Armed with a little rake and pan, Grady Moorer walks in a gridlike pattern across the house's expansive front yard like he's mapping out a crime scene.
"After a while you learn where the dog poops," he says wisely. "They're really creatures of habit. And you can always tell if there's a visitor dog -- the poop is a different color, consistency and shape." Moorer, aka "ScooperDude," has been scooping up dog excrement in Charlotte, N.C., in a professional capacity, since 2003. Prior to that he owned a construction business, and while surfing the Web for some tools came across Pooper-Scooper.com, an international directory of dog-waste removal services. Intrigued by the financial possibilities, Moorer invested in some advertising, slapped a ScooperDude sticker on his Ford pickup, and embarked on a new career.
"At first my wife thought I had lost my mind," says Moorer, 56. "But then the money started rolling in, and she said, 'Hey, this is pretty good.'"
Moorer takes his unorthodox career seriously. When asked how many clients he has, he declines to tell me. ("I don't want my competition knowing," he says.) Nor does he care to discuss the variety or ick factor of the waste he encounters. "No poop is icky," he says. "It's my business to deal with whatever is there." In fact, aside from the occasional soiled pair of shoes or sunburn, Moorer says his job has few drawbacks. "I make my own hours. I get to work outside. I go into these yards and the dogs are just tickled to death to see me. I scoop real quick, and then move on to the next yard. I love it." Is he ever embarrassed when people ask him what he does for a living?
"No, I provide a service," he replies simply. "They pay people to do just about everything else, why not this?"
Moorer's main competition in Charlotte is Dan Williams. I catch up with Williams while he's plying his trade in Gina Folk's backyard. Folk, who has three young children and two Labradors named Taj and Barney, says she hired Williams because she wanted to "reclaim her backyard." And for just two dogs, the Labradors do indeed deposit an astounding number of land mines during a week's time -- enough to almost fill up Williams' eight-gallon trash can.
Prior to becoming a poop "entre-manure," as he likes to call himself, Williams, 44, worked at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in data management. He was laid off after the Challenger disaster in 1986. Shortly after that, while he was sitting around in his buddy's backyard drinking a few beers, Williams had an epiphany. "Kids and dogs were running around everywhere, and poop was everywhere," Williams says. "I told him he needed to clean it up. That's when he said he'd rather hire someone to do it."
Like Moorer, Williams invested in some advertising and decals for his truck, and ran his own poop-scooping business for about five years in Florida before he and his wife moved to Charlotte in 2001. Once he arrived in North Carolina, Williams came up with his "Scooperman" persona, including a full-body, Superman-style outfit, which he wears to area dog shows to promote his business. Apparently it's working. He now has more than 50 regular customers, including a Carolina Panthers football player and a NASCAR driver.
Williams is a little more forthcoming about the dirty details of his job. He relates one story about a client who owned two huge mastiffs that both suffered from chronic diarrhea. "On good days the poop had the consistency of toothpaste," he says. Fortunately, Williams had a friend who worked at a pet store who convinced the woman to change her dogs' diet, which improved the end result.
"It saved my life," Williams says.
There was also the morning he arrived at a new client's house during the middle of winter. It had rained the night before, so everything was frozen over, including their Great Dane's many calling cards. "The waterlogged poops were frozen solid to the ground," Williams says. "They didn't smell, but I had to chop these miniature brown icebergs loose. The shock of striking the frozen turds with my hoe went through my frozen hands all the way up to my shoulders. That was a long morning, but I got it done."
After being in the poop business for nearly seven years, Williams has become quite the excrement expert. "Poop comes in different colors, shapes and a wide array of odors," he says. "I think that I'm actually getting good enough to tell what brand of food the dog is eating."
If he has any complaints about his chosen career, it's what he calls "scooper's elbow." When it rains, he explains, the poop gets saturated with water and becomes heavy. "I get a shooting pain in my elbow after picking it up all day," he says. "Maybe I should design ergonomic poop-scooping tools?"
While Williams admits that he used to get embarrassed when people asked what he did for a living, he relishes talking about it now. "My job usually takes over the conversation," he says. "You've got to have a sense of humor in this business or you'll never make it."
Moorer and Williams are far from the only people in the pet poop business. In fact the poop-scooping industry is about 30 years old, with more than 300 companies in the United States and Canada. They even have their own association -- the Association of Professional Animal Waste Specialists (aPaws). A group of concerned scoopers started the organization in 2003 to increase awareness of the importance of proper animal waste disposal. The association, which has close to 100 members, also hosts the annual Pooper Scooper Round-Up. The three-day conference offers workshops, guest speakers and the always-popular Turd Herding Contest, in which participants compete to see who can pick up the most dog turds (technically sun-blackened pieces of potatoes) the fastest. The next Pooper Scooper Round-Up is scheduled for February in Orlando, Fla.
Leslie Ewing, 58, is president of aPaws, and also runs her own poop-scooping business in Indianapolis called Pet Pals Scoop. She started the company in 2003 while she was recovering from a two-year battle with skin cancer. After being bedridden for months, she started walking her dogs to help build up her strength and stamina. She was searching the Internet for some poop pickup bags, and came across Pooper-Scooper.com, and decided to give it a try. As past president of an Indianapolis humane society, the idea of cleaning up poop didn't faze her in the least.
"If you really want a messy cleanup, go to the local animal shelter," she says. "Yards are nothing."
Over the years Ewing has discovered that each dog has its own advantages and disadvantages. "Big dogs have big poop -- it's sitting right out there and it's easy to find," she says. "You get through the yard much faster with a big dog, even though you've got more to get rid of. Little dogs like poodles get under bushes, so you've got to check under all the shrubs. There's less to clean up, but it's harder to locate."
