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One commenter on Clarification sought on the six-inch-cat-hole rule says of toilet paper, "One issue is that (even if it does biodegrade), animals may dig it up and scatter it around..."

I've heard this in various forms, the two basic claims being that animals will find and dig up buried human excrement, or that they'll do this with toilet paper.

I know that dung beetles seek out scat, but digging up a human's cathole would be a major excavation project, and scattering what they find would be a huge waste of time and energy.

Undisturbed animal scat is a common sight in the woods where I live, and is often days or weeks old.

Have animals been observed doing this? What animal passes over scat from other animals to find human scat and dig it up? Does burying toilet paper with the waste statistically change the occurrence of this practice?


To make the claim more notable, NPS' website says:

Bury the brown stuff in a 4-6-inch hole dug in a sunny place at least 200 feet from water, washes, rock shelters, climbing routes, and bouldering problems. Wildlife will dig up soiled toilet tissue, so bring a bag and pack it out.

  • Urine attracts honeybees. Stinky water sources are apparently easier to find. – fredsbend Jul 7 '18 at 14:35
  • +1 for being skeptical of that, for the reasons you mention. But I'm not convinced a claim on a SE thread is notable according to Skeptics' SE rules. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Jul 7 '18 at 15:37
  • Probably the only animal likely to dig it up is another human (and not intentionally): motherjones.com/environment/2011/04/is-it-okay-to-poop-outside On the other hand you may want to read about coprophagia smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/… – SX welcomes ageist gossip Jul 7 '18 at 15:48
  • It looks to me like coprophagia is mostly an intra-species phenomenon, so with the exception of some insects (as you noted), its unlikely for human feces to attract much animal interest. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Jul 7 '18 at 15:57
  • I think the focus of the claim should be on toilet tissue because NPS phrases it that way (See edit). The toilet tissue may have additional attractors, but I don't know what they are. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Jul 7 '18 at 16:02
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I didn't find any systematic studies of wildlife digging up toilet paper (TP), but there is one which found that TP buried under rocks doesn't degrade fast enough, even in presence of feces (simulant, in this study).

An examination of the relative breakdown rates of unused toilet paper, facial tissues and tampons was undertaken in nine different environments typical of Tasmanian natural areas. Bags of the paper products (toilet paper, facial tissues, tampons) were buried for periods of 6, 12 and 24 months at depths of 5 and 15 cm. A nutrient solution simulating human body wastes was added to half of the samples, to test the hypothesis that the addition of nutrients would enhance the breakdown of paper products buried in the soil. Mean annual rainfall was the most important measured variable determining mean breakdown in the nutrient addition treatment between sites, with high rainfall sites (mean annual rainfall of greater than 650 mm) recording less decayed products than the drier sites (mean annual rainfall of 500–650 mm). Temperature and soil organic content were important influences on the breakdown of the unfertilised products. Toilet paper and tissues decayed more readily than tampons. Nutrient addition enhanced decay for all products across all sites. Depth of burial was not important in determining the degree to which products decayed. In alpine environments, burial under rocks at the surface did not increase the speed of decay of any product. The Western Alpine site, typical of alpine sites in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, showed very little decay over the two-year period, even for nutrient enhanced products. Management prescriptions should be amended to dissuade people from depositing human toilet waste in the extreme (montane to alpine) environments in western Tasmania. Tampons should continue to be carried out as currently prescribed.

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  • In my question on the outdoors SE site, the toilet paper had almost completely degraded in 4 weeks. However, it wasn't buried under rocks. So if burying it under rocks makes the process take months or years then burying it under rocks is a very bad idea. – Don Branson Jul 7 '18 at 23:23
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Most animals will ignore scat. Heh, there's a great line in Pulp Fiction on that.

A few birds will pluck TP if it is on the surface, because they will use it for nest building. But they won't usually dig it up.

But some animals, in some cases. The primary thing is, does the material contain interesting smells that the animals are not familiar with. And the "usual suspect" is a bear.

http://www.wildsmart.ca/news/hyperphagia2015/

Bears are pretty much hungry all the time. If a bear encounters something it has never smelt before it will eat it on the chance that it might be food. The canonical example is a can of paint. They also have just amazingly sensitive noses. They can find stuff very efficiently.

So, for example, if you drink a lot of coffee, or eat a lot of dried fruit, or chocolate, or several other things, your poop could smell very interesting to a bear.

Some animals will also investigate scat for other reasons. Dogs (and wolves and similar), for example, will roll in it. The idea is it's OK to smell like poop as long as they don't smell like dog. That way their prey animals will think that there's a poop near them in the woods and not run away. It seems not to bother them. But the owners may not be too keen on it.

https://www.pedigree.com/dog-care/dog-facts/why-do-dogs-roll-in-smelly-things

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