'Poo-pertrators' beware: Dog waste-scooping business takes page from 'CSI'

December 9, 2013

CHICAGO ó Steve Heldenbrand stood beside the crime scene in southwest suburban Plainfield, Ill., with a tiny spatula and clear plastic vial in his hand.

Determined to find the culprit, he scooped up a chunk of the fresh evidence lying on the lawn and put it in the container. He rushed back to the office and placed the vial in a hazardous materials bag. Then he set the sample of dog poop on a shelf next to four others, all waiting to be tested at the lab for DNA.

"I just canít believe people are stupid enough to not pick up after their dog, especially when we have this DNA testing," said Heldenbrand, the maintenance supervisor for the Springs at 127th Apartments. "Theyíre gonna get caught, and theyíre gonna get fined. Thatís all there is to it."

The once lowly pooch poop-scooping business has taken a page out of CSI and is now cataloging canines across the country and using dog DNA to track down owners who break property rules.

In the Chicago area, a Barrington condo association and a Plainfield apartment complex subscribe to a service that helps connect dog poop to the dog owners who donít clean up after their pets. When caught, owners face steep fines that increase if the offense continues.

At the 340-unit Plainfield development, 40 percent of residents have canine companions. The gated complex didnít have a major problem with dog droppings but signed up for PooPrints about a month ago because it wanted to be proactive, said Kelsey Sheehan, the assistant property manager.

Under PooPrints ó the service also used at the Barrington condos ó dog owners provide DNA swabbed from inside their petís mouths to its management company, which requires them to do so under an amended pet policy, said Mike Stone, Chicago distributor of PooPrints.

The DNA swab is sent to a lab in Knoxville, Tenn., where it is stored in a database. If dog poop is found on the ground, management sends a nickel-sized sample to the lab, where it can be checked against the registry.

Once a match is found, the lab notifies Stone, who sends a letter to the property manager. If dog owners dispute the findings, they swab their dog again for DNA. Usually the concept alone is a deterrent, Stone said.

"DNA is undeniable evidence for accountability," he said. "Thereís only a handful of these poo-petrators, and they donít like it. They donít want to get caught."

Over the past three years, the service has spread to 45 states and three other countries, with the biggest markets in Miami, Minneapolis, Dallas and central North Carolina, said Eric Mayer, director of business development at BioPet Vet Lab, the company that invented PooPrints.

The DNA collection kit costs $40, an amount covered under the pet fees for the Barrington and Plainfield complexes. The fee to analyze the waste sample is an additional $60, along with the $15 for the vial that contains a special solution.

In winter 2011, The Arbors at Barrington started hearing complaints from residents about dog owners not picking up after their pets. One person said it was hard to walk through a common grassy area because of all the dog deposits, said Cia Johnson, a member of the condo associationís board.

After doing some research, Johnson, a veterinarian, discovered the dog DNA tests and brought it to the condoís board, which then passed a policy last summer that fines dog owners $50 for the first offense, increasing to $300 by the third. The pet can be removed from the grounds if the owner chooses not to comply.

A few people were "fairly upset" about the change and someone chose not to rent at the property because of the policy, Johnson said. But the measure seems to have worked: Since it went into effect in May, only one dog dropping has been found.

How many other companies provide a service similar to PooPrints is difficult to say. A Google search and calls to animal organizations didnít turn up any similar businesses. The University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is a leader in DNA dog waste testing and said it has done work for gated communities, condo associations and apartment complexes, mostly in Texas.

But the school also claims to have helped solve serious crimes involving dog DNA, including a 2000 triple-homicide in rural northeastern Indiana where three men were shot execution-style.

The suspect claimed he never left the car and only acted as a lookout, but dog feces found on his shoe matched those at the crime scene, said Beth Wictum, forensic unit director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis.

DNA testing on dog poop also helped convict a Texas man of rape in 2008. The California lab linked the feces on his shirt to one of the victimís dogs and the dogís waste in the backyard, where the crime took place, Wictum added.


Science has evolved over the years, and the cost for DNA testing is not that expensive, said Patti Strand, national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance. She called the service "creative" and said it didnít strike her as unreasonable for the pet or the pet owner.

"This is very specific to a landlord and his right to determine who rents his property," Strand said. "The landlord could just say he has a Ďno pet policyí but instead it sounds like the landlord is trying to make sure he gets a responsible pet owner as a renter."

If dog owners break the pet rules at the Plainfield apartment complex, the first offense merits a $100 fine. The cost doubles the second time and jumps to $300 the third.

But several dog owners there didnít have a problem with the new policy and DNA testing. In fact, the complex has seen a decline in droppings left on the property, said Meghan McLean, property manager.

Stephen Toles, who has two boxers, Sassie and Snickers, said the new rule keeps dog owners honest, but admits he laughed when he first heard about testing DNA in dog waste.

"At first I thought it was a joke. I thought it was kind of funny," said Toles, 44. "Címon, doggy DNA? Just the name (PooPrints) is a little amusing."



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