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On a recent Monday morning, I found myself comparing aromatic notes with a true connoisseur of sorts.

JOHNSON: When you’re in this business, you know, you have a lot of opportunities to smell things. They each have a very unique aroma. I’ve often thought to describe it the way wine is described. Mountain Lion is my favorite. It has a very unique burnt umber smell. The wolf has the darkest color. The smell is rich. And it has, I would say, notes of earth.

CROCKETT: You make it sound so great.

JOHNSON: Well, I can’t help it but, you know, in a crude way, to me, it’s the smell of money.

This expert smeller — his name is Ken Johnson. But in certain circles, he goes by a different moniker.

JOHNSON: Well, I’m known as the pee man. I started and operate

Johnson sells a product that is generated every day in huge quantities. Most of us think of it as waste. But where one man sees animal urine, another man sees treasure.

JOHNSON: It’s really the ultimate recycling. You take something that would normally be just disposed of and put it to work in a way that’s natural.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: animal urine.

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As a kid in New Jersey, Ken Johnson loved the outdoors. The first chance he got, he moved to one of America’s most rugged states to study forestry at the University of Maine. After school, he stayed up there. He found his way into the ad business, and eventually started his own marketing firm. But in the mid-1980s, he took on a client closer to his interests. It was a little company called Foggy Mountain Hunting Scents and Lures. Foggy Mountain was run by a local hunter named Wayne Bosowicz.

JOHNSON: He was everything you would expect in a bear hunting guide, alright? He was big. He was rugged.

Bosowicz’s company filled a critical need.

JOHNSON: In the hunting world, you want to get close to the game animal you’re hunting. The way you do that is you either attract the animal, or you camouflage your human scent.

A whitetail deer has around 300 million olfactory sensors. Its sense of smell is 60 times stronger than ours. That means the deer can usually smell you before you’ve seen it. To solve that problem, Bosowicz enlisted an age-old hunting trick: he doused himself with animal pee. And not just any animal pee — it had to be something that didn’t scare the deer away.

JOHNSON: Foxes are naturally occurring animals in the same territory as a deer. But they’re not a predator of a deer. So deer, when they smell a fox, there’s no concern. Hunters use fox urine on their clothing, and they can get closer to the deer. Now, the more inventive hunters will use something as strong as skunk essence.

Bosowicz started bottling animal pee in mayonnaise jars and selling it at trade shows. When he eventually decided to sell the company in 1986, Johnson saw an opportunity to expand. And, with a little financial backing, he took over. At first, the business catered to hunters. Then, Johnson began to notice something strange: he was getting a ton of orders outside of hunting season. He called one of his customers and asked what was up.

JOHNSON: He said, “Oh, yeah, everybody around here uses it to keep rabbits out of their garden.” That’s a light bulb moment. I realized that urine is a communications player in the wild. It’s how wild animals find a mate. It’s how they protect their territory. And it’s how they detect the predator.

As it turned out, Johnson’s entry into the animal pee business was well-timed.

JOHNSON: The wilder areas were being developed — homes, suburbs, that sort of thing. Deer were wandering everywhere. And when they were looking for food, the shrubs, the garden, were easy pickings.

Between 1900 and 2020, the deer population in the U.S. grew from around 300,000 to 32 million. All those deer were wreaking havoc on newly-created suburbs and rural developments. A Clemson University report pegged the total damage that deer inflicted on gardens and landscaping at $250 million dollars per year. And that study only looked at 13 states. Homeowners were in desperate need of a solution. And Johnson had just the thing: coyote urine.

JOHNSON: Think about deer: they come onto your yard, and there it is, this scent of a coyote. So there’s a decision that a deer has to make: is it going to risk the coyote to get the food, or not?

