About 20 years ago, Battersea Park introduced on the spot fines for dog pooing. One of the first pets to fall foul of the new regime was my Mum’s shih tzu Nigel. No sooner had Nigel finished his business and as was shamefully her custom, my mother left it, a parkie jumped out of the bushes, took down her name and address and issued a fixed penalty notice.
At the time the advice from a solicitor uncle was to, ‘ask them to DNA test it. They’ll never bother to do it and you’ll get off.’ While this may have worked in 1996, it certainly would not in the brave new world of 2016. I know this because DNA testing dogs has now gone mainstream. In fact, if you live in London, you might find your pooch being frogmarched to the vets sooner than you think.
But first a potted history. It seemed like the perfect story: Barking council had a problem with dogs, specifically lots of unclaimed poos in the borough’s parks and so earlier this year it came up with the, er, barking solution of DNA testing the poos and finding the doggy culprits. Who would have thought of such an idea?
‘Actually I did,’ Barking and Dagenham council’s leader Darren Rodwell, admits. ‘We were having problems with dogs fouling and I thought – if the police can use DNA testing to solve cases why not use it to catch dog mess?’ And there were concerns that councils might overdo it when they were granted RIPA powers.
In fact, according to Rodwell the scheme has proved so popular that 40 other boroughs have been in touch looking to follow suit and the plan has even had international acclaim: ‘The idea’s very popular in Australia for some reason. There’s also a couple of European capitals who want to get on board. The Mayor of Paris is a fan.’
For the uninitiated, the scheme works by having your dog signed up to the council’s DNA database. You take Milo to the vets to have his gums swabbed, pass on his DNA to the council and then the any rogue turds can be tested with a quick scoop of a spatula and it’s case closed.
According to my source on St James’s Square Residents’ Association Garden Committee: ‘It’s a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut,’ but nevertheless it’s still something the committee are ‘we are actively considering’. St James’s Square is one of those beautiful private gardens dotted around west London, like the one where Hugh Grant (who incidentally gets really angry about dog mess) and Julia Roberts so memorably snogged in in Notting Hill.
This particular one has had a problem with its private members not bagging up their poos, and one proposal is to not hand out any keys until their members get their little Foufou swabbed.
‘It’s kind of like how Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the US border and get the Mexicans to pay for it,’ my slightly embarrassed source continues. ‘The problem is we do have two primary schools who use our gardens and dogs and children do like to roam in the same areas.’
Sure enough in Barking, after their successful test-run, all dogs who use the borough’s parks will now have to be signed up to the database or their owners will face on the spot fines, whether their dog has pooed or not.
‘If you want to use our public green spaces you have to conform to a number of rules so this is no different,’ Councillor Rodwell confirms. The upside is that residents of council properties will now be allowed to own dogs, if they get them swabbed, and the council also believe DNA tests will prove a much more reliable way of tracking stolen dogs than chips which thieves can easily remove.
Yet, for all the apparent benefits are we sleepwalking into a doggy dystopia? Is it worth another click on the ratchet of trading our privacy for the basic right to use public spaces?
I realise even the more lunatic fringe of animal rights groups are yet to campaign for dogs’ privacy rights, but with 40 boroughs, private garden squares, and even Paris, keen on signing animals up to a database in case they should do a rogue poo, this reeks of ‘pre-crime’. It’s the same thinking that sees the government sharing medical records with a subsidiary of Google to help target ‘pre-care’ or where car insurance firms can examine Facebook posts to determine premiums. It might be logical but it’s definitely on the wrong side of creepy.
Back in Barking there are no such qualms when I raise canine privacy concerns. ‘Listen mate I fought the BNP, I’m no fan of the Big Brother state,’ Rodwell says. ‘Civil liberties are not for dogs, they are for humans.’ First they came for the dogs.