Stray dogs: Victims of Detroit's downfall

As people abandon the city in search of jobs, thousands of dogs roam the streets in search of affection and food

A stray dog looks out from shelter it has taken up in eastern Detroit.
Carlos Osorio/AP

As Detroit's economy drifted toward bankruptcy and people left to seek their fortunes elsewhere, the city's abandoned houses became refuges for thousands of newcomers: stray dogs.

About 5,000 former pets roam the city's streets in search of company and food, seemingly taking over city blocks as they do so, animal-welfare advocates said Sunday. It means parts of Detroit have come to resemble areas of Juarez in Mexico and Mumbai in India, where packs of feral dogs have become a well-documented urban blight.

In a bid to log the dogs' misfortune and their growing menace -- Detroit is now ranked among the most dangerous places for mail carriers -- a group of volunteers has spent the weekend counting strays.

"We want to be able to present some science to the world … to make sure we're doing this correctly," Tom McPhee, a filmmaker and the executive director of the World Animal Awareness Society, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Al Jazeera.

"Right now (because of) the economic situation, everyone is just going away from where they're living and leaving everything behind," he said. "Leaving the animals is just another thing."

McPhee led a team of 50 volunteers during a two-day count of the strays. By 2015 he hopes to count all abandoned dogs in 20 major U.S. cities, he said. Many of the dogs the team came across were emaciated and were probably left behind by families that could no longer afford to keep them.

Their presence adds to a sense of lawlessness that has gripped Detroit since industrial decay and financial mismanagement forced many to move out of the area.

The city, which filed for bankruptcy on July 18, has become a magnet for crime in recent years. It ranked second on the FBI's list of most dangerous cities in the United States last year. It is also struggling with a growing poverty problem. A third of its people are living below the poverty line, and depopulation has led to more and more houses falling into dereliction.

But economic woes are not the only factor contributing to the problem of stray dogs, animal-welfare advocates say.

McPhee suggested that poor education levels in a city where the median household income is less than $28,000, has meant that dog owners have failed to take measures such as neutering or spaying their animals and preventing them from wandering freely and breeding. One pit bull can easily have a litter of 10 puppies, he said.

"The No. 1  issue is the fact that the educational level of the guardians of dogs is very poor," he said. "But we're not looking to pass judgment. We're there to find a way to understand the problem."

Ryan McTigue, spokesman at the Michigan Humane Society, told Al Jazeera that the problem is nothing new. It is likely the result of years of decline, he suggested, leaving households with little room for extra expenditures, let alone money to take care of pets.

"I'm sure it may have come about from the long period of Detroit's economic struggle," he said. "A lot of times, it's people who can't take care of their animals anymore and they don't know what else to do."

Many dogs are pit bulls, which are popular across the country, or pit mixes, he said. Often the animals were bought for security reasons like guarding homes but were later discarded as collateral damage of a city in crisis. But pit bulls are known as a breed that can be aggressive, adding to the threat after they are left to fend for themselves.

Detroit resident Markela Reese said she has taken to carrying a stick or club to ward off problem dogs when she takes her son to school.

"I don't know if they are going to bite or if they are hungry," she told The Associated Press.

Reese, 29, added that packs of a dozen can be seen running about. "They chase deer," she said, adding that the packs are also a threat to human residents.

The department that handles dog complaints and rounds up strays had only six animal-control officers at the start of the year, according to police figures. About 1,700 strays are captured annually, of which about 90 percent are euthanized, according to Detroit Dog Rescue, a local nonprofit that raises awareness about stray dogs.

Amber Sitko, president of All About Animals Rescue, a nonprofit animal-wellness center with clinics in Detroit, estimated the number of stray dogs on the city's streets at 5,000 rather than 50,000, as some reports have cited. She pointed to a lack of opportunities and money that cause people to abandon animals they view as disposable.

"To me, the real problem is that people can't afford them or don't know how to take care of them," she said.

With wire services

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