off the beach. 

Photo credit: “Jock, the Smiling Collie” by jammach_uk (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Oh, the Border Collie! The smartest worker in dogdom. She doesn’t just chase the gulls. She crouches down and makes eye contact as she creeps toward her charge. This terrifies the gulls and they fly off. When the birds try returning to the sand they face the same evil eye because from dawn to dusk, the collies never tire of their rigorous jobs. By instinct, these dogs won’t catch the birds, an important point since gulls are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty, even from the collies.

My beach days with Usher were over however. I welcomed the collies but was too creeped out by the constant reminder of bacteriological threats. People were reporting getting sick just from breathing in sand dust while laying out.          

Usher is long gone but I recently acquired Henry, another lovely old terrier. I thought I’d introduce the former farm boy to the delights of the beach since I hadn’t heard about beach closings for years. I wondered if the Border Collies were still shooing gulls from the sand. I couldn’t get an answer from the Chicago Park District so I sent a query to “Curious City,” a program on Chicago’s local National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ. Does the city still use Border Collies to chase gulls off the beaches? Are the beaches safe from E. coli?

Beach water getting tested at the lab

When WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called to say she’d been investigating my query, she invited me to join her at the University of Illinois at Chicago lab where the beach water is tested. We watched delivery of the water samples and observed the scientists take them through the paces. The daily results are released to the lifeguards by 1:30 pm. If there’s a high concentration of fecal matter, the lifeguards are supposed to raise a yellow flag which signals to the beachgoers the water quality might make them sick. The Chicago Park District stopped alerting the media about high levels of fecal contaminants and stopped closing the beaches in 2011, opting for the Swim-at-Your-Own-Risk flag system. 

And the Border Collies? The UIC scientists pointed to studies that show gulls are the main culprit of contaminated water (and sand) and the most effective way to manage them is to use Border Collies. At a Chicago Park District Board meeting in July, I asked, 1) why don’t they use dogs now? and 2) why don’t they close beaches that test for high levels of fecal matter?

The Park District CEO answered that they don’t use dogs anymore because they were rejected for the EPA grants that funded them. And they don’t ban swimming for super high feces anymore because people like to swim, and the health department hasn’t heard about any E. coli infections from beaches recently. These answers didn’t restore my confidence in the Park District’s understanding of public health policy. But they did cement my resolve to never take Henry to the beach. We’ve settled for the view from the maniacal bike path. 

And contaminated or not, the blue serenity of Lake Michigan is its own anti-depressant. No medication can substitute for the mood-altering calm of her reflected beauty. I’m grateful to have her.

*     *     *    * 

Read more about poop data in Curious City’s “Scoop on Poop on Chicago’s Beaches.” The nine-minute audio story has even more information. Listen here.

Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches

Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches
 Recently NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called me about a question I submitted to WBEZ’s Curious City. She asked if I’d like to meet her at the Illinois water testing lab at UIC. Here’s what happened.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until about a decade ago, when she says a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because E. coli levels were too high.

Ever since, Regan’s been worried about water safety at Chicago beaches.

Still, for a while, she felt confident the city was responsibly warning people and closing beaches when fecal bacteria (measured through E.coli) got too high.

“In the early 2000s, they really reported that every day, and you’d hear it on WBEZ,” she recalls. “It was on the regular Chicago news. But I don’t hear it at all now.”

So Regan wrote in to Curious City with a few questions:

Is that water safe for dogs? Why don’t they close the beaches for E. coli anymore? Are Chicago beaches safe [from bacteria]?

The answer to that last question depends on a lot of things, like which beach you visit, what day you visit, and how old and healthy you are. But it’s an important question because, on most summer days, at least one Chicago beach has elevated fecal bacteria levels. In fact, one city beach recently saw a level more than 300 times the federal notification level — and remained open. Also, the public appears to be confused about how to interpret the city’s new swim advisory system. And so, in an effort to clear up any such confusion, we offer this handy primer on fecal bacteria on Chicago beaches.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

How do I find out how dirty a beach is?

