DNA testing could solve condos' messy mystery

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Someone of the canine persuasion has been leaving his business all over the Scarlett Place condominiums near the Inner Harbor. And the condo board says the only way to find the culprit: mandated DNA tests for every dog in the building.

"We pay all this money, and we're walking around stepping in dog poop. We bring guests over and this is what they're greeted by. It's embarrassing for me as a dog owner and as someone who lives in this building," says Steve Frans, the board member who raised the idea of hiring a laboratory to identify which of the dozens of dogs in the building is behind the droppings.

"Some people think it's funny. But you know, this seems to be a reasonable, objective way to say, 'This is your poop; you're responsible.' "

Under the proposal, every dog at Scarlett Place and guest dogs would be swabbed for a DNA sample - owners would then have to pay $50 each to cover the test and supplies. Dog owners would also pay an extra $10 per month per dog to cover the cost of having the building's staff scoop it up and send it to a lab. Feces, like saliva, contains telltale DNA.

If the lab identifies your dog as the guilty party, that's a $500 fine.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," says Richard Hopp, an attorney who's lived in the building for four years with Sparky. "I feel like I'm living in a 'Seinfeld' episode."

The condo board will decide whether to go with the doggy DNA plan after a hearing Wednesday evening. If they do, they will become one of the world's apparent leaders in using a science that has convicted murderers and confirmed paternity to pinpoint the source of wayward excrement.

The Israeli city of Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv received some attention in 2008 for setting up a similar sort of program.

Scarlett Place is considering working with a Tennessee company called BioPet Vet Lab that offers a service called PooPrints. PooPrints is marketed specifically to neighborhoods and homeowners associations aggrieved by dog droppings. BioPet officials declined to return calls Friday, and it is unclear how many community organizations, if any, are using the service.

The proposal has the dog people of Scarlett Place muttering a lot about Big Brother and draconian measures.

"This is something you'd see in some kind of tyrannical nation where you had no rights," says Peter Jaffe, who owns two pugs and a poodle and has lived in the building for 13 years. "Our dogs are like our children. If you had a child, would you want someone coming in swabbing your child's mouth for DNA?"

Frans says the situation has come to a head over the past year. Dog excrement has been found in the elevators, in the long, carpeted hallways, in the common areas. Well-heeled residents have nearly stepped in it, and building employees not only have to regularly hose down the elevators but must pull up and replace stained carpet.

"That's just crazy," says Frans, who is legally blind and is assisted by Gerri, his guide dog. "To me, it's incomprehensible that anyone who is a responsible pet owner would actually walk away from pet messes."

He swears Gerri has never been a violator, saying, "My dog has never, ever, ever messed in the hall. Other people suspect me, I know. They say, 'He's blind, he can't see, obviously his dog is messing.' But he's not, and the DNA would prove it. To me, this would almost be like vindication."

Building manager Rita Shriver isn't thrilled with a solution where she'd have to pick up dog feces and then mail it. She agrees that the building has a problem, and a disgusting one at that, but she's not sure doggy DNA, which she first thought was a joke, is the answer.

"How has it got to this point where we have to have a CSI thing going on?" she says. "This is just insane."

Some residents have suggested installing cameras to keep an eye on dogs, but Frans, who doesn't understand his neighbors' resistance to DNA testing, says video documentation would be more expensive, more time-consuming and "more draconian and more like a police state."

Board vice president Betty Iwancio has lived in the building 20 years. She doesn't have a dog and supports the DNA plan.

She suspects renters are to blame for what she calls the "piles of feces" accumulating around her home.

"It's annoying," she says. "You spend a lot of money for a place that's very nice. You're on the water, it's beautiful, yet you have people that don't care about property. They just don't care, and we got fed up."

Hopp suspects that if push comes to shove and Scarlett Place enacts the doggy DNA plan, some folks will attempt to circumvent the system. Perhaps someone will borrow a trick from drug offenders stuck with urine screenings and offer phony dog saliva for the DNA database.

"Our neighbors in Little Italy could rent out their dogs for DNA samples so ours will never be fingered for the poo," he says, laughing.

He also thinks that if someone wanted revenge on a resident dog person - really wanted it - they could retrieve a dirty deed from a garbage can, drop it in the hallway and sit back and wait for the person to get fined.

"Maybe you can identify the poop, but you can't prove how it got there," the attorney says with a wink. "It could have come in on someone's shoe."