Pet Butler finds market in BR for scooping dog poop
By Kyle Peveto
Advocate staff writer
July 11, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on people with unusual jobs. What’s an usual job? It’s the kind of job that makes people say, “You do what for a living?” Want to suggest someone? Email email@example.com. Include a telephone number.
It took Gary Smothers Sr. six months to develop his eye for dog poop.
As a two-year pet waste cleanup and disposal veteran, Smothers now has an eagle eye for the stuff, retrieving it from backyards and apartment complexes all over the Baton Rouge area.
“I can stand back and pick it out of any debris,” he said, surveying an apartment complex common area for canine-laid land mines.
But the first six months on his job, Smothers crept through the grass slowly, watching every step.
“If you miss it, you’re going to step in it,” he said.
And he stepped in it many times.
Smothers is the sole service technician for Pet Butler, a Baton Rouge franchise of a Texas-based company. He answered a newspaper ad for the job two years ago and has spent four days a week making area yards safe for walking.
On a Thursday morning in June, Smothers parked his truck at a condominium complex along Jefferson Highway and prepared for a quick patrol of the property. His Chevrolet truck, a green, white and yellow moving advertisement, is emblazoned with the company’s 800 number and pun-filled statements about Pet Butler’s services — “#1 in the #2 business” and “GOT POOP? WE SCOOP!”
To start, Smothers pulled a new trash bag liner from his toolbox and placed it in his rectangular waste container anchored to the truck’s bed. Then he pulled on gray cotton gloves and retrieved his tools. In his right hand he carried a sharp-edged spade on a handle that can separate pet waste piles from grass or dirt and then sweep it. In his right hand he held the scooper — a large pan on a long handle.
In the complex, a property he has cleaned for a year, Smothers walked through the grassy common areas at a brisk walk. He knows the areas where dogs tend to go, and he can home in on waste from 10 paces.
Smothers dresses in a crisp white polo shirt and a khaki baseball cap, both with the Pet Butler logo. He is thin and slightly built and smiles often while he works.
In conversation, Smothers always calls the goal of his search “poop.” His truck’s slogans call it other names, exclaiming “Your Pet’s business is our Business!” or “Your dog’s ‘Biscuits’ are our bread and butter!”
At the condominium’s north side, he slowed to run his spade through the monkey grass that lined a patio. The little tufts of greenery are a favorite destination for canines, Smothers said.
For 29 years and eight months Smothers worked for the Orleans Parish School Board’s maintenance department. When Hurricane Katrina hit his Carrollton neighborhood, he lost everything.
During the storm, Smothers and his family evacuated to a hotel in Metairie, then went to a shelter in Baton Rouge. After a few months he moved to a travel trailer in Baker.
Smothers said he lost his school job after the storm, but he had put in enough time to retire.
“I thank God I was able to retire,” he said.
Living in Baker two and a half years ago, Smothers’ nephew was searching the newspaper for jobs when he saw the Pet Butler ad.
“And he laughed at it,” Smothers said. “I said, ‘Let me see that.’ I was too young to sit around. I’ve been working all my life.”
The job pays by the hour, not by the pound.
If it did, “I’d probably be rich,” he said with a smile.
Owners Johnny and Catharine McKay purchased the franchise in 2008 after reading about the business opportunity in the Wall Street Journal. They consulted area pet store owners, who said there was demand.
“It was a side business,” said Johnny McKay, who owns a title company. “It was a unique business. No one was doing it.”
Dog waste — a heavily protein substance — does not fertilize grass, McKay said, but leaves it yellow and dead. He calls the stuff a health hazard and a nuisance.
Pet Butler charges $47 a month for one visit a week to a yard with one dog.
McKay has never had a dog himself, although his daughters really want one.
“I didn’t want to have to deal with the poop,” he said. “Nothing against the dog, just the poop.”
After the condo complex was finished, Smothers drove to a nearby subdivision to clean a three-dog house with twice-a-week service.
Smothers only needed five minutes to finish the small manicured lawn.
The owner, Steve Cavalier, has used Pet Butler for a year. He travels often and doesn’t want his wife to have to do the dirty work.
“I wanted a clean, sanitary backyard,” he said.
But Cavalier rarely tells friends about Smothers’ service.
“I don’t like to tell people I pay someone to pick up my yard,” he said.
Somehow the job has changed Smothers’ view on pets. He has never cared to own a dog.
“Now I’ve gotten to know some of the dogs, and I really like them,” he said. “My girls have been asking for dogs for years. I always told them, ‘No, I don’t want to pick up after ’em.’”
During work hours Smothers rarely encounters mean dogs. Most aren’t out in the yard when he comes and most are friendly. He runs into snakes more often. They curl up in the shade or lie on sidewalks.
He rang the doorbell at a house once and happened to look down at a snake stretched across the mat. He took off before knowing what kind it was.
“I don’t know snakes — I’m from New Orleans — but it was a good size snake,” he said.
Pet Butler mostly retrieves dog waste. There’s no money in cat waste, which takes too long to find and scoop, Smothers said.
The strangest pet he has picked up after was a guinea pig. It took forever, he said.
“They have these little pellets,” he said, holding up his gloved forefinger and thumb to show the approximate size of said pellet. “You have to look really good.”
In the afternoon Smothers pulled a new service sheet from his truck and looked at a new client — a house with a dog in Greenwell Springs. It would take longer, combing a new yard and learning a new dog’s habits.
“I really enjoy it,” he said while getting into his truck. “There’s nobody standing over you. It’s the freedom. It’s not a hard job.”
Maybe not a hard job, but definitely not for everyone.