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Animal group sets out to count Detroit's stray dogs

Published September 22, 2013 7:00 pm

Safety • 30,000 vacant structures provide shelter for strays.
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Detroit • It doesn't matter to Jessie Clarke how many stray or loose dogs are roaming the ruins of Detroit. After the 65-year-old was attacked by two pit bulls outside of her east side home in April, even one is too many.

She is not alone, as some Detroit residents complain that packs of dogs have terrorized various neighborhoods for years. So far, there has been no reliable way to know how many there are, though some have guessed it's in the thousands.

But Tom McPhee, a filmmaker and executive director of the Ann Arbor-based World Animal Awareness Society, hopes a two-day survey that started Saturday will put a number to the problem.

The more than 30,000 vacant houses and buildings that once were homes for Detroit residents now provide havens and shelter for the animals. McPhee said he plans to share the numbers to find a way to humanely deal with what has become a safety risk as the strays breed, increasing their population even as the city's population falls.

"With so many houses open that way, there's also a lot of rats," McPhee said. "That's when we start to have health problems as the rats and the dogs meet."

Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection in July. State-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr says the city needs to find dollars to hire more "dog catchers."

At 8 a.m. Saturday, volunteers fanned out across Detroit's 139 square miles. At least one team found the animals elusive. The first 90 minutes Barbara Moran and Nicole Ryan spent in a distressed west-side neighborhood turned up nothing. "I hope we see some dogs," Ryan, 37, said after making a half-dozen or so stops. "I love animals, and I love to help them."

McPhee's survey is part of his American Strays research project, a documentary in syndication on the Internet. He hopes to use footage from this weekend to produce a feature-length documentary about Detroit's stray problem. He doesn't expect results anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Clarke just wants something done about the dogs.

"If you are not getting rid of them, what are you going to do?" she asked. "You can't round them all up. You can tear down the vacant buildings, but where are the strays going to go? Up and down the street?"

About two months after she was attacked, a teenager reported being bitten by three dogs that had escaped a yard. Loose dogs forced postal officials to suspend deliveries for about six weeks in a four-block area in 2007.

The department that handles dog complaints and rounds up strays had only six animal control officers at the start of the year, according to a report by police officials. About 1,700 strays are captured annually.

Daniel Carlisle, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Dog Rescue, is unconvinced. The organization has captured and found homes for about 150 stray dogs so far this year.

"I don't think that counting — and not rescuing — makes any sense," Carlisle said. "These dogs aren't going to stand here and wait for you to count them."