The town of Colorado Springs this week found itself in the spotlight for a rather embarrassing reason: The police are hunting a woman who won’t stop pooping in public. Apparently, she goes around in jogging gear and defecates on people’s lawns or sidewalks, in their backyards, even outside the local Walgreens — and, at least once, in front of children — then wipes with napkins that she leaves behind with the mess itself. Most alarmingly, she often does this in close proximity to usable public restrooms.
The “Mad Pooper,” as she’s known, makes for an easy layup of a viral news story, and plenty of national media outlets have published lighthearted coverage of her scatological spree. It’s definitely funny (since it’s not my lawn she’s pooping on), yet I’m nagged by the suspicion that we’ll never solve this mystery, whether she’s caught or not. Consider the precedents: The notorious “Akron Pooper,” who shat on a number of cars in the Ohio city’s Castle Homes neighborhood between 2012 and 2015, seemed to go underground after his image circulated social media. The pooper who repeatedly defiled a playground slide in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 2014, prompting a billboard campaign to “flush him out,” was caught and spoken to by authorities…who declined to press charges or explain the behavior. And nobody got to the bottom of a 2013 Albuquerque case quite similar to that of the “Mad Pooper,” in which a woman jogger kept relieving herself on the side of a specific house. The owner called it “malicious fecal distribution.”
Go beyond these articles, and you find that most people have had direct experience with the phenomenon of serial public pooping. I well remember the semester of middle school when you ran the risk of stumbling upon a coiled turd in the less-busy stairways; The year after I graduated college, the campus was terrorized by the “Unapooper,” who once managed to take a dump in the CD tray of a fellow student’s stereo. My colleague C. Brian Smith recounts how a revenge-pooping for a laxative-related boarding school prank begat copycat attacks and the reign of the “Sock-Drawer Shitter,” whose modus operandi you can probably guess. In youth, the phenomenon is largely attributed to dares and juvenile gross-out humor (though certain fecal issues can indicate medical problems or abuse), as depicted in a memorable Bob’s Burgers episode. Yet we lack a go-to explanation for adults who shit anywhere other than the toilet — and it haunts me.
AJ Amsterdam knows what I mean. He and I grew up next-door neighbors in New Jersey, and at college he lived through a poop pandemic much like any other. Feces began to show up in his dorm elevator, and in the hallways, “a couple times a week,” he tells me. Eventually, a friend took it upon himself “to become the Sherlock Holmes of shit” and track down the perpetrator; At one point in the investigation, he followed AJ’s randomly assigned roommate down to a common area, then walked in when the coast was clear, discovering a red Solo cup that smelled strongly of human waste. His theory? The strange roommate had been pooping in cups and depositing the result wherever. He took this evidence to the RA, and soon enough, police appeared at AJ’s door, demanding to see the suspect. When AJ got back later that night, all trace of the roommate had vanished, and friends said he’d gone home to “take time off” from school.
“It still fucks with me,” AJ says, “that I never got an answer. I asked people if he was pledging [a frat], which would have been a reason, at least, to keep shitting everywhere. But he wasn’t. I guess he was just doing it because he could. And he was methodical.”
Has any other pathology remained so unexplored? Clearly this is a common problem, yet psychologists appear indifferent to or unaware of it. For god’s sake, there isn’t even a Wikipedia page about this! Meanwhile, retail businesses like department stores consider rogue poops on their floors and in dressing rooms a matter of course. A friend just emailed me to say that yesterday he “was at a meeting about a project where the building owner said they just found out one of the tenants has been shitting in a bag and putting it in the trash.” A phantom pooper clogged the holes of a Norwegian golf course for an entire decade. Most incredibly, the single in-court application of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, “which generally prohibits employers from requesting genetic information from its employees,” delivered a $2.25 million judgement against a company that took cheek swabs from two employees to test against DNA collected from — you guessed it — a series of stool samples left in one of its warehouses. The pair sued when no match was revealed, and the real pooper is presumably at large today.
In the absence of any diagnosis, we are left to ponder the motivations for ourselves. Much of the online discussion about this points to “mental illness,” a vague catch-all that hardly speaks to the nature of the compulsion. In my view, Mad Poopers are accomplishing two distinct if related things: They break one of our most ingrained social taboos (i.e., shitting next to the toilet instead of into it), and they force another person to clean it up. Multiple acquaintances told me of a college dorm or workplace where someone would routinely poop in the toilet but simply refuse to flush it, likewise making it someone else’s problem; in one instance, this elicited a campaign of passive-aggressive notes demanding an end to such conduct, but that only telegraphed a misapprehension of what drove it in the first place — scorn for basic, accepted norms.
There will always be accidents and emergencies, of course, and our shame may lead us to shirk responsibility for their consequences. But I hope you will join me in demanding that a behaviorist or relevant expert study the mindset of habitually off-the-mark poopers. I can’t help but notice how many of them operate within sealed institutions with well-established rules and decorum — stores, schools, offices, and residential communities — as if in protest of hierarchy or civilization itself. Do they yearn to return to prehistory, or just a time before plumbing? Are they resorting the elemental means of marking one’s territory? Do they simply delight in disgusting the rest of us?
I refuse to believe that we cannot know. And I’m not shitting you when I say: I will not rest until I do. Can you smell that? It’s the truth we deserve — a big, steaming pile of it.