ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
By some estimates, tens of thousands of stray dogs roam the streets of Detroit. Some people are trying to get a more precise count. Others are helping the most vicious dogs regain a place in Society. Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET has been out on the streets to learn about the effort.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Along a block of blighted buildings on the west side of Detroit, Tom McPhee, who shoots documentaries, is on a mission. He's scouting for stray dogs so he can attach collars to them equipped with homing devices.
TOM MCPHEE: Animals can't speak to us so this, in essence, gives them a bit of a voice. It allows them to tell us, well, do you actually go to a home? Does somebody own you? So we could go and talk to the owner and say, hey, you know, your dog roams and it needs to be spayed and neutered and so on.
KLINEFELTER: McPhee is compiling data that researchers at Michigan State University will use to estimate the number of stray dogs here and where they go. McPhee's already watched strays occupy one abandoned home on this street.
MCPHEE: And the dog basically stood on the front porch with his bowl in his mouth and went woof, woof, like, feed me. He's got his tail going. They won't let you get close, but you can tell, like, this is where they lived. The family left and the dogs just started to continue to live there.
KLINEFELTER: One block away where people still live in the neighborhood, Terrence Moore says he treats the strays here with extreme caution.
TERRENCE MOORE: Yeah, because, really, you don't know if that dog is going to attack somebody or not. I have three grandchildren, little small kids, you know, school age. Yeah, it can be scary at times.
KLINEFELTER: City officials can offer only limited help. They're already overwhelmed.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: City of Detroit Animal Control.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I want to report a stray.
KLINEFELTER: The cash-strapped Animal Control Department has only four active officers. A fifth is recovering from being mauled in a kennel. Department head Harry Ward says the city's three authorized shelters house 15,000 stray dogs a year. Ward grimaces as he notes that most of those dogs will be euthanized, either because they're never claimed or pose a danger to the public.
HARRY WARD: We have fingers removed. We had people spending multiple days in the hospital. We have people terrorized to the point that they want to go out of their house ever again. These are very bad bites. Many of them are face bites to small children.
KLINEFELTER: Ward says most of those bites come from dogs that are not strays. He says pit bulls in particular are prized because owners think they can sell them as security dogs or fighting animals.
WARD: When we speak to citizens about spaying or neutering, they say, well, I will. But I want to get one more litter out of it. Breeding that litter in their basement that they're sure they're going make $1,000 on and find good homes for, and six months later, three-quarters of those puppies had to get dumped on the street.
KLINEFELTER: In a field bracketed by fencing, Bill Bellottie works with one of those dogs no one else wanted. He co-founded a group called the Detroit Bully Corps.
BILL BELLOTTIE: How many of these dogs are getting put down senselessly? It's a pit bull. Put it down. It's a killer. You know, it's a liability. If we adopt this dog out, it will kill somebody's child.
KLINEFELTER: But Bellottie says the pit bulls he helps are not inherently aggressive. Some of them have been starved to the point of living off of their own bone marrow. Bellottie says community members led him to other pit bulls used as fodder in illegal dog fighting rings and then discarded.
BELLOTTIE: These kids between the ages of 4 and 12, there was four of them, showed us where they're burying the dogs. They actually watched a dog be murdered.
KLINEFELTER: Bellottie spends thousands of dollars and months re-training each pit bull before transitioning them back into society. But Animal Control's Harry Ward says some other volunteer rescue groups are more concerned with pulling as many dogs as possible off the streets without regard to whether they're legally licensed, vaccinated or ready to be domesticated.
WARD: And I know they want to do it because their heart is in the right place. But again, we really have to be careful that if people are just taking dogs off the street and then willy-nilly placing them in other homes, they are circumventing all these laws that really are here for the public safety.
KLINEFELTER: The result, Ward says, is that those saved dogs often end up back on the street, and the cycle of wild dogs roaming Detroit simply repeats itself again. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.
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