Tuesday, 30 November 2010

DNA, Dog Poop and Limassol

Recently the American radio show "this American life" has mentioned that Limassol municipality is considering using the services of an American DNA company to create a biometric database of dogs in the city, and use it to find out who are the errant pet owners who refuse to pick up after their pets.

This service is up-and running in the US and it is called "Poo-prints". It uses the type of technology that is used to solve serious crimes such as homicide, made possible by the recent determination of the Dog DNA genome. The idea is that dogs are to be led one by one and in isolation to an office (in order for them not to lick each other and thus contaminate the DNA sample) to be swapped and their DNA information stored. Once poo is found in public places (i.e. filling the beautiful park by the old harbour)then the offending article will undergo a chemical treatment by a city worker before shipped for analysis - if it matches the database the owner will get an automatic fine as the error is as small as when DNA of a (human) culprit is found on a murder weapon.

Lets ignore the fact for the moment that this technology is perhaps more advanced that what the police is using for quite serious crimes. It is actually an quite interesting alternative to ways other cities have tried to tackle the issue, such as place cameras in all public places (expensive and invasive to privacy) or have people videotape errant dog owners (creating public tension). The cost of swapping DNA is not much higher than $30, and all dogs in Cyprus already need to get the European identifier chip which costs a lot more than that (and which could be replaced by the DNA identifier).

If we ignore the errant silliness of DNA testing dog faeces, its is actually a good idea and I am all for it. It is innovative and if successful it can promote companies innovating new products that can use Cyprus' advantage of a healthy stock of geneticists who work for next-to-nothing wages at the Cyprus Genetics institute.

In addition the DNA testing, once successful in mapping the population (i.e. once it eliminated the issue of communal dog ownership prevalent in the Mediterranean countries), is proven to be effective, since the owners accept the results. The theory of rational expectations in economics argues that once you can not escape the punishment you will ensure you pick up after your dog since the fine is automatic and unavoidable. Thus the culprits self-monitor themselves - picking your dog's steaming pile becomes more attractive if you know that it will cost 100 euro if you do not. I imagine well to do women explaining the process of picking up ones dog waste to confused Vietnamese girls...

Of course theory and practise diverge - this scheme can only work if all the dogs of Cyprus are included, and many will find the fact that communal dogs will need to be given an owner (who will pick up their fines) or be destroyed as offensive, and their concerns are valid. But the issue of dog waste is a serious problem in parks and public ways in Cyprus, which local governments can not solve without the active participation of dog owners.

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