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

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Rescuing dogs is only the latest in a series of unlikely twists Carlisle's life has taken. Though his father, now retired, was a Detroit homicide detective, Carlisle embarked on an ambitious career of juvenile delinquency. Then one day, a cop happened to be riding in the same elevator as Detective Carlisle and, spotting his badge, asked him if he was any relation to the kid wanted in connection with a series of car robberies. Carlisle was given a choice: Leave the house or join the Navy. He went with the latter option, but, while stationed in Guam, wound up busted again, this time for robbing tourists. He served two years in prison. Back home in Detroit, he fell into the rap scene, befriending a young Eminem. Carlisle still calls him "Marshall." They've since had a falling-out, though not before Eminem made a guest appearance on Hush's 2005 album Bulletproof, which came out on Geffen. Rolling Stone gave it one star, Carlisle informs me. "You guys said I set white rappers back by 20 years," he notes good-naturedly.

Carlisle did manage to place some tracks on a short-lived boxing-world reality show called The Contender, where he met Martino, who wanted to develop her own show. One afternoon, while visiting Carlisle in Detroit, she noticed a stray dog rooting around in some garbage. When the dog raised its head, a cigarette hung from its mouth. Martino made a joke about times in Detroit being so tough even the dogs smoke. Then she asked Carlisle if he saw lots of strays. "All the time," he told her.

That became the genesis of their ill-fated show. There's something pleasingly postmodern about a failed reality-show pitch becoming actual real-life reality for those who did the pitching. Aside from the obvious dog-related dramas, the story arc of Detroit Dog Rescue's first season has included a number of more procedural complications, including being hassled by the Department of Agriculture. Technically, it's illegal for rescue groups to pick up strays unless they are licensed, officially trained animal-control officers. DDR has been scouting possible shelter locations in a warehouse district and its members are undergoing training; in the meantime, the group adopts out the dogs through its website. Everyone at DDR has also ended up taking in rescued dogs themselves: Carlisle a white Dalmatian mix named Petey, who'd been living off cheeseburgers shared by some guys at a construction site; Shance a bull mastiff named Porkchop, who'd run away after a crazy neighbor split his head open with a samurai sword.

DDR estimates it has rescued 200 dogs. Sometimes they're too late: They've found litters of dead puppies in attics of abandoned homes. One woman, a hoarder, had nearly 30 strays. Some of the dogs they rescue have bite marks on their faces, telltale signs of dogfighting. Shance shows me a drug house where the dealers kept a shivering pit bull chained outside. There's no dog there now. Shance says they're not allowed to just take dogs – that would be stealing – but this one's chain might have somehow come undone while Shance was standing there. Once, some Detroit cops called DDR because they saw a deer running around in the projects.

Carlisle says other rescue groups have been hostile to their mission, and thinks someone must have snitched to the Department of Agriculture. Tom McPhee, the director of a nonprofit organization attempting to track the number of strays in Detroit, works closely with the Michigan Humane Society. He says Detroit's ineffective animal control should "absolutely be privatized," but contends DDR has grossly inflated the number of strays, and that the group "came into this with zero understanding of any animal rescue."

"They're geniuses at street-team marketing," McPhee says. "Going from a start-up to a multimillion-dollar operation in less than a year is absolutely unheard of. It's stunning. And they've really upped the ante in terms of getting the word out. But their attitude has been 'fake it until you make it.' And they're running roughshod over established organizations."

Carlisle insists those established organizations simply don't like the way DDR has highlighted the high euthanasia rates. Last summer, two high-ranking officials at the Michigan Humane Society resigned in protest over the group's euthanasia policy. Carlisle notes that DDR has only had to put down a single rescued dog, which killed a house cat and tried to bite a child.

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