Abandoned Dogs Roam Detroit in Packs as Humans Dwindle

Chris Christoff, Bloomberg, August 21, 2013

As many as 50,000 stray dogs roam the streets and vacant homes of bankrupt Detroit, replacing residents, menacing humans who remain and overwhelming the city’s ability to find them homes or peaceful deaths.

Dens of as many as 20 canines have been found in boarded-up homes in the community of about 700,000 that once pulsed with 1.8 million people. One officer in the Police Department’s skeleton animal-control unit recalled a pack splashing away in a basement that flooded when thieves ripped out water pipes.

“The dogs were having a pool party,” said Lapez Moore, 30. “We went in and fished them out.”

Poverty roils the Motor City and many dogs have been left to fend for themselves, abandoned by owners who are financially stressed or unaware of proper care. Strays have killed pets, bitten mail carriers and clogged the animal shelter, where more than 70 percent are euthanized.

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The number of strays signals a humanitarian crisis, said Amanda Arrington of the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington. She heads a program that donated $50,000 each to organizations in Detroit and nine other U.S cities to get pets vaccinated, fed, spayed and neutered.

Arrington said when she visited Detroit in October, “It was almost post-apocalyptic, where there are no businesses, nothing except people in houses and dogs running around.”

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She said pet owners who move leave behind dogs, hoping neighbors will care for them. Those dogs take to the streets and reproduce. Compounding that are the estimated 70,000 vacant buildings that provide shelter for dogs, or where some are chained without care to ward off thieves, Ward said.

Most strays are pets that roam, often in packs that form around a female in heat, Ward said. Few are true feral dogs that have had no human contact.

Ward said Detroit’s three shelters–his and two non-profit facilities–take in 15,000 animals a year, including strays and pets that are seized or given up by owners.

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With an annual budget of $1.6 million, Ward has four officers to cover the 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometer) city seven days a week, 11 fewer than when he took command in 2008. He has one dog-bite investigator, down from three.

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The officers, who wear bulletproof vests to protect themselves from irate owners, are bringing in about half the number of animals that crews did in 2008, Ward said.

In July, the pound stopped accepting more animals for a month because the city hadn’t paid a service that hauls away euthanized animals for cremation at a cost of about $20,000 a year. The freezers were packed with carcasses, and pens were full of live animals until the bill was paid.

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Pit bulls and breeds mixed with them dominate Detroit’s stray population because of widespread dog fighting, said Ward. Males are aggressive in mating, so they proliferate, he added.

One type of fighting pit bull has become known as far as Los Angeles as the “Highland Park red,” named after a city within Detroit’s borders, Ward said.

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Aggressive dogs force the U.S. Postal Service to temporarily halt mail delivery in some neighborhoods, said Ed Moore, a Detroit-area spokesman. He said there were 25 reports of mail carriers bitten by dogs in Detroit from October through July. Though most are by pets at homes, strays have also attacked, Moore said.

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Mail carrier Catherine Guzik told of using pepper spray on swarms of tiny, ferocious dogs in a southwest Detroit neighborhood.

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Last year, there were 903 dog bites in Detroit, according to Ward, adding that most go unreported to police. He said 90 percent are by dogs whose owners are known.

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Many de facto strays are called pets by owners who let them wander, said Kristen Huston, who leads the Detroit office of All About Animals Rescue, a non-profit that obtained the Humane Society’s $50,000 grant last year to feed, vaccinate and sterilize pets. Some dogs run away from their neighborhoods and threaten people, she said.

“Technically, it’s illegal to let a dog roam, but with the city being bankrupt, who’s going to do anything about it?” Huston said.

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