For the love of pets; a facial recognition primer

Facial recognition can be used to reunite lost pets with owners.

Many are very concerned about efforts to develop and employ facial recognition in society. No friends seem aware that facial recognition is also being developed for pets and wildlife. Now, before you go off-the-grid full bamboo on me, let’s look a little more closely.

Understandably, people don’t like the idea of their image being in some big databases somewhere. They especially don’t like the idea of the database being used by both the government and other pay-to-play entities to find or track them.

It doesn’t take much imagination or screenwriting software to conjure all the dire “what ifs.” That alone could fill the entire newspaper for several days.

A little harder, perhaps, is the need to think about potential positive uses of the technology such as locating the wandering dementia patient. Or perhaps it needs to be employed to track and find those who assert they will kill before being incarcerated again?

Chinese developers at Megvii are using facial recognition for dogs right now and say they do it to reunite pets with lost owners.

The system is simple. A client simply takes several photos of their dog’s snout with a smartphone and uploads it to the database. Megvii says they have a 95-percent accuracy rate and that it is improving with use. To date, they have reunited 15,000 lost dogs and owners.

If you think this is yet another subversive attempt by the Chinese to worm their way into our networks, think again. Last December, the website Finding Rover, which uses dog facial recognition, was launched in the United States, Membership for you or the pet’s lifetime is free. And they offer ways to deal with changes in ownership.

Articles about the app say it measures 138 facial features developed with the expertise of “specialists” at the University of Utah. As of December 2018, their recognition rate was more than 98 percent from a database of 25,000 pets.

Still not convinced there is a positive side? A year ago in June, researchers at Michigan State University developed facial recognition software and an app designed to protect endangered primates.

Anil Jain, a professor at MSU, along with his doctoral student Debayan Deb, created PrimNet, a facial recognition application for golden monkeys, according to a piece published is, by Prasanth Aby Thomas. Golden monkeys are a species that has undergone a dramatic population decline recently because of illegal trading.

In 2015, Kenya-based Lion Guardians began using facial recognition software to help with lion conservation. And now in India, the same is underway for conserving Bengal tigers.

Southern Louisiana recently suffered another hurricane that rapidly devolved into a still dangerous tropical storm. About 120 pets were rescued by agencies and volunteers thus far.

Perhaps all animals found at large need to be scanned to assist with return to owners and to increase the accuracy of the search algorithms? Goodness knows I have enough closeups of my Boston terrier’s mug without initial registration to find her in a retroactive search of the new dogs scanned after such an event.

Granted, a Boston terrier is pretty easy to identify with its distinctive markings, but consider a black Labrador retriever.

An additional form of positive ID such as facial recognition would be very valuable for all working dogs. Humans have enormous time, money and energy invested in such dogs should they become separated from their owners or handlers for any reason.

Here’s a prediction. Facial recognition is coming for virtually all species of value, including humans. Don’t fear the technology, fear our delayed regulatory response.

Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email

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