CHICAGO — 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 can’t 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. “They’re gonna get caught, and they’re gonna get fined. That’s 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.
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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 don’t clean up after their pets. When caught, owners face steep fines that increase if the offense continues.
Under PooPrints, dog owners provide DNA swabbed from inside their pet’s 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. “There’s only a handful of these poo-petrators, and they don’t like it. They don’t 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. The fee to analyze the waste sample is an additional $60, along with the $15 for the vial that contains a special solution.
How many other companies provide a service similar to PooPrints is difficult to say. A Google search and calls to animal organizations didn’t 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 victim’s dogs and the dog’s 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 didn’t 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 ‘no pet policy’ but instead it sounds like the landlord is trying to make sure he gets a responsible pet owner as a renter.”