Meet the poop-sniffing dog helping researchers save whales
Nothing ruins a fine day like an unwelcome encounter with dog excrement. That unmistakable squishing sensation underfoot triggers instant resentment. The mess, the stench, the indignity. What’s a victim to do?
Man’s best friend has always produced poop. But the poop disposal problem — whether it’s left in fresh stinky piles or carelessly discarded baggies — has become a pet peeve in cities like Miami, where the dog population is growing faster than the human population. There are nearly 90 million pet dogs in the United States today.
Dog poop scofflaws are causing friction from Homestead to Hialeah, from Little Havana to Aventura, on sidewalks and lawns all across a metropolis already steaming with hostility. Beware: Your neighbors are out to catch you brown-handed.
The war against offenders is ramping up with the deployment of spies, guilt mongers and camera-wielding snitches.
The latest tech: DNA testing that matches Rover to his poop and punishes Rover’s inconsiderate owner with a big fat fine.
“It’s rude, it’s unsanitary, it’s ugly, and I am amazed that nobody picks it up where I live,” said Gloria Ehlebracht, who takes long walks around Coral Gables and Coconut Grove with her rescue dog, Cooper. “There’s a guy with a French bulldog. One of those selfish people with the attitude of ‘Me first, second and third.’ I wrote him a note to tell him I took a picture of him and it’s not fair that I have to clean up his poop. After that, no more issues with Mr. Bulldog.”
Can’t blame the dog who was never toilet-trained. It’s the dog owner who is the real animal. Many owners flout pooper-scooper laws mandating the removal of waste to a closed receptacle on the owner’s property or a municipal collection station. They don’t fear fines of up to $500 because enforcement is rare. So swales and trash pits have become depositories for feces and assortments of colorful plastic bags — artificial blooms on the South Florida landscape.
Residents resort to vigilante justice. They take photos and videos and warn offenders they will be turned in to code enforcement or exposed on social media.
“I’ve got a trash pit by my driveway and it’s filled with half a dozen bags every day,” said Armando Acevedo of Coral Gables, who persuaded a city inspector to post notices in the neighborhood. “Often the bags fall right through the teeth when the garbage truck shovels it up and sit there for another week. One time after a lady tossed her bag I followed her in my car. I felt like a stalker. I found out where she lived and I was tempted to take all the poop bags and dump them on her doorstep.”
His neighbors and a city commissioner urged him to do it, but he didn’t.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said. “March up and down my street accusing people? I don’t understand how you can live in a nice place and not take care of it.”
Shaming might work — if you have the nerve. Proliferating poop along Edgewater Drive in Coral Gables has gotten so disgusting that neighbors are confronting neighbors, first kindly offering empty bags as a sort of face-saving intervention, then thrusting bulging bags as retribution for unaltered habits. The doorman at one building has had to chase irresponsible dog owners and their defecating pets off the grassy knoll.
“I called out politely to a guy who had a dog off leash on our grounds and he reacted very defensively. It’s a delicate situation, especially in Miami where people are capable of violent reactions,” said Leslie Sternlieb, who recounted a scary movie theater experience of a man climbing over the seats to stick his face in hers after she had asked him to cease his distracting behavior.
What has become of basic civility? Why in the name of Lassie or Fido do people treat their community like an open sewer? There are even tales of upbraided neighbors extracting revenge with stealth poop deposits on front stoops. One Miami resident placed a sign on his swale asking people to refrain from dumping; the sign was defaced with poop.
Sternlieb spends part of the year in New York City, where a stronger social contract binds neighbors.
“Your dog is an extension of you and your character,” said Sternlieb, who walks her rescue dog Snickers three times a day. “New York is more densely populated but I see less evidence of poop. People understand they have to play by the rules. Pick up or you will get the hairy eyeball. I saw a mounted police officer write a ticket in Central Park.”