Each morning at dawn, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers collect two water samples from at least 20 Chicago beaches. The samples are delivered to a UIC lab where they are tested for enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria. The park district then takes the two readings for each beach and calculates a geometric mean (which is not the method recommended by the EPA; more on that later).

The city communicates its recommendations to beachgoers in three ways: on the park district’s website, through the city’s data portal, and through a flag system at the beach. Here’s how you can find it online:

Keep in mind that the Chicago Park District only posts the average (geometric mean). If you’re good with spreadsheets and you’d like to find the highest sample at your favorite beach on a given day, go to the city’s data portal after 1 p.m., export the data into Excel, and then sort to find the correct day and beach. Look under the “DNA sample” columns to find that day’s readings.

You can also check the flags posted at each beach:

Beach flags graphic

How can I stay safe?

Check the levels for your beach before you go. If fecal bacteria levels are anywhere near 1000 CCE, UIC public health scientists Sam Dorevitch and Abhilasha Shrestha say to consider avoiding contact with the water, particularly if you are:

  • Elderly
  • Very young
  • Immune-compromised
  • Pregnant
  • Or have an open wound
  • If you go to the beach before the website is updated, keep in mind that hard rains the previous day often result in high fecal levels the next morning.
  • If you swim on a day when levels exceed 1000 CCE, be careful not to swallow water or dunk your head.
  • Always wash your hands after swimming, especially before eating.

What can I do to make beaches safer?

  • Clean up your:
    • Food
    • Garbage
    • Diapers
    • Pet poop
  • Don’t feed the birds.

Wait. What? The city doesn’t follow EPA suggestions on when to warn people?

That’s right. The EPA suggests advising the public to take precautions when any single sample is above 1,000 CCE. The Chicago Park District, however, determines whether to notify the public based on the geometric mean of its two samples (which will always be lower than the highest single sample). In its 2012 guidance, the EPA suggests using the geometric mean “to assess the longer-term health of the waterbody”; not to determine whether to issue a daily warning. None of this EPA guidance is legally enforceable; it’s just a suggestion based on extensive research.

Officials from the park district defended their use of the geometric mean in a statement, saying: “Densities of [fecal indicator bacteria] are highly variable in ambient waters therefore a measure based off of a distribution, such as [geometric mean]…, are more robust than single estimates.”

Chicago Beach Poop By the Numbers, 2018 Edition

We crunched enterococci data from last summer, totaling 101 days. Below are some highlights, which take into account the differing standards used by the city and suggested by the EPA. Here are some highlights:

And what about the dogs and E. coli?

Chicago veterinarian Dr. Vaishaili Joshi says that dogs are exposed to E. coli all the time and usually don’t get sick. But, like humans, “immunocompromised pets, juveniles and seniors may be at higher risk of infection secondary to heavy exposure.”

More about our questioner

Regan Burke is a Chicago writer who worked in local and national politics — for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson — for most of her professional life. She details that part of her life in the upcoming book, I Want To Be In That Number, which she says is all about “politics and nervous breakdowns.”

As Regan grew up in Chicago and around the Midwest, she says her mom would often tease her for being a “nature lover.”

“I always thought of myself as a city person, but I do love nature,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m more interested and cognizant of what’s outside my window than what’s inside my apartment.”

When she heard the final answers to her questions about the nature on the lake, she had a couple of reactions.

“Well, I’m very impressed at the level of testing that they do on the Chicago beaches,” she says. “But, at the same time, we don’t get the results until 1:30 in the afternoon.”

Still, Regan was pleased to hear that dogs are not very susceptible to E. coli., despite what the lifeguard seemed to imply.

But when she heard that the city will never puts up a red flag or close a beach, even when fecal levels skyrocket, she was not pleased.

“That, to me, is appalling,” Regan says. “The idea that at 1000 CCE there is a health risk — I can buy that. But when it’s 300,000 and they don’t close the beaches? I mean, how sick are people getting? And people go to the beach with their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. They must close the beaches when that happens. It’s just appalling.”

The 9 minute audio story has more information. Listen here.

Submit your own question to Curious City here.

Follow Monica Eng:  @monicaeng.

Poop flag by Katherine Nagasawa/WBEZ

 

Bring On The Border Collies

Bring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.