Can Animals be Composters?

On my volunteering trip to a rural part of Panama, the compound at which my team stayed often had stray dogs that circulated the outdoor dinner table every night. We scared 3 or 4 different dogs away every time in fear of catching diseases they might spread, but we were puzzled as to why they kept coming back. On the last day of the trip, we found that our leftover food was being left outside every night for the dogs to feast on just meters away from the dinner table. 

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A stray Panamanian dog resting as she waits for us to finish our dinner

My team and I were shocked—in Canada, some individuals buy heavy-duty lockable trash bins or even go as far as tainting their garbage with poison to deter animals from getting to it. In Panama, they treat wild animals as part of their community. I wondered if it is because humans have a stronger emotional connection to dogs as opposed to raccoons. Or, maybe in North America we are too concerned with attracting pathogenically contagious vermin (a valid argument), and not consciously allowing our street to look “dirty”. Why are Panamanians not concerned like we are? In the previous trips I’ve been on to Central America, the cultures are often described as being much more “community-oriented” compared to the North; they have tighter relationships and interact more frequently with neighbours, and I argue that this strong sense of care to each other extends to the wildlife around them. Panamanians are more concerned with the well-being of the stray dogs in their community than the detriment to their health or aesthetic brought by the animals’ presence.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes feeding animals as the third tier in their food recovery pyramid, preceded only by source reduction and feeding other people. Click here to go to their website. Surprisingly, composting—the holy grail of mitigating food waste—is tier five of six on their pyramid, which puts into perspective how beneficial feeding animals our food scraps could be.

Am I suggesting you start a food scrap pile in your neighbourhood? 

No. The reality is, stray animals can still carry diseases, be nuisances, and maybe even be aggressive. Given the structure of some cities and towns, feeding animals might not be easy to do, and it is not always safe. Just because Panamanians have grown accustomed to this lifestyle does not mean it can be replicated everywhere. 

That does not mean, however, that your food waste should always be destined for the composter—which brings me to my second point. For the many of you that have pets at home, there is a large variety of foods that can be safely consumed by cats and dogs including certain meats, veggies and grains. Dogs specifically evolved alongside humans eating their leftovers, and it was not until the past several decades that industries began heavily marketing synthetic dog food. If you are unsure of what you can feed to your pets, you can always reference reputable internet sources or contact your local vet—it may save resources and your money.

Some Universities and institutions are even donating food scraps to nearby farms. Everyday, 1 ton the food scraps from the kitchens at Rutgers University go directly to the hogs and cattle of a nearby farm. The university only pays half of what it would to the city’s organic collection system, and the animals get to enjoy a healthy variety of food. If you live near farm, this extra step could be an option for you too.

Although it may not be ideal to live exactly like generous Panamanians, we North Americans can still learn from their lifestyle to reduce our food waste in an alturistic manner.