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

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

Dogs roaming the street in Detroit.
Dante Dasaro
Dogs roaming the street in Detroit.
By |

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.

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. (Photo: 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."

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.

A couple of days later, I accompany Shance on another run. He was up late the night before, having received a call from a police officer who'd just raided a drug house, where the cops discovered an abused pit bull; to the annoyance of his girlfriend, Shance raced to the crime scene and brought the dog home. (Dog-loving cops occasionally violate procedure and call DDR instead of animal control, knowing the creatures will otherwise be euthanized.)

Before signing on with DDR, Shance spent 10 years working as a mechanic at a Cadillac dealership. He still plays regular gigs with rock cover bands for extra money, and looks the part: silver hoop earrings, luck-themed tattoos (poker suits, pairs of red dice) covering his hands and fingers. At DDR, Shance feels like he's found his calling. There's just something about the way he relates to dogs. "I don't know shit about people," he mutters. "My track record with girls speaks for itself."

He pulls the van up to a house where a giant bull mastiff is chained to a tree, next to a couple of filthy mattresses. This is Beast. Shance says he's left outside day and night. After spotting the dog one afternoon, Shance knocked on the door of the house. The owner said Beast had been chained to the tree when he'd bought the place. Shance offered to find a new home for the dog, but the owner refused, figuring he'd keep the dog around for protection. Shance brought over a doghouse and occasionally stops by with food.

We could be in the countryside somewhere, there are so many barren fields, though this used to be a dense residential neighborhood. Beast has a jowly, sad-monster face. Rubbing his head, Shance says, "People go batshit on us. 'Why don't you just take these dogs?' First of all, short of stealing them, you can't make people love their dogs, or bring them in the house. And even if we could, where would we put them? It's an epidemic! You'll see 10 dogs like this every day. We try to make sure they have food, water and shelter. But honestly, if the owner is trying at all, that dog is not going to be a priority. The dog on the street eating a fucking couch cushion is the priority. You have to make these kinds of decisions every day, and it sucks."

We drive over to an abandoned house, closer to the river. This one has been taken over by an entire pack of dogs. Shance drops by regularly to check on them. It's a two-story wood-frame house, with no front door or windows. As we mount the steps, the barking begins. Through the gaping space that once held a picture window, I see the leader of the pack, a pregnant black Lab, glaring at us from behind a cushionless couch. "Don't get near her," Shance warns. "She'll bite."

From the second-floor landing, two more members of the pack peer down at us, one eventually padding downstairs to eat a strip of jerky out of Shance's hand. Dogs taking over a house – it's like a children's book, a Disney cartoon. Only, in this case, a very disturbing one. Shance can't pick these dogs up until DDR has a permanent shelter, so in the meantime, he tries to make sure they have food.

In a city as poor as Detroit, it's not unreasonable to hear about DDR's windfall and wonder why anyone would give so much money to animals in a place where the human suffering is impossible to miss. Carlisle says it's not a zero-sum game, that DDR focuses on one specific area where they can make a difference. Not that he doesn't understand money problems, having seen the value of his home drop by $50,000 since the start of the recession. After we leave the pack-dog Grey Gardens, Shance gets a call from his girlfriend: The power at their apartment has been turned off. He gets quiet. Suddenly, he looks exhausted. "So it goes for the Dog Whisperer," he mutters. "Until I get my own TV show."

A few weeks later, more tragic news broke: Calvin Cash passed away suddenly, due to complications from diabetes. On DDR's Facebook page, Carlisle described Cash as his "brother" and "best friend," adding, "You were truly a messenger. I miss you already, you always had our back out there." Cash, a quiet man, hadn't said much during our time together, though he'd joked about looking for dogs in the dead of winter. "I was the beacon in the middle of the snow," he teased Carlisle. "Wasn't for me, you'd have got lost."

Carlisle will press on. A member of Detroit's City Council has expressed interest in outsourcing the city's animal control to DDR. Should the deal go through, Carlisle envisions making Detroit the first major no-kill U.S. city. "The police already call us at two in the morning," Carlisle says. " 'We found a pit bull in a house these drug dealers were squatting in. Can you come get it?' Our families wonder about it. 'Shit, what are you doing? You're making this your life?'" He shrugs. "I wasn't really prepared to be doing this. But it is my life now."

This story is from the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1153: March 29, 2012