The hardest part of her job, Ewing says, is getting the word out about her services. "If you have problems with your plumbing or electricity, you know who to call," she says. "But if you hate to pick up dog doo, people don't think of calling a professional pooper-scooper. I'm hoping to help change that."
The most noted pioneer in the poop-scooping business is Matthew Osborn, who runs Pooper-Scooper.com. Osborn got started back in 1987 when he opened Pet Butler in Columbus, Ohio. "I had been interested in small-business ideas since I was a kid," he says. "My friends thought it was an interesting but far-out idea, and many of them just couldn't grasp the concept. They all said, 'People aren't going to pay you for that.'"
At the time, Osborn was working two full-time jobs and making less than $6 per hour at each. He had a wife, a daughter and a son on the way, and was desperate to make some extra money. Osborn began doing research at the local library, studying the area's demographics and census data. He eventually contacted the county auditor and learned that there were about 100,000 dogs within 15 miles of his home."I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got started with very little money," he says.
The business slowly took off, and despite the dirty work, Osborn says he enjoyed satisfying the customers and working outdoors in some of the nicest backyards in Ohio. However, it wasn't all fun and games. "I didn't enjoy driving around in my little Honda Civic with hundreds of pounds of dog poop in the back," he says. "It sort of gave me nightmares until I was able to buy pickup trucks for the business."
Eventually Osborn employed seven people and owned a fleet of six trucks serving about 700 regular customers. "I was making more money than ever before and spending most of my time with my family doing the things I enjoyed," he says. After a nearly 10-year run, Osborn sold his business in 1998 and started Pooper-Scooper.com, which contains an international directory of pet waste removal businesses. His newest business venture is that of writer. He recently released a book, "The Professional Pooper-Scooper: How to Start Your Own Low-Cost, High-Profit Dog Waste Removal Service."
While Osborn may have put poop scooping on the map, Matt "Red" Boswell is taking it into the future. Boswell owns the Texas-based Pet Butler. He recently moved the business out of his house and into a 1,200-square-foot office just north of Dallas. Today, Pet Butler is the largest pet waste removal service in the country, and serves about 3,000 clients.
"Most of our customers are middle and upper-middle income," says Boswell. "But can you think of anyone who wants to clean up dog poop or cat poop?"
Boswell explains that at an average of just $10 per visit, nearly anyone can afford Pet Butler's services. "Rarely is Pet Butler considered a luxury service by those who use us," he says. "Most consider Pet Butler a mandatory and highly valued staple for their yard maintenance needs."
Boswell, 35, hasn't always been the poop-scoop king he is today. Back in 1997 he was near bankruptcy after his Internet start-up venture crashed and burned. After months of false starts and dead ends, his girlfriend suggested starting a poop-scooping business. "I was quite offended she thought I would even do it," Boswell says. But figuring he had nothing to lose, he launched Pet Butler in 1998. "It failed miserably," he says. "But I was done quitting. I didn't care if everybody on the planet thought I was an idiot. I dropped all pride. I was determined to make it happen."
Two years later Pet Butler was still struggling, but through relentless marketing, a little press, and word-of-mouth referrals, he finally started making some headway.
Boswell, who refers to himself as Pet Butler's "chief excrement officer," is quick to point out that he's not just some executive in a suit, but that he's paid his dues and gotten his hands dirty -- literally. "I have personally scooped over a million piles of poop," he says proudly. "I have had more than a few make me literally gag. Even the dogs wouldn't go near them."
The company has seven employees working in the field scooping poop, and six in the office who help run the day-to-day business operations. Boswell admits it's not what'd you call a glamorous job, and there are some occupational hazards.
"This job has caused some guys to lose more than their share of girlfriends," Boswell says.
And Boswell says that most of his "Fecal Matter Removal Technicians" have to occasionally deal with temperamental "clients." "Most technicians will normally get bitten sometime in their first six months because they get lazy and too trusting," he says. "Fortunately that is all it takes for the tech to never let it happen again."
Boswell is in the midst of launching Pet Butler Franchise Services Corp., and foresees Pet Butler franchises popping up all over the country. And despite his unorthodox and some would say unsavory career choice, Boswell says he has long gotten over any embarrassment he had over his job, and actually relishes the attention. "I love when people ask what I do for a living," he says. "People just can't get enough of the idea that we actually scoop poop for a living."
Of course, when your company is projected to gross over a million dollars and you have nearly 20 franchises sprouting up all over the country, including 10 in the Dallas/Forth Worth area, it helps ease the embarrassment. In fact it was Boswell's success story that landed him a gig as guest speaker at last year's Pooper Scooper Round-Up in Houston. Boswell was also awarded the Golden Shovel for winning the Turd Herding contest. However, there was some controversy over his technique. "He decided to forgo tools, and just grabbed the turds and stuffed them inside his slacks," says aPaws president Ewing, who came in second. "This is not a technique that is used in the field, so I protested his win, but the board voted against me."
Boswell says he's put the controversy behind him and is focusing on the future goals of Pet Butler. In fact they're posted on a big bulletin board in the new office above the printer: "By June 2010 Pet Butler will support at least 100 franchises across North America. We will serve more than 50,000 clients each week, and offer service to over 50 million people in North America and collect in excess of $500,000 each week and donate $100,000 to pet-friendly organizations each year."
"We've got some huge goals," Boswell says. "It's an industry that's untapped. We plan on becoming the Microsoft of dog poop."