By Chris Christoff
Thousands of stray dogs roam the streets and vacant homes of bankrupt Detroit, menacing humans who remain and overwhelming the city's ability to find them homes - or peaceful deaths.
As poverty roils the Motor City, 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. Up to 50,000 of them roam the city, said Harry Ward, head of animal control.
"With these large open expanses with vacant homes, it's as if you designed a situation that causes dog problems," Ward said.
Up to 20 dogs have been found making dens 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 skeletal animal-control unit recalled a pack splashing 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."
The number of strays signals a humanitarian crisis, said Amanda Arrington of the Humane Society of the United States. 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.
When she visited in October, "it was almost post-apocalyptic, where there are no businesses, nothing except people in houses and dogs running around," Arrington said.
"The suffering of animals goes hand in hand with the suffering of people," she said. Pet owners move leave behind their dogs, hoping neighbors will care for them, she said. 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 nonprofits, take in 15,000 animals a year, including strays and pets that are seized or given up by owners.
They are among the victims of a historic financial and political collapse. Detroit, a former auto manufacturing powerhouse, declared the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy on July 18 after years of decline. The city has more than $18 billion in long-term debt and had piled up an operating deficit of close to $400 million. Falling revenue forced cutbacks in police, fire-fighting - and dog control.
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.
"We are really suffering from fatigue, short-staffed" and work too much overtime, he said in an interview.
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.
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.
Their prevalence was clear as Ward and officers Moore and Malachi Jackson answered calls Aug. 19. On a block where vacant houses and lots outnumbered occupied ones, they found four dogs in an abandoned house - a male and three females, including a pregnant pit bull with a prized blue-gray coat.
Ward said it appeared the dogs were fed by someone who used the house to hide stolen items.
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.
"It's been a persistent problem," he said.
Mail carrier Catherine Guzik told of using pepper spray on swarms of tiny, ferocious dogs in a southwest Detroit neighborhood.
"It's like Chihuahuaville," Guzik said as she walked her route.
At two nearby homes, one pet dog was killed recently and another injured by two stray pit bulls that jumped fences into yards, said neighbor Debora Mattie, 49.
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.
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 nonprofit 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.
Huston said she walks through some of the poorest neighborhoods to talk to pet owners about how to care for their animals, sometimes giving them bags of food or even a free doghouse.
Ward said more needs to be done to educate pet owners. He said his crews are too few, but help keep dogs in check.
Four months ago, a woman sitting on her porch on the east side was attacked by two strays that tore off her scalp, Ward said.
"We got those dogs," he said. "It's a big difference to that lady that those dogs were gone that day."