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

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Pups being taken to the vet in Harper Woods, a suburb on the east side of the city. They belonged to a litter of 8 found in an old garage earlier that day.
Pups being taken to the vet in Harper Woods, a suburb on the east side of the city. They belonged to a litter of 8 found in an old garage earlier that day.
Photograph by Wayne Lawrence / Wayne Lawrence/Institute

Carlisle is six feet three, "beige-complected" (his choice of shading descriptors – he's Lebanese and Italian), fit and broad-shouldered, with a goatee and dark eyebrows that flare right to the edge of bushy. When we meet one morning in February to go on a dog run, Carlisle shows up in an all-black Carhartt uniform bedecked with the Detroit Dog Rescue logo.

Carlisle has surrounded himself with a comfortably familiar entourage. Shance Carlisle (no relation) plays bass in Hush's live band. He also happens to be fearless and uncannily empathetic when it comes to dogs, to the degree that the rest of the crew calls him the Dog Whisperer. Dante Dasaro (who used to be terrified of dogs) was a photographer who shot much of the Hush-era press art; now he works as DDR's webmaster and has also been tasked with documenting the group's fieldwork. To that end, he has a miniature video camera attached, via a retractable arm, to his forehead – which, combined with the one-piece work suit he's wearing, makes him look like a Ghostbuster.

Finally, there's an intimidating presence in the massive form of Calvin Cash, Carlisle's bodyguard from back in the Hush days. Cash rarely deals with the dogs; he keeps away any troublesome people, and, to that end, carries a Smith & Wesson. When he's not riding with DDR, he's a pastor.

DDR receives about 250 calls every week – citizens reporting spotted strays, or dogs in yards that appear maltreated, along with people simply asking for help. This morning's first call comes from a woman who says a mother pit bull and bunch of puppies are living in the garage of the abandoned home across the street.

The woman lives in a blighted neighborhood on Detroit's east side, described by Carlisle as "the gangster part of the city." En route, he points out a dead dog on the shoulder of the freeway. We turn onto the woman's street, where the abandoned homes and empty lots far outnumber any signs of habitation. Several houses, their windows and doors covered with particleboard, have been unartfully tagged (MOVE OUT HOES, BLOOD GAME DIG); another brick home is so gutted, you can see the backyard from the front sidewalk, simply by gazing through the gaping holes where the front doors and windows used to be. As we look for the address, a dog – a tawny shepherd mix, trailing a long leash – dashes across several yards. There's no owner in sight, so Shance and Dasaro jump out of DDR's red Econoline van and try to trap it. Amusingly, real-life dogcatchers actually employ the sort of giant nets used by dogcatchers in old Warner Bros. cartoons. Dante is carrying the net; Shance, a catchpole – a six-foot pole with a wire lasso on the end – and a cool-looking net gun, which has the heft of an oversize flashlight but can shoot weblike netting. Unfortunately, the net gun has been acting hinky, and it misfires. The dog bolts past them, tearing off to the next block before they can get into position.

As we proceed to our original goal, someone asks Carlisle how often the dogs come at him. "They don't!" he says. "That's the myth. If the dogs are feral, they don't want nothing to do with humans. They won't attack you unless you get in their space. But 80 to 90 percent of the dogs out here on the street came from homes. The economic plight of Detroit is what made people choose: 'I can't feed this dog anymore, it's too much of a burden, see you later.'"

The pit-bull house has not only been stripped out by copper thieves, but its driveway and yard have been used as a makeshift dumping ground, another depressingly common occurrence in Detroit, where excess trash from the entire metropolitan area (mattresses, old tires, busted furniture) ends up illegally discarded. We push our way through a thicket of tree branches and then step over a mound of garbage, primarily old sofa cushions molded by the elements into a colorful desert rock formation and a splayed set of Venetian blinds that look like bleached bones. "The mother may come flying out when we get close to the door," whispers Shance, who is taking the lead with the catchpole.

But the mother has apparently wandered off. Inside the garage, we find seven five-week-old puppies, a shepherd-pit mix, burrowed into a nest of old clothes arranged by their mother around an upended couch frame. Even in such squalid surroundings, the puppies are ridiculously cute. Carlisle grabs an old RCA box, pads it with clothes and piles the dogs inside.

After dropping the box of puppies in the van, Carlisle and I cut back through the yard to get to his Ford Journey, which is parked on the next block. I'm jotting something in my notebook when Carlisle begins shouting, "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" At the same time, I hear a sharp burst of barking. When I look up, I see an adult pit bull, teeth bared, charging at us from across the yard. The mother has returned. Carlisle, furiously backpedaling, extends his left arm and, in a reverse-clothesline, shoves me behind him, into the tangle of branches. He's yelling at the dog, kicking dirt and debris in her direction. The dog is only a few feet away. Her fur is tan. A pit bull, charging, with bared teeth, seems to float. At least this one did. I could swear, as she flew at us, all four of her feet left the ground, like a racehorse's.

Dead tree branches stab the back of my coat and snap against my neck. And then we're on the other side of the thicket and Carlisle yells, "Run!" and we both turn and sprint out of the yard. One thing Carlisle said had been correct: As soon as we leave the dog's territory, she gives up the chase.

Back at the van, Shance, startled, grabs one of the big green nets and charges back into the yard, but the mother has already disappeared. He says he'll return later in the week and catch her.

Carlisle, breathless, flashes a grin, in the slightly dazed manner of a guy who's not sure he should believe his luck. "That's never happened before," he gasps. "I was getting ready to kick her in the head."

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