By Michael E. Miller
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"Ooooohh, I've seen worse than this," announces Kim Dettman, deftly slipping the carcass, along with several thousand panic-stricken parasites, into a heavy-duty garbage bag. "Much worse." Unless you consider earnest and chillingly explicit tales of pet mutilation a cheap thrill, it is not wise to challenge Dettman on this claim.
Dettman is the bolder half of the Dade County Animal Services Division's dead-animal patrol, the unit assigned the sinus-whipping task of tracking down - and scraping up - roadkill. After two years at it she is, near as anyone at Animal Services can reckon, the beat's longest surviving scooper.
That may seem a tainted badge of honor, until you consider the Dade dilemma: 400 dogs, cats, possums, squirrels, goats, chickens, turtles, and gators run down every month. "I look at it this way," says the 28-year-old Dettman. "Somebody's got to do it and everybody dies." Only later does the nuance tucked behind her rationale - the faint sighs of carrion foretold, the spark of ghoulish expertise - come into view. And, certainly, neither is in evidence at 6:30 a.m., when Dettman pads into Animal Service's dingy home office, off the Palmetto Expressway at NW 74th Avenue.
Dettman's first duty is to review the dead-animal hotline's answering machine for citizen reports, 30 to 40 of which come in daily, almost all with the edge of panicky disgust that surrounds the concept of roadkill. "There's a big, brown dog with a swollen body on the access road just east of Kendall," shrieks one caller, in a tone generally associated with Japanese horror films. "My God, it's as big as a horse."
Calls documented, Dettman draws up a road plan, working in a concentric loop from the remotest calls on a beat that sprawls from Homestead to North Miami Beach. With the exception of state and private roads, and the three Dade municipalities that handle their own roadkill, all streets are fair game. "It doesn't really matter where they are," Dettman intones, easing into a pair of oddly dapper, patent-leather work shoes. "They all smell."
Indeed, the stench from her first 'kill -a pit bull frozen in midstride off Miller Road - hits the nostrils with all the subtlety of aged Roquefort. Or a Mack truck. "Oh, he's a big one," observes Dettman, springing from her pickup. With gloved hands, the five-foot-four-inch, 115-pounder wrestles the pooch's stiffened haunches into one bag, its disfigured head and chest into another. She lugs the sack toward her loading platform, a staggering waltz performed to periodic squeaks of effort and the horrified gazes of passing drivers.
"People freak out when they see I'm the one who's come to pick up the dead animals," says Dettman, whose white-blond coif and perky manner all but scream aerobics instructor. "I had one lady say, `I can't believe they'd send out a little girl like you to do this.' She wanted to pick the thing up herself, and she had to be 77 years old." Dettman's flair for accessorizing - she wears inch-long nails, a clutch of gold bracelets, and hot pink shades - also tends to undermine the corpsman image.
"I could have worked behind the counter, but I was messing with dead animals back there anyway," reflects Dettman, who signed on with the roadkill patrol after eight years as an animal attendant, where, among other things, she cleaned cages and fed the furnace euthanasia fodder. Her goal now is a promotion to Live Animal Specialist, a position she describes as much like her current one, except that it would involve live animals, and better pay. She regards roadkill pickup as a kind of intermediate step.
Besides, Dettman, who spent her adolescence grooming her dad's thoroughbreds at Calder Racetrack, insists she's never harbored the weak-stomached, lace-and-frill excesses of femininity. Sure, she gagged a couple of times her first week. But the freedom of logging 150 miles daily on a flexible seven-to-three schedule has ruined desk jobs for her.
There are, Dettman maintains, some enchanting aspects to the job: cruising through plush neighborhoods fantasy-home shopping, eavesdropping on the cellular phone babblings that occasionally wander onto her radio, and, of course, swapping exploits with partner Sherry Marts, her best friend and neighbor in Miramar.
"A promotion, that's the way it was presented to me," says Marts of her original stint on the road last fall. The 29-year-old mother of two claims she "felt like one of the animals" working in the shelter and recalls "begging" to return to the roadkill job after last fall's budget cuts sent her back into shelter exile. (The hiatus didn't last long. As Dettman fought a losing battle to keep pace with roadside carnage, public outcry forced county commissioners to re-fund Marts's position.)