Matt Driscoll

A DNA test linked poop to her dog. Apartment dweller says $200 fee wasn’t part of lease

There are many unanswered questions in the peculiar story Angela Poe shared with me recently.

Where the dog poop came from, however, is not one of them. Science settled it.

The poop — a very small, nearly unnoticeable pile, I’m told — was left on the garage floor of the Annobee apartments in Tacoma by Poe’s blind miniature poodle. The 13-year-old dog’s full name is Smokey the Bear — Smokey for short — and from what I understand, the poop was left by accident. Poe didn’t realize it happened.

The poop’s origin is practically indisputable, making it one of the few things in this story that is. As absurd as it might sound, a DNA test confirmed the small pile of waste came from Poe’s poodle.

What Poe and the building’s owner and manager fail to agree on is who should pay for the DNA test. Poe says there’s nothing in the lease she signed back in August that puts her on the hook for the $200 she’s being charged. The building’s owner claims otherwise.

It’s this unusual poop dispute that brought Poe and me together last month over diet sodas and a tall stack of lease agreements. The lessons Poe’s saga provides are ones every renter in the greater Puget Sound area would be wise to pay attention to.

Dog poop DNA testing is a thing — a lucrative thing, in fact, earning a Knoxville, Tennessee-based company $7 million last year, according to its CEO — and it could soon arrive at an apartment building near you.

Poe, however, said she never saw it coming.

It all started back in October, Poe explained, when she received a written notice from the manager of the Annobee. It indicated that poop found on the garage floor had been traced back to Smokey, using DNA testing technology offered by the appropriately named PooPrints, which bills itself as “the original DNA pet waste management service.”

The notice went on to indicate that Poe, who lives off of $750 a month in disability and affords her unit at the Annobee with help from the Tacoma Housing Authority, was being charged $200 for the test.

“I was like, ‘What?’” Poe recalled. “I had no idea (Smokey) did it. It was just a little chunk. If you claim it’s my dog, why didn’t you just pick it up and throw it away and just verbally tell me? I don’t make a habit of my dogs pooping on the property.”

The poop was traceable because, shortly after moving in, the manager of the Annobee required Smokey and Poe’s other dog, a 4-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle mix named Nutmeg, to have their mouths swabbed to provide a DNA sample. While Poe found this highly unusual — and is adamant that she never signed paperwork authorizing it — she says she complied after the manager told her it was a requirement of tenancy.

Big business for PooPrints

According to J Retinger, the CEO of BioPet Laboratories — the parent company of PooPrints — the testing, at least, worked precisely how it’s intended.

Retinger said properties the company works with — now more than 3,200 across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom — collect DNA swabs from dogs. The DNA is entered into a database. The database is then used to identify a match when building owners or managers discover wayward pet waste on their premises and mail it off to the company’s certified lab in Knoxville.

According to Retinger, PooPrints technology uses 16 genetic markers to identify a match and is so accurate that the probability of another dog having the same genetic profile is often as high as one in 44 sextillion. That’s 44 followed by 21 zeroes.

The company, which works with some 300 properties in the greater Seattle area, was created in 2013. According to Retinger, it’s designed to “take all the finger pointing” out of the problem of pet waste. That’s good for property management companies, he said, and also good for renters and dog owners, given the health and safety concerns dog waste presents.

“It just takes all of (the uncertainty) out of the equation and gets down to simple, 100-percent proof in DNA,” Retinger said.

It’s also solid business. PooPrints processed “almost 25,000 pieces of poop” in 2018 alone, Retinger said.

“Our mailman hates us,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just buckets and buckets of (poop), and it drives him nuts.”

Landlord-Tenant Act in play?

To Poe, while the science might be mildly interesting, the bigger concern is the cost passed on to tenants — and whether the building’s manager played by the rules. She believes the manager failed to include notice of the potential fee in the lease and then used the threat of eviction to get her to comply.

Poe provided a copy of her lease to The News Tribune, which then was reviewed at the newspaper’s request by Mark Morzol, the managing attorney at the Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project.

After perusing the legal document, Morzol — who said this was the first time he’s been confronted with the issue — found nothing relating to DNA testing for dog poop or stipulating that tenants who fail to clean up after their animals would be charged $200.

That’s potentially a big problem, he said.

First, even if the fine was laid out in the lease, a judge could rule it unreasonable under the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, though that’s a long shot, Morzol said.

However, if the fine was never agreed upon in the lease or a subsequent addendum, the court would almost certainly invalidate it, he said.

“The imagination is the limit as to what landlords and tenants can agree to as rules or regulations for a tenancy. But in order to be valid, those rules or regulations have to be reasonable, not violate the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act or any other law, and be aware to the tenant,” Morzol said. “The key part missing here is that the tenant — allegedly — was not made aware of the rule imposing a $200 fee … therefore the fee is likely invalid.”

While Poe initially refused to pay the $200, eventually she relented, agreeing to a six-month payment plan.

It began in January, but she’s not happy about it. It stretches her already thin budget even thinner.

“I needed a place to live,” she said. “But I don’t remember signing anything. I didn’t sign anything.”

When I reached out to Katherine Tamaro, the building’s owner, she offered a different, albeit brief, explanation.

“The only comment I have is we are following our lease documents,” Tamaro told me.

When asked to explain the fact that there’s no mention of the DNA test, or its cost, in the lease provided to The News Tribune, Tamaro said “there are ancillary documents to lease” that cover it.

When asked to provide proof of these documents, Tamaro declined.

The building’s manager, meanwhile, failed to respond to calls and emails.

To Morzol, the lessons in Poe’s story boil down to the obvious.

“Read and understand your lease contract and know what penalties are included,” he said.

It’s good advice.

For what it’s worth, I’ll add one more bit of guidance:

Cleaning up after your pets is probably a good idea.