In South Tyrol, Italy, irresponsible dog owners meet DNA sleuths searching for poop’s proprietor


Dog owners on a walk through the streets of South Tyrol’s capital Bolzano. Photos: dpa

It's a simple idea: If DNA can be used to convict criminals, why not use it to track down people who leave their dog’s poop in a pile? South Tyrol, Italy’s German-speaking region, is one of the first to take this seriously. A model for others?

Of course there would be quieter places for a Pinscher to do his business in Bolzano. But now, in South Tyrol’s capital, he squats in Waltherplatz, right in front of the cathedral. The owner, mid-20s, fur-trimmed down jacket, dog on a lead, doesn’t seem to care much. He doesn’t even look up from his phone. Then the dog and owner are gone again. The legacy is left behind – right in the centre of the busy square. You can guess how it ends.

Scenes like this are soon to be a thing of the past in Italy’s northernmost province with its half million inhabitants – the majority of whom are German-speaking – and its many millions of tourists. The provincial government is currently working with municipalities to set up a database in which the genetic material of the more than 40,000 local dogs is to be recorded.

Since the beginning of the year, the submission of a DNA sample has been mandatory by law. The collected samples will then be used to link the deposited doo to the offending canine. Apart from this, the genetic material should also help if someone has been bitten or dogs are involved in road accidents.

According to previous decisions, the database is to go into operation by the summer. The planned penalties for dog owners are considerable: Between €292 (RM1,485) and €1,048 (RM5,332). In South Tyrol, dog owners are not subject to a dog tax as they are in Germany. In comparison, leaving poo in the park will cost a dog owner in Germany between €10 (RM50) and €150 (RM765).

Various municipalities in Europe have already come up with the idea of solving the problem by storing genetic data. It has been considered in London and Paris. In Germany, smaller municipalities such as Weilerswist near Bonn or Bad Neualbenreuth in the Upper Palatinate have been working on this.

So far, efforts have mostly failed due to data protection and other legal hurdles. In South Tyrol, where clean pavements and hiking trails are of utmost importance, they have probably come further than anywhere else.

Veterinarian Simon Kirchler (right) draws blood from a dog for the dog gene bank.Veterinarian Simon Kirchler (right) draws blood from a dog for the dog gene bank.

The issue is still highly controversial among the population. So far, only around a fifth of dog owners have gone to a vet to have their pet’s saliva taken with a cotton swab or blood taken with a syringe. The state government is currently talking about 7,000 to 8,000 samples taken, which are now stored centrally. Many people are outraged by the €65 (RM330) fee for the sample, especially as the doctor’s fee has to be added to this. This can be expensive if you have several dogs.

Locals are also angry that tourists’ dogs remain exempt from the regulation. “Three-quarters of holidaymakers who come to South Tyrol have a dog with them,” says Vanni Campanella, 59, who is travelling with his Husky. “But they are completely left out. That’s not fair.”

Linde Malknecht, who walks her mutt along the River Isarco, also feels unfairly treated. “The whole of Bolzano has become dirtier in recent years. But only we have to pay.”

Many dog owners are now hoping that the law will be changed. The South Tyrolean Veterinarians Association points out that important issues are still unresolved. “For example, we still don’t know who will take the sample once the poo is on the street. Not everyone is allowed to do that,” said its president Franz Hintner.

Presumably, these will be sworn employees of the local public order offices. In any case, the South Tyrolean police have already made it clear they are not picking up poop probes. They have enough to do already.

It also remains to be seen how the courts will decide if there is DNA link, how it is contested.

Dog owner Campanella asks: “What happens if I put everything in the bag and take it to the bin – and then a nasty neighbour comes and puts it all back on the street? How can you prove that?”

Nevertheless, he is convinced there is no way around the gene database. He himself has already been to the doctor with his Husky.

Chamber president Hintner is also certain that despite all the criticism and concerns, the vast majority of South Tyrolean dog owners will follow the law.

“Because we are German after all,” says the vet from Merano. “We just have this mentality: If you tell us something, you do it.” – dpa/Christoph Sator

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