Cities are installing more collection stations, some with biodegradable bags to help prevent another environmental consequence of the poop problem: the buildup of immortal plastic in landfills. One brand, bioDOGradable, manufactures its bags in India. Another brand embossed President Donald Trump’s likeness on the bags.
Homeowners’ associations are imposing control with their own rules and poop patrols. Bellagio at Vizcaya in Miramar sent a letter declaring that “dog waste is a health hazard and a nuisance” and advising residents to keep dogs on leashes and use waste bags.
“Undercover security will be patrolling the community in search of violators and will take pictures,” the letter warned.
Dog ownership etiquette has evolved radically since the days when dogs were let out to roam freely and nobody thought twice about it. Same thing with kids.
Societal mores have changed. They even sell leashes for children now. City officials in Naples, Italy — where they’ve got much more serious criminal enterprises to worry about — cracked down on dog waste with $650 fines. Madrid made violators serve stints as street cleaners, and the mayor of a nearby Spanish town boxed up feces and mailed them to the offending dog owner’s home with the message, “It’s your poop. We’re just returning it to you.” Mexico City tried an incentive program of awarding free wifi minutes for each bag of poop turned in; Taipei did the same thing with lottery tickets.
“People used to think dog poop was harmless; it was considered fertilizer when in fact it contains more bacteria and chemicals than human poop, spreads parasites and pollutes our water supply,” said J Retinger, CEO of BioPet Labs. “We also have way more dogs in the world. Millennials have dogs before they have children.”
BioPet’s subsidiary, PooPrints, may be the ultimate solution for eradicating dog poop scofflaws. The company, which has grown 40 percent since 2016, provides a DNA testing program to 3,000 clients — primarily homeowners’ associations and building managers — in the U.S., Canada and England, including 250 in Florida. More than 250,000 dogs are in the PooPrints registry. Communities that implement the program require residents to profile and register their dogs. Offending poop gets tested, and the DNA is matched with the offending dog. The owner faces fines or eviction.
“Property managers report a 95 to 99 percent reduction in waste,” said Ernie Jones, PooPrints sales manager. “People know DNA testing is accurate and will make them accountable. If you know you are going to get fined $250 to $500 you will take a couple minutes to pick up after your dog.”
Said Retinger: “We are pet friendly. Properties that used to ban pets are now more apt to allow them under our program.”
Dogs are tested with a cheek swab that is mailed to the PooPrints lab in Knoxville, Tenn. Poop is tested with a collection kit that includes a plastic scalpel for scraping off a dime-sized sample.
“Sometimes we get sent a lot more than we bargained for,” Jones said.
Residents who resist, claiming the program is a violation of canine privacy, are usually wowed by the increased cleanliness of their condo or townhouse development, Retinger said. Sabotage is easy to detect in contaminated samples. Samples that don’t produce a match typically unmask a resident who is hiding an untested dog.
PooPrints’ DNA program has worked wonders at the Yacht Club at Portofino condo in Miami Beach, where “people used to let their dogs out in the hallways to do their business, and the building had an embarrassing smell of poop and piss,” said property manager Ron Ben-David.
Since he began requiring owners of the 361 units to register their dogs for a $55 fee, there’s been an average of about one incident per month compared to the old rate of two or three messes per week. No repeat offenders, except an elderly dog who has had six accidents.
“PooPrints gives you gloves and a vial, you mail in a smidgeon, and within a week the lab tells you it was Lucy who left the gift, and Lucy’s owner has to pay a $250 cleanup fee,” Ron-David said. “At first, people questioned the idea -- like, ‘What is this? CSI Miami?’ -- and doubted the DNA validity, but we’ve got 82 cameras and I’d show them the video proof. One lady has a large dog and when he defecated, whoa, she almost stepped in it herself.”
Owners whose dogs don’t have the green registration tag on their collars get turned in by security guards.
Today, the South Pointe tower is a clean, harmonious place.
“People are much more conscientious,” Ben-David said. “Smells nice. Every building and every city should do it. I hope one day they can test the urine, too.”