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.

Lanky, bookish-looking Jelescheff smiles as he recalls the scenario. "I'm an idiot," he mimics sardonically, "and I'm going to write it on my forehead."

Mark Vinton is loaded for, well, bear. He has a backpack and a gym bag full of emergency tools: rope, flares, first-aid kit, a police-issue flashlight, a cellular phone, even rock-climbing carabiners and rappelling equipment. "I've gone up 40-foot trees after cats and down into storm drains after dogs," he says. "It's awesome!"

Vinton is 21 ("I'll be 22 next month") and usually drives the 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. graveyard shift. He wants nothing more than to be a cop. "If I can't, I don't know what