Here’s a story that is doing the rounds in the ‘Believe it or not’ columns of the newspapers. Some boffin is rubbing his hands delightedly, as they’ve actually persuaded the municipality of Jerusalem to commission research into a DNA testing programme… for dog poo. Yes, wardens will be able to do DNA tests on any stray turd in the street, match it to a database of registered dogs, and the convictions will roll in.
It all seems so simple, and obvious. Why isn’t every city using this wonderful new technology? Why indeed. Let’s see if we can find out.
In fact, it turns out to be one of those hi-tech magic-bullet solutions that pops up time and time again as a great idea that’s being trialled, with super results just around the corner. But results and evidence of success are not so easy to come by. Usually the story is well-publicised by a local civic leader (often shortly before an election). But never yet has it turned out to be an announcement about how well the first year went.
The problem is a simple one, and nothing to do with test-tubes and forensic science. Getting samples of dog poo is ridiculously easy. Matching it to a dog is tried and tested technology, albeit not that cheap. Getting the corresponding samples of live dogs who are likely to leave such poo is the difficult bit. In order for such a scheme to work, it would be necessary to have an up-to-date database of the DNA of all dogs. That would be expensive to create and maintain, if in fact it could be made at all. At the moment, in England, there’s no legal way to oblige everyone to provide such samples. What’s more, if there were a voluntary scheme, who would be the people who would not participate? That’s right, the same people who don’t care about leaving dog mess behind their pets.
There is another, limited way in which this might work. It’s interesting that one of the few documented places where this scheme actually seems to work reliably is in a relatively small and controlled environment. An American company called PooPrints administers a dog DNA service for apartment buildings and gated communities, where the owners can require all dog owners to register as a condition of residence. JJS Property Management, Inc. currently manages 25 apartment communities in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and clearly they think it works for them:
We had exhausted all of our ideas leaving us properties that were littered with dog waste. That created unhappy residents… The PooPrints process required all current tenants to bring their pet(s) to our office where their mouths were swabbed for a DNA sample. Any new pets introduced to the property by current or new residents must have a DNA sample taken prior to the move in date. We believe the PooPrints program has been a huge success for us.
I don’t know of anywhere outside the USA where this programme is actually in operation. It’s likely that if there were enough demand, a similar scheme could be created in most legal jurisdictions, as the legal issues are effectively bypassed by it being a private scheme. But the chances of such a programme working in a public environment seem to be pretty small, unless somebody finds a way to both pay for it, and make everyone join in. And I don’t think that’s happening any time soon, not even in Jerusalem.