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

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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.

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