Dog poop DNA: the latest tool to make people pick up after their pets [5-31-16]

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Tony Marrero

Published May 31, 2016

RIVERVIEW — Stepping carefully, Frank Butler scans the trampled grass in search of his malodorous quarry. The hunt is brief. Butler is chagrined, but not surprised. There, behind a row of town homes in Osprey Run, sat the stinky calling card of inconsiderate dog owners everywhere.

“That looks like it might be good,” the 69-year-old old president of the neighborhood homeowners association says as he gingerly bends down on one knee. “Too bad we couldn’t find a bigger dog.”

As flies buzz around him, Butler snaps on a pair of white surgical gloves. With a bit of fumbling, he uses a wooden tongue depressor-like tool to scoop a piece of the offending poop into a medicine bottle filled with an orange liquid.

Soon, the sample will be traveling by U.S. mail to a lab for DNA testing.

This is the first step in what you might call fecal forensics, and Butler concedes it’s no fun. But Osprey Run, a community of 290 town homes off Bloomingdale Avenue, has joined the growing ranks of homeowner associations and property management companies in Tampa Bay using DNA sampling to track down dog owners who don’t pick up after their pets.

Association leaders like Butler say appeals for common courtesy haven’t worked, so they must turn to science and financial penalties.

What’s needed is accountability, said Karel Costa, property manager for Grand Central at Kennedy, a condo complex in Tampa.

“We have security,” Costa said, “but not a poop patrol.”

Mark Guarino, owner of Mr. Dog Poop, Inc., is in an unappetizing business, but he think it’s a growth industry: testing dog poop for apartments, condos and homeowners associations who want to track down dog owners who aren’t picking up after their pets. Residents are required to submit a DNA sample that is then stored in a database, and Guarino’s company tests samples sent to him to try to find matches.

Osprey Run’s path to DNA testing is a common one.

“I was tired of stepping in it,” Butler said.

The neighborhood has several pet walk areas, outfitted with bags and trash cans, but canine land mines still dot the property. Especially problematic are the grassy banks of a large pond in the center of the neighborhood. So are the areas behind the homes, where residents take advantage of the shady seclusion to leave piles with impunity.

It’s a problem that has confounded city and suburban dwellers for decades. Now, with the advent of affordable DNA technology, communities ranging from mobile home parks to Manhattan apartment buildings are paying companies to help collar offenders.

The proof is in the disappearing poop, said Ernie Jones, a spokesman for PooPrints. The subsidiary of a Tennessee biotech company was founded in 2010 and now has about 1,700 clients and a database of 200,000 dogs, Jones said.

About 140 of those clients are in Florida, including more than a dozen in a region that includes Tampa Bay.
“They’re thrilled with it,” Jones said. “Once people are made accountable for their actions, they start doing what properties wanted them to do to start with.”

The amount of dog waste in participating neighborhoods drops by 80 percent initially and by more than 90 percent once the program has been in place for a while, Jones said.

Residents are required to pay a fee to register their pets and submit a saliva sample by swabbing the inside of the dog’s cheek. The sample is sent to the company, which keeps a database of all dogs in the neighborhood.

When an offending pile is discovered, a lucky employee or noble volunteer scoops a sample into a bottle and mails it off. Companies compare the DNA in the sample to the dog database and notify clients when there’s a match. The dog’s owner receives notice of a fine.

At Grand Central, collection usually falls to Costa, who manages the 400-unit condo complex in Tampa’s Channelside district for Greenacre Properties.

The condo association hired PooPrints in January after board members grew exasperated with neighbors’ bad behavior, Costa said. Poop was turning up in the elevators, stairwells and the pool deck, not to mention the dog walk area.

Costa has sent 10 samples so far and five have matched. Letters notifying the dog owners of their $100 fine were just recently mailed.

“For the most part,” he said, “the fear of receiving a violation letter has curbed it noticeably.”

Reaction from residents tends to be mixed.

Many welcome the news. Others are skeptical, even hostile to the idea of paying for what they consider a Big Brother of canine bowel movements.

“We resisted it for a long time because this a very dog-friendly building,” said Grand Central resident Cara Cira. “We kept hoping that just telling others to be good dog parents and clean up after their pet would work, but there’s always that percentage that just doesn’t get it. This is working.”

Richie Lastinger, a resident of Osprey Run, also needed some convincing.

“At first, I was against it,” said Lastinger, 40, as he walked Daisy, a chihuahua-papillon mix, last week. “It just seemed like more money out of our pockets. But after seeing it in progress, it’s really changed a lot out here.”

Osprey Run resident Stephanie Crawley, 45, was delighted to hear about the DNA testing. Clutching her chihuahua Taco’s leash in one hand and green poop bags in the other, Crawley recalled an unfortunate outing with her brand new Skechers. The guilty owner, by that point long gone, clearly had a large dog.

“I started screaming,” she recalled, and then re-enacted the profane message she belted out for any blameworthy dog owner within ear shot. “Skechers are not cheap.”

Butler says the neighborhood has registered about 58 dogs and he has sent off about a dozen samples. None has made a match so far, and there certainly are stragglers who haven’t registered. There is a lot less dog waste lying around, he said — but still too much.

The biggest challenge is finding volunteers to collect samples.

“It really needs to be done almost daily if you want to get it fresh. People look at me and say, ‘I ain’t doing that’ ” he said, contorting his face in mock disgust.