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Left to the Dogs

Detroit is teeming with packs of strays. A nonprofit picks up Animal Control’s slack.

Author Steve Friess Photography Sam Polcer

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Rodney Stewart is lying on his side in the middle of the street, his arm outstretched to a suspicious, snarling black-and-white collie-terrier mix that has been marauding around the block. It is a 5 a.m. showdown on the east side of Detroit, the clear outline of the dog’s ribcage illustrating just how badly he needs the kibble in Stewart’s palm. The frightened animal emits a low rumble, a warning that this could go very badly very suddenly. Stewart hopes food and calm words can earn trust.

“C’mon, I know you’re hungry,” the 43-year-old says softly, reaching into a silver bucket by his side to grab another handful of kibble, which he scatters onto the road. “There you go. Oh, look at all that food, it’s all for you.”

The dog steps up cautiously, vacuuming up what he finds on the ground and abruptly stepping back whenever Stewart moves. Well aware that this dog could lunge at him at any moment, Stewart wishes he’d donned the oversize black rubber gloves that sit, useless, in the door of his truck. “No turning back now,” he mutters.

For more than a minute, man and canine freeze, locked in a stare. Then, as if a spell has been broken, the dog backs away, shakes his head like a whip, steps onto the sidewalk and vanishes behind some bushes. “He’s not ready yet,” says Stewart, deciding not to try corralling the dog on this particular morning. “If I spent enough time here right now, I could put a leash on him and walk him down the street. I’ll come back to this spot tomorrow and leave some more food, and the next day. But at this time of morning, there’s so many dogs out here, we gotta move on.”

Indeed, it is in the still of these predawn hours that countless strays come out to forage for food and get some exercise from wherever they spend their nights sleeping—often in the thousands of homes, factories and schools abandoned by this once-mighty American city’s fleeing residents (at last count, a population of 700,000, down from 1.8 million 50 years ago). Stewart knows this. It’s his job to know as a dogcatcher with Detroit Dog Rescue, one of a small bunch of nonprofits that have assigned themselves the task of picking up the slack of Detroit Animal Control, which has been drastically defunded amid an ongoing municipal budget crisis. Currently, DAC has just four city dogcatchers where there used to be 17, and one dog-bite investigator where there used to be three. Last summer, various news outlets reported that 50,000 stray dogs were running wild in the city’s streets. Left behind by evicted or long-fled residents or dumped as inadequately vicious by underworld figures involved in dogfighting rings, these disowned and sometimes feral canines roam the streets in packs, a vision of Pamplona in miniature.

While a recent audit overseen by Michigan State University puts the stray dog population closer to 10,000, the situation was deemed unsafe enough this past summer that the United States Postal Service suspended service in areas of the city “plagued with vicious loose dogs,” says Ed Moore, the Detroit spokesperson for the postal service. “Residents in the affected area had to come into the post office to pick up their mail.”

The numbers are staggering. In 2012, DAC reported taking in roughly 1,700 strays, 70 percent of which were euthanized, as public shelters are ill equipped to find homes for the dogs. Due to further budget cuts, the number of dogs picked up in 2013 will likely be much lower. The Michigan Humane Society says it cares for more than 5,000 of the city’s strays, and while the resource-strapped DDR reports taking in just three dogs a week, the organization provides them with veterinary care and shelter and works to find them suitable homes. DDR provides those dogs it can’t help with food, then points other organizations to their hangouts.

For residents, the statistics don’t begin to shed light on the city’s dog problem. “I’ve known three people who’ve gotten bit by strays,” says Venetta Fields, who lives in an East Detroit neighborhood known as The Foot. “Somebody’s got to do something. It’s bad when I can’t walk my grandbaby around the block.”

STEWART, A LANKY FELLOW who patrols in black sweats featuring DDR’s logo, wasn’t always a benevolent force for animals. These early mornings and long days on the prowl for dogs in need, he says, are a form of penance. He was raised in East Detroit, a hardscrabble section of the city where boys commonly proved their toughness by inciting their dogs to fight. This, he worries, was the precursor to the sort of brutal and illegal dogfighting rings that have become big business, and that lead to so many abandoned, abused animals.

“It wasn’t this kill, kill, kill thing,” he says ruefully.  “We didn’t want our dogs to bleed. We would stop them and they’d be playing an hour later. But I feel to some degree that our actions were the wick that lit the explosion of what’s happening today. We didn’t know any better.”

In 2011, decades removed from that regrettable youth and a married father of four, Stewart noticed a couple of strangers entering an abandoned home across the street from a friend’s house. He busted in as the men, a Detroit rapper named Daniel “Hush” Carlisle and his friend Dante Dasaro, were collaring a cowering pit bull. “What the hell you doing?” Stewart asked. Carlisle and Dasaro explained that their new dog rescue group had received a call about a stray. A few weeks later, Stewart quit his job as a Xerox repairman and came to work for DDR. It has since grown to a seven-person staff supported by about $250,000 in annual donations, plus a one-time anonymous $1.5 million gift, and it operates out of a set of shoebox offices in a building that constantly smells like cake because of a sweet-potato snack factory next door. If all goes well, DDR will move early this year to a facility with its own kennels that the group bought for $60,000, which staffers and volunteers are helping to customize.

Carlisle, a Detroit native and a friend of and collaborator with the rapper Eminem, says he saw in Stewart in that first encounter the qualities required for the job. In addition to having the fearlessness to enter an abandoned home and approach a feral animal more likely to bite your hands than eat out of them, Stewart knows how to gather intel from residents and local police. On my first ride-along with him, fresh from rescuing a painfully thin black pit bull terrier puppy with a collar made of electrical wire, which had been left in a restaurant parking lot, Stewart easily starts up a conversation with a pair of officers stopped at a red light. “We’re out here looking for strays,” he says. “You seen any?” Both cops start talking at once, rattling off the names of intersections and asking for Stewart’s card. “Can I call you if we have something?” one asks. “The Animal Control folks are worthless,” the other chimes, happy to have found an alternative.

A little later, a woman points Stewart to a ramshackle house where she says she hears a dog howling from time to time. Every window is shattered, the steps of the stoop so splintered that entering the house requires heaving oneself onto the porch like a gymnast. Inside, the debris of an interrupted life is everywhere, toys and papers and broken furniture making it impossible to see, let alone touch, the living room floor. Somewhere below, water trickles into a basement, the result of the copper pipes having been stripped. That water, fresh from the city’s reservoirs, is a key reason strays are so fond of empty houses: They won’t go thirsty.

Stewart steps gingerly through the living room, flashlight in one hand and knapsack of kibble in the other, gliding around each doorframe the way TV cops do when hoping to surprise a suspect. Despite the very real prospect that a ferocious animal could leap out angrily to defend its turf, Stewart continues to go without those rubber gloves. When I remind him of this, he says, “I know how to communicate with these dogs.”

He turns yet another corner to find, looking up as if expecting company, an emaciated white pit bull curled up and quietly whimpering. “You hurt, baby?” Stewart asks. The dog is nestled atop a pile of old clothes at the foot of an overturned mattress, so down to the floor goes Stewart with his stock-in-trade—a bit of kibble in an outstretched hand. For a moment, it seems the animal might be baring his teeth, but he’s actually just snapping out of a trance and craning his neck in interest. Stewart shuffles closer, and the dog plunges his face into Stewart’s hand to devour the food. “This baby was somebody’s dog, man,” Stewart says to me, and then, to the dog: “You just wanna be loved, huh? We’re gonna get you outta here.”

It’ll take another 40 minutes. Stewart remains on that floor feeding his discovery by hand, watching the dog gain enough strength to stand up. “You’re not hurt, you’re just lonely and tired, huh?” Stewart mutters, part of a constant stream of reassurances that life is about to get better. Eventually, he fixes a collar on the dog and leads it outside.

“I am obsessed with this, it’s true,” Stewart confesses as he slowly walks the dog to the van. “If I see a dog I can’t help, that I have to leave, I think about it nonstop—I see it in my dreams.”

In the early hours of a chilly day a week later, Stewart puts his mind at ease about that collie-terrier mix that ran into the bushes. He returns to the spot where he’s left a pile of dog food once a day to find the dog now waiting for him. “You ready to go yet?” he asks sweetly, a fistful of kibble on offer.

The stray comes closer, still skittish but no longer quite as afraid. “Attaboy,” he says, “have some food.” But the dog has other ideas. He heads straight for Stewart’s face, where he begins to lick his cheek.

STEVE FRIESS, a journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has written for The New York Times, Newsweek and Politico. No stranger to animal issues, he’s a former co-host of the cleverly named podcast “The Petcast.”

One Response to “Left to the Dogs”

  1. Allen Richards Says:
    July 21st, 2014 at 10:45 am

    What a great story of redemption. Dog fighting is an evil enterprise that causes tremendous suffering. My only concern is that with so many dogs and so little resources to care for them that many will needlessly be destroyed.

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