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Using DNA to Find ‘Poopertrators’

Kansas City, Mo. — As winter turned to spring at the Wau-Lin-Cree Apartments, the dog piles revealed themselves, lumps of unscooped doo just waiting to greet the sole of a sneaker.

Enough tenants complained to spur property manager Karen Peevy to action.

A dog’s DNA doesn’t lie. With this in mind, Peevy turned to the Internet to confirm that, indeed, CSI-style forensics could match a mound of poop to the critter that deposited it.

“We are starting a program known as PooPrints,” she wrote last month to the renters along Line Creek Drive in Kansas City, Mo. “We will need a cheek swab DNA sample of all community dogs.”

The cheek-swabbing began last week, just one small reflection of a growing pet-DNA industry.

And given the problem on the ground, who wouldn’t hope this industry succeeds?

Helping Wau-Lin-Cree management along is a Tennessee outfit with the same name, PooPrints. At a cost of $35 for each dog owner in the complex, PooPrints will collect, analyze and store genetic profiles in a global database, enabling sleuths to match future fecal samples to the dog that dumped it.

“I’ve been so excited about this,” Peevy said. “Once we have every dog swabbed, we’ll go through a very thorough cleaning of the grounds before we start collecting and testing new stuff that shows up.

“Our hope is that people on their own will start picking up after their pets.”

Owners of the offending mutts will face a $50 fine to cover the cost of sending each poop sample to the testing lab. Eviction would be the ultimate penalty.

“I’m thinking of making it three strikes and you’re out,” Peevy said.

PooPrints regional representative Charles Nash, whose territory covers four states, said the 286-unit Wau-Lin-Cree complex is his first Kansas City client.

In less than a year, he said, he’s lined up 65 clients, all of them apartment properties and homeowners associations.

For most pets, DNA collection is painless - just 10 seconds of having a cotton swab rubbed along the inside cheek to gather up loose skin cells.

“You always get some dissenters who say you’re violating the dog’s privacy rights,” said Eric Mayer, director of business development at BioPet Vet Lab in Knoxville, Tenn.

The lab receives the swab samples by mail. Poop samples will follow, also in the mail — just a nickel-sized slice shaken in a plastic vial containing an inert solution to give it, in Nash’s words, “a milk-shake consistency.”

Wau-Lin-Cree’s maintenance crew will be tasked with that job.

Pet DNA has many applications.

So many, in fact, that industry watchers see a future in which registering the DNA of domestic animals and livestock will be as routine as vaccinations.

“You no longer need blood to get an animal’s DNA profile. You can get a lot now with a simple swab,” said Randy Smith, accounts manager for DDC Veterinary lab in Fairfield, Ohio.

“On the human side of DNA sampling, which we also do, you’re dealing with some serious and sad issues,” said Smith. “You’re looking there at custody disputes, crimes committed, people in prison who’ve been wrongly convicted. With pets, it’s just a lot of fun.

“For one, you can identify the poopetrators among us.”

Or, you can reclaim a lost pet with proof positive it is yours.The specter of DNA testing also can have a weird effect on people, said Jenny Armer, property manager for a Des Moines, Iowa, apartment complex that signed up for the PooPrints program last year.

“When you have that scientific match (on a poop sample), the owners won’t argue,” Armer said.

“I’ve come up to a pile and seen people walk out and confess,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s me. Don’t send it away.’ ”