Look at this photo, sent by a reader.
“ATTENTION DOG OWNERS,” the sign announces. “As part of a pilot program between Northwestern University and the Department of Public Health, this area has been selected for enhanced dog waste ordinance enforcement. DNA MATCHING AND DRONE SURVEILLANCE IN EFFECT.”
In bright magenta.
“Found this sign on my block (6500 N. Greenview),” the reader wrote.
What do you think?
Have Cook County and Northwestern joined forces to monitor dog poop via drone?
Like much disgorged by the internet, the sign evokes the “No, that couldn’t be, could it?” reflex. You want to dismiss a thing as an obvious fraud. But there’s that little backdoor of doubt. Stranger things have happened.
First to Mr. Google. Slim pickings. A company in the Netherlands, Dogdrones, in 2017 said it would use drones, in conjunction with on-the-ground robots, to clear neighborhoods of dog poop. I sent emails to the two founders, not expecting a reply.
Queries to Cook County and Northwestern — a process we professional journalists call “finding out if something is true.” I recommend it heartily to those who attempt the same by holding up new information against their engrained prejudices to see how well they match.
Northwestern started the country’s first forensic crime lab, trying to solve the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. So this would be in their wheelhouse.
“The University is unaware of any such study,” said Jon Yates, assistant vice president of communications.
The Cook County Department of Public Health pointed out something I ought to have known: it has jurisdiction over the enormous realm that is Cook County except Chicago, Skokie, Oak Park, Stickney and Evanston. They have their own health departments.
“One of the commissioners saw those signs around Northwestern,” said Tom McFeeley, the county health department’s communications manager. “It’s posted outside their jurisdiction. That’s why the dog poop story doesn’t add up.”
The only person who seemed to accept this at face value, naturally enough, is the alderman of the ward, Andre Vasquez (40th).
“It seems to be a County initiative,” Vasquez speculated to my reader.
Because something isn’t true, however, doesn’t mean it can’t lead us to truths.
“I get the idea of using DNA,” McFeeley said. “If a building has a lot of dogs, they collect dog stool samples and test the DNA.”
“Is that a thing?” I said, using vernacular I must have picked up from my boys.
“That’s actually a thing,” he replied. “It’s a $7 million company.”
He’s right. PooPrints, “The DNA Solution to Dog Waste.” A Tennessee company working with 5,000 residential properties. Apartment management swabs the inside of the cheeks of resident dogs. The company keeps a registry, and any, ah, uncollected material can be traced back to the guilty canine owner.
I did hear back from one of the founders of Dogdrones.
“Unfortunately our concept never got the chance to get past the first concepts,” said Marc Sandelowsky, writing from the city of Enschede, in the Netherlands. “After the initial announcement, that was more meant as a joke to get people thinking about the problem and the opportunities drones offer.”
I noticed the date of their 2017 press release. April 1. Ah.
A joke. That’s got to be it. Were it just one sign, I might have suspected a grumpy homeowner trying to intimidate dog walkers by ginning up this Orwellian threat. There being a number in the vicinity of a college campus points toward mid-summer prankishness, perhaps some EEE major grinding through his thesis project modeling three-phase grid-tied photovoltaic systems in the sub-basement of Tech, seeking comic relief in the sunlight world.
Not that the Dutch didn’t toy with the idea.
“We seriously considered developing the product for real as we got very much positive attention,” Sandelowsky wrote. “However, at the time the drone legislation in our country was very restrictive so we foresaw that it would take many years for the concept to be accepted for use.”
What a marvelous city: start out puzzling over a sign on a tree in Rogers Park, end up speculating about the future of Dutch drones.
“We are now seriously developing concepts like fire-fighter drones and drones to combat the invasive oak processionary caterpillar,” Sandelowsky wrote. “Maybe the time is also right for a concept to monitor and fight dog waste.”