These days, the market for animal urine has never been hotter. You can find an impressive array of pee products on the shelves at big-box retailers like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowes. On eBay, small outfits sell artisanal batches of “private stock” urine from their personal collections. Companies with names like “The Pee Mart” and “Just Scentsational” move the stuff by the gallon. According to JungleScout, a tool used to track e-commerce sales, retailers sell around $200,000 dollars’ worth of coyote and wolf urine each month on Amazon alone. And Johnson’s company controls a substantial share of that market. On his website — — a 16 ounce. spray bottle of coyote urine goes for $33 bucks. It’s one of his two best-sellers. The other one: wolf.

JOHNSON: The wolf urine is an interesting one. That’s grown as a major product for us over the years because of the coyote problem.

Ah, yes, the coyote problem. Since the 1980s, the market for their furs has been way down. With fewer trappers on the prowl, the coyote population has tripled. And, while wolves no longer live in most of the U.S., Johnson says their scent, in bottled form, still makes coyotes think twice about entering someone’s property.

JOHNSON: The wolf is the alpha. Deep down, a coyote knows that the smell of wolf urine is a problem.

Coyote and wolf pee are Johnson’s biggest sellers. But wait — there’s more!

JOHNSON: We sell fox urine for the squirrels and rabbits, skunks, chipmunks. Bobcat urine for mice, moles, very small rodents. Mountain lion urine for wild boar, javelina, armadillo. Bear urine is a smaller product category. But in northern areas where you have animals like moose and the mule deer, the bear pee is very effective.

Now, if you want to sell thousands of gallons of animal pee, you need a steady stream of product.

​​JOHNSON: The animals are in various places — zoos, game farms, refuges. They collect the urine with the floor drain and they ship it to us. And that’s about it. It’s not very complicated.

The pee is stored in 55-gallon drums and transported by the truckload to Johnson’s processing facility in Maine. From there it’s bottled up and shipped to customers all over the world.

So, who’s buying all of this animal pee? That’s coming up.

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Ken Johnson says the demand for animal urine has shown up in some unexpected places.

JOHNSON: Our largest customer is our distributor in Japan. He’s been buying our products for 10 to 15 years now. And they use it agriculturally over there to keep wild boar out of the rice paddies.

In 2013, Johnson’s predator urine even helped solve a problem at Denver International Airport.

JOHNSON: The long-term parking was infested by rabbits. A lot of the car wires are now made with soy. And rabbits love the soy. We have a product we call “pee shots,” which are small canister canisters with vented caps that you can put in your engine compartment.

But most of Johnson’s business comes from homeowners. They buy $100 dollars’ worth of pee to keep racoons out of the chicken coop or discourage chipmunks from foraging for butter lettuce in the garden. This raises a question. If you want to protect your home from pests, you have plenty of options: chemical agents, pellets — you know, fences. So why would consumers choose to spray their gardens with urine? Well, there is some science behind it.

JOHNSON: When we started doing this, we would get inquiries from laboratories that wanted to research how this works.

The scientific conclusions on the effectiveness of predator pee have been mixed. One study found that applying bobcat urine to apple trees reduced groundhog damage by up to 98 percent. Another study showed that leopard pee had no effect whatsoever on the determined spirit of small rodents. But some customers like using a pest-control product that wasn’t made in the lab.

JOHNSON: Here’s an all-natural product that takes animals’ natural instinct and puts it to work for your customers.

As it turns out, animal urine has a few other uses, too: people have sent bottles to their friends as a prank. They’ve sprayed it on storefronts to keep people from loitering around their businesses. And, they’ve used it as a form of retribution.

JOHNSON: We’ve had people send it to their ex-wives, to their ex-wives’ lawyers, or to their current wives’ lawyers. 

For Johnson, though, the market for animal waste has been a golden ticket.

JOHNSON: It’s supported our family for 37 years. And now my daughter and her husband are in the process of taking it over. It’s been good to us.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.

CROCKETT: Are there ever concerns about transporting animal urine?

JOHNSON: We’re very careful in our packing and everything, because the mailman would not like it to burst open in his truck.

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