24 Hours a Stray

The Humane Society's animal rescue drivers work hard to save the wounded, to rescue the sick and abandoned. But usually the endings are not so happy.

The day, as usual, begins with death, or at least its threats. A dog strays into the early-morning rush hour traffic on Miller Road, gets hit by a car, stumbles over to the swale, and collapses.

By the time Jorge Yera arrives 45 minutes later, the dog, a Dalmatian, has hoisted itself up and is stumbling around on three unsteady legs. The fourth it suspends above the ground, as if hurt.

The two Metro-Dade police officers who radioed for Yera had been responding to a burglary across the street when the dog was hit. The Dalmatian, they tell Yera, was lying crumpled on the ground until moments ago. Aside from the gimpy leg and a look of all-over grogginess, the dog, a male, looks pretty healthy to an untrained eye. Its coat is unblemished; there are no obvious broken bones. But cars do their worst damage on the inside, and Yera knows the beads of blood glistening in the Dalmatian's nostrils are a sign of potentially serious internal injuries.

A second Dalmatian, a female, sits in the back seat of the squad car. The officers had spotted her in the doorway of a Publix nearby. She is unhurt, Yera learns, and apparently knows the male. But because neither dog bears any identification -- they're wearing chain collars but no tags -- Yera will take them both back with him to the Humane Society shelter on NW 95th Street.

"People don't fix their fences," he mutters, lifting the hurt dog and lugging it over to his rescue vehicle, a converted white Chevy pickup that bears a vague resemblance to a Good Humor ice cream truck. He puts the Dalmatian in a large compartment, and the female leaps compliantly into the same cubby. He bolts the doors shut and slides behind the wheel. "You can tell how a person really is by how they take care of their animal," he says.

Yera is one of four animal rescue agents employed by the nonprofit Humane Society of Greater Miami. Around the clock, every day of the year, he and his counterparts take turns rescuing animals in distress. They cover the whole of Dade County, from the Broward line to Florida City. The Dalmatian casualty was the first call of Yera's customary shift, which runs from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

"There hasn't been one point on the map I haven't been, man," Yera says, as he threads the truck through the clogged roads of Kendall toward the Palmetto Expressway. Cuban-born and Miami Beach-reared, the 32-year-old Yera began driving seven years ago; he'd been working as a seafood delivery driver when a Humane Society employee he knew suggested he join the rescue squad.

The bulk of the agents' work involves sick and injured cats and dogs; most are strays and many have been hit by vehicles. The drivers, who are paid about ten dollars per hour on average, also respond to requests from pet owners to retrieve aging animals for euthanasia. But Yera says he has come to the aid of other species, including rabbits, ducks, pigeons, pelicans, raccoons, opossums, and horses. There was a time when the Humane Society also handled livestock, and the organization has counted among its former charges an ocelot, two cougars, and a lion. (These days the staff is tending to a potbellied pig Metro-Dade police found after it had been mauled by dogs.)

"Sometimes you get calls after calls after calls, you never know," says Yera, who shares a house in Northeast Dade with his wife, five children, two purebred chows, and three cats. The busiest shift he can recall topped fifteen calls, but he says the average ranges between five and ten.

The tone of his otherwise lazy voice turns slightly bitter as he recounts some of the horrors he's seen. "People got pets but let them walk all over the streets with no tags. Do they really care about them? I pick up dogs sometimes and it looks like owners never gave it a bath. Sometimes when you get to the premises for an owner request, the dog is, like, half-dead. I understand you get attached, but the dog is eighteen years old and he's lying in feces!" he recounts, shaking his head.

"Sometimes people are very cruel. You see some sick things, man, especially on the holidays, like the Fourth of July and Halloween. Cats tortured, with chopped ears, chopped noses, burnt tails, eyes hanging out." A beagle puppy rescued several years back had been bathed in acid. "Once I got a call. Thirty police officers in a cemetery in North Miami," Yera says. "A chicken had a knife stuck down its throat, and it was still walking around. I think it was something about Santeria. It was real strange, man. And once a guy slammed a puppy on the ground. Lot of horrible things, man. If you're an animal lover, it really kills you."

At this he flips on the truck's radio, tunes in an AM station playing dancehall reggae. He sinks back into his seat. "I like reggae, man," he offers, then adds, apropos of nothing, "Beatles are the best band ever."

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