It was a haunting picture. An adorably small boreal owl trapped at the bottom of a vault toilet – an outhouse – surrounded by human waste and garbage.
“At first glance, your gut reaction is ‘This is not OK,’” said Amy McCarthy, executive director of the Teton Raptor Center. “You want to reach out and help the bird, but you don’t really want to reach out into that.”
McCarthy knew birds could get trapped in the toilets after mistaking the pipes that vent the outhouses as a hole for burrowing in. She’d heard stories of people entering an outhouse only to see two glowing eyes looking up from the toilet. But seeing the pathetic-looking owl in that photo, which circulated out from the Boise National Forest, made her want to take immediate action.
She knew the solution had to be inconspicuous, maintenance-free and as long-lasting as the toilet.
The Poo-Poo Project
In 2010 the Teton Raptor Center launched the Poo-Poo Project, an effort to screen the vents on vault toilets – outhouses typical of Forest Service and other public lands rest areas. The Center started by helping to outfit vault toilets in Wyoming with vent screens, but the program has since expanded into 26 states. The Teton Raptor Center hopes to partner with agencies in all 50 states by the end of this year, said David Watson, program coordinator.
“Even one owl is too many to die this way,” he said. “Being trapped at the bottom of a vault toilet? That’s not how you want to go.”
Cavity nesting birds, like many owl species, kestrels, woodpeckers and a few duck species, are drawn to the outhouse pipes, which appear to be a natural cavity, Watson said. Once in, they can’t gain purchase on the smooth surface to crawl out and it’s too tight a space to spread their wings and fly. They end up trapped. There are even occasional reports of small animals, like foxes, which might burrow into the pipe when the snow levels are high and trap themselves.
The Teton Raptor Center started buying rock screens, originally designed to keep out the stones kids throw into pipes. But snow could cover and clog vents fitted with those screens, so staff worked out a different design. The Poo-Poo Project screens sit almost an inch above the opening, allowing ventilation on the sides even if the top is covered with snow. The Teton Raptor Center has sold more than 7,000 of the specially designed screens since it created them in 2013. The new design also brought the cost down from $100 per screen to about $30, allowing more agencies to buy more screens, Watson said. There are 981 screened vault toilets now in Wyoming on state park forest service, Grand Teton National Park and Bureau of Land Management land.
The Teton Raptor Center started a program this summer allowing individuals to donate $35 to the Raptor Center, enough to buy and instal of a screen.
“You can’t help but be moved to action to do something, especially when the action is so simple and so affordable,” McCarthy said of the program’s success.
Is there hope?
There isn’t data on how many birds are trapped each year, just anecdotal information, Watson said. Nor are there numbers on how many vault toilets exist in the country.
While the Teton Raptor Center’s next milestone will be to have vault toilets screened in every state, McCarthy has a bigger goal.
“The ultimate success would be that all existing vault toilets will be screened and any new vault toilets come with screens,” she said.
The Teton Raptor Center is working with the National Park Service and the Forest Service to change regulations, so that new vault toilets will be required to have screens when installed.
“There are regulations on everything from the toilet paper to the roller that holds it, why can’t they say there has to be a screen on the pipes?” Watson said.
McCarthy hopes the project encourages people to think about preventable hazards they can mitigate at home, like dryer vents, or chimneys that can injure birds.
“The Poo-Poo Project is just the very beginning of a conservation message and a way people can take action,” she said.