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City of Strays: Detroit's Epidemic of 50,000 Abandoned Dogs

As the city failed and its people fled, the animals took over

March 20, 2012 2:15 PM ET
Dogs roaming the street in Detroit.
Dogs roaming the street in Detroit.
Dante Dasaro

Not long after moving back to Detroit, I stumbled across my first stray dog. This one was dead – a female pit bull, white, curled on its back. I'd been taking a walk in a depopulated industrial zone. The pit didn't appear to have been torn up in a dogfight. In fact, she looked so unharmed, I initially stopped cold, worried she might be sick and ready to spring up. Just beyond the dog, the rusted skeleton of a car, presumably stolen and abandoned, felt heavy-handed. Oliver Stone, making a movie about Detroit, would have probably said, "Eh. Let's lose the car. It's just too much." That's Detroit, though. Everything has become overly heavy symbolism, the initial purpose of things having, for the most part, faded long ago.

After that encounter, I began to notice the dogs everywhere – a stray husky at an outdoor public-school rally, a pit bull running the wrong way down a freeway exit ramp onto I-94. A friend casually mentioned that her mother now carried pepper spray on her daily walks – not for protection from potential muggers, but from the packs of wild dogs she'd been seeing in the neighborhood. My friend Brian was chased by another pack while bicycling. Last April, Detroit postmaster Lloyd Wesley filed a letter of complaint with the mayor and police chief regarding the "perilous hazards" met by his employees in the form of pit bulls. Fifty-nine Detroit postal workers, Wesley wrote, had been attacked by stray dogs in 2010. That same year, New York – a city with 11 times the population of Detroit – had 10 such attacks.

Around the time of Wesley's complaint, a man named Dan Carlisle posted a disturbing video on YouTube. Previously, he'd used the website to upload cute home movies of his son, along with his own rap videos – Carlisle is a Detroit-area hip-hop artist who records under the name Hush – but this new footage stood out. In it, Car­lisle drives through ravaged Detroit neighborhoods, rolling past gutted homes and empty lots where homes once stood. None of this counted as breaking news, the grim statistics coming out of Detroit (90,000 abandoned houses, enough vacant land to fit the entire city of San Francisco) having long become a cliché of recession-era reporting. But that wasn't the point of the video. Its focus was the stray-dog epidemic.

Estimates vary, but groups place the number of strays in the city at anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000. The latter number, which would mean 350 strays per square mile, seems quite inflated; still, there's no question the dogs are a serious problem. Detroit remains the poorest major city in the United States, and some residents who can no longer afford to take care of their dogs turn them loose, or else leave them behind when fleeing the city themselves. (Local shelters have a euthanization rate of 70 percent, so abandoning the dogs to fend for themselves might not even be, in some instances, the least humane of options.)

In Carlisle's video, collarless dogs pad down the middle of icy streets and roam with impunity through decrepit buildings. In the most disturbing scene, a white pit bull tugs long, rubbery strands from a bloody mass in the snow, like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from a bottomless palm – the entrails, Carlisle reveals in a voice-over, of a frozen puppy.

Carlisle and a Los Angeles television producer named Monica Martino had been trying to put together a reality series for the Discovery Channel about Detroit's stray dogs. But the city's film office, unhappy at the prospect of another negative portrayal of Detroit and also claiming queasiness about the potential exploitation of animals, refused to grant a permit, so the show was scrapped. When word came down from City Hall, Carlisle and Martino were so frustrated that they spent a day shooting the YouTube footage. At the end of the video, viewers were asked to donate to Detroit Dog Rescue, a nonprofit rescue group the pair, in their disappointment, had decided to start on a whim.

To Carlisle and Martino's surprise, the video went viral, attracting donations over the course of the year. Then, in December – in a plot twist so high-concept you could build an old-fashioned, pre-reality-era sitcom around it – an anony­mous philanthropist gave the budding organization $1.5 million. Suddenly, the Hollywood producer and the obscure Midwestern rapper found themselves thrust into the position of seriously running their own dog-rescue operation in the most dangerous large city in the United States. "Be careful what you wish for," Carlisle, 39, says ruefully.

The image of wild dogs overrunning neighborhoods of a major American city is more than just a disturbing metaphor for our national decline – as with much of what's happened in Detroit, it's also a warning from the future for the rest of the country. President Obama has been rightfully lambasting the GOP for its opposition to the auto bailout, yet for all his bragging about "saving" Detroit, Michigan's unemployment rate remains near 10 percent, and its biggest city hovers on the brink of bankruptcy. All of Detroit's city services – police, fire, trash collection – are stretched to the limit, and so there are few resources to spare for "luxuries" like animal control; according to city policy, any stray pit bull is automatically euthanized if not claimed after four days.

Part of the reason the dogs have such free rein is that so many humans have left. In the last census count, Detroit's population had plummeted to just over 700,000, down from nearly a million a decade earlier. People are leaving because there are no jobs, and the school system is a mess, and police take a half-hour to show up when your house is shot up with an AK-47. The solution from Michigan's Republican governor has been to threaten a state takeover of Detroit if the city's leaders fail to enact more budget-balancing austerity measures, leaving a void that DDR has been scrambling to fill.

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