By Karen Heller
Joe Gillmer had a problem. A big, stinky, sole-troubling problem plaguing Midtown Alexandria Station condos, where he serves as board vice president.
How to put this gently? Dog, er, waste in the vestibule, in the elevator (yes, really), and — this particularly incensed Gillmer — in the garage beside handicapped parking, making life difficult for residents with physical challenges.
“What were we going to do?” Gillmer says. “Put up 13 cameras for $100,000 with the slim chance of catching the guy?”
Instead, the condo association hired a service called PooPrints to match evidence from the crime scene to registered DNA taken from all condo dogs.
Yes, yes, Gillmer has heard all the jokes: “CSI: Manure,” you name it. “I got a lot of criticism,” he recalls. “They called me the ‘Czar of Poop.’ ”
But here’s the thing: After the service was started a year ago, “we only had to test one sample,” Gillmer says of the only scatological crime since committed — only one! This in a building with 368 units and about 600 human and 60 canine residents. That’s the sort of success that law enforcement agencies can only dream of. Now, no one dares pooh-pooh the progress that has been made.
Among the great unresolved conflicts between neighbors is determining the provenance of unwanted, unseemly and often unwittingly trampled dog detritus.
Sometimes it leads neighbors to court, as in the case of a 2011 Fairfax dispute.
And sometimes the answer is treating a trouble area like a crime scene.
Two years ago, the Chase in Bethesda had an epic problem — 20 incidents, possibly more (who wants to keep count?), mostly indoors, one “parcel” described as being more the product of Sasquatch than a pooch. Until the introduction of scatological forensics, which basically ended the mess for good, and with stunning alacrity.
It seems there’s nothing like a fine for sloth and stupidity, plus a dollop of humiliation, to terminate bad behavior.
The dangers of poop
Thanks in part to a Tennessee scientist with the impeccable moniker of Chesleigh Winfree, managers at housing developments and apartment buildings and members of homeowners associations and condo boards such as Gillmer are using DNA samples to solve the mystery of nasty end products.
PooPrints, a self-described “dog poop DNA matching service,” is the most successful product of BioPet Vet Lab in Knoxville, which specializes in canine genetic testing. Launched in late 2010, the company has on record the DNA of more than 30,000 dogs from Canada and 45 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and recently signed a deal to launch in Great Britain.
Winfree, she along with two scientists who have since left the company, developed a process for swabbing dogs’ mouths for a DNA sample. The profiles are stored in a company database. Marble-sized specimens of offending waste are mailed to the company in bottles containing a stabilizer, then checked against the property’s registry, consistently yielding “highly viable” matches.
“I had read in scientific journals about successfully using DNA samples in waste to identify animals in the wild,” says Winfree. She realized that the same process could be used to idetify (somewhat) domesticated critters as well. “I think it’s a problem that’s not resolved by any other means.”
Yes, it has come to this: We live in a society where, rather than speaking to one another and gingerly asking neighbors to clean up their dogs’ messes, we mail a portion of said messes to Tennessee in a small bottle so that, using genetic sequencing and mathematical logarithms, the canine hooligan can be identified. Another case of technology taking the place of human interaction.
This is no laughing matter, though: Beyond the issues of odor, irritation and downright ickiness, pet mess poses serious problems. “Pet waste that is not disposed of properly can be harmful to human health and the environment and can increase bacteria and other pollution when entering into local waterways,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Poop carries bacteria and viruses that can compromise the health of other animals. It does squat for grass. The EPA has awarded grants to help communities encourage cleanup, and many municipalities spend considerable amounts on cleanup stations and owner education.
The best deterrent
Many condo and rental complexes impose pet fees for wear and tear. Some buildings also require their dogs to register with PooPrints when signing leases. What happens when the poopetrator is identified? The cost of testing a sample (ranging from $75 to $100) is often charged to the guilty party, along with a fine.
At the Chase, two residents have been caught: one incident seems to have been truly an accident; the other involved a two-time offender, a renter and recidivist who was fined and elected to move out.
At Midtown Alexandria Station, where some residents have balked at registering DNA samples, the guilty tenant had initially been supportive of the measure. A board member informed him: “The good news is that we used the test and it worked. We found the culprit. The bad news is that it’s your dog.” He readily paid the fine of $115 — $65 for the testing, $50 for the infraction. Gillmer recalls: “He was sort of mortified for his family.”
In two years, Michelle Mann of United Residential Properties, with seven properties in four Southern states that encompass almost 2,000 units, has had only one two-time offender. “The program instantly made an immediate impact,” she says. “At some properties, we haven’t had to fine anyone.”
Says Winfree: “A few of our properties have reached the point where they rarely, if ever, submit waste.”
Well, except for one besieged property in South Carolina. Recalls Winfree, “They sent 18 waste samples” — 18! — “that matched the same dog, but no match to a dog registered in the database.”
Ultimately, the offending dog was collared. Turns out the owner had never bothered to register the pet.
“The truth is we don’t want to interrogate every dog owner every time there’s an incident,” says Gillmer. “We just want to target the idiot who is doing this. We want people to be very aware that if you’re going to be that irresponsible, you’re going to get caught.”
Currently, PooPrints is used only in multi-unit properties, although municipalities including Dallas; Hoboken, N.J.; and Gaithersburg, Md., have expressed interest. A pilot study was conducted with an Israeli genetics lab after Jerusalem officials expressed interest in a DNA-waste matching database. There have been inquiries from the Netherlands and Malta. PooPrints should seriously consider making inroads in Paris, generally considered, for all its perfumed sophistication, to be the dog poop capital of the world.
Not every resident embraces the notion of having a beloved pet’s DNA sampled and registered.
“The blowback that we get is, ‘That’s against my rights,’ and yada, yada. ‘This is Communist. This is illegal,’ ” says Chris Fontaine, who distributes PooPrints in Maryland, the District and Pennsylvania. “I’m a retired Marine, so I’m kind of a right-wing conservative type,” and, really, he says he can’t quite believe he’s saying this, “but by taking care of the problem, you’re enhancing the safety of the environment.”
Fontaine has also noticed — and he’s not alone in the world of poop forensics — that “the 10 percent of residents who are the biggest resisters, who are dragging their feet about getting their dogs registered, they’re the ones that aren’t cleaning up after their dogs.”