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San Francisco Losing Edge in Disruptive Doggie Doo Technology

Can dog DNA find owners not doing their doody?

Mike Isaac/Re/code

San Francisco has a proud history of leading the way on the critical dog poop issues.

The late Supervisor Harvey Milk famously pushed through one of the nation’s earliest laws requiring owners to pick up pet feces. And, in 2006, the City by the Bay was the first in the United States to seriously explore converting animal waste into fuel that could power homes.

But when it comes to next-generation means of unmasking owners who fail to pick up said doggie doo, it might have just gotten scooped.

The Jerusalem Municipality in Israel announced it is launching a pilot program to begin analyzing the DNA of dog excrement to find and then fine dogs’ negligent masters, according to the Jerusalem Post.

“Our goal is not to increase the fines for dog owners, but to reduce, as much as possible, the local dog droppings hazard,” Dr. Zohar Dworkin, director of veterinary services at the Jerusalem Municipality, told the publication.

In other words: The grand promise of genetics has finally arrived.

Or not — taking DNA from dogs could be a privacy issue for some, which is why I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union for comment, which I am still awaiting. (Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same hot-button issue as the NSA tapping everyone’s phones.)

Still, progress marches on — it turns out apartment complexes in the United States are trying these techniques on a smaller scale as well. Several in North Carolina recently required tenants with pets to swab their animals’ cheeks and provide samples to BioPet Vet Lab of Knoxville, Tenn., according to The Daily News of Jacksonville, N.C.

When dog waste found on the property matches an animal in the database, the owner will be fined. A division of the company known as PooPrints — yes, we know — offers the service for $15 for the sample kit plus “between $19.95 and $49.95 for processing, plus shipping and handling,” the newspaper said.

As the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert put it, the company is taking “fecal matters into their own hands.”

With dogs outnumbering children in San Francisco, the city might seem ripe for a similar program. But it doesn’t appear to be the highest priority. While San Franciscans routinely navigate an urban obstacle course of canine mudpies, it’s actually not the biggest output problem in town.

“We have a lot of other poop to worry about, mainly humans defecating in South of Market and Tenderloin alleys,” said Rachel Gordon, spokeswoman for San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, referring to two of the city’s more littered neighborhoods.

That said, Gordon added the pooch variety is a problem, requiring at least four local agencies to pick up what pet owners fail to in various parts of the city.

Leaving aside the civil liberties issues for man and his best friend, the general consensus in the South Park area of San Francisco — where I sought out opinions on the messy subject — was that genetically testing canine feces and crossmatching pets to owners is a complicated and expensive way of dealing with a pretty straightforward problem.

“A government database for dog poop seems like a huge overreach,” said Jacob Portnoff of Albany, a suburb outside of San Francisco. “Maybe they should just hire people to pick up the poop or yell at people.”

Maybe so. “It’s kind of ubiquitous,” said Mark Butler, a programmer who works in San Francisco and regularly steps over land mines on sidewalks. He said he was in favor of taking a stronger stance on pet owners who don’t do their doody (okay, sorry for that one).

“Maybe you don’t punish people on the first offense, but fine the serial offenders,” he said. “They ruin it for all the other dog owners.”

Then again, he and two co-workers, whom I bugged — um, queried — on their way out of South Park, had serious questions about the practicalities of determining both crime and punishment through a dog DNA database.

Among the many issues: What is the burden of proof? What if one dog eats another’s droppings? Can you frame your neighbor’s annoying furball? Is there a legal mechanism for contesting a false match? And let’s not even get into the potential for cats to corrupt the evidence — you know how they are when it comes to dogs.

“If the dog poo doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Butler said.

True — and it’s also hard to convict a pooch just for doing his business.

Until this mess is cleaned up, see Stephen Colbert’s full take on PooPrints (skip to the 1:45 mark below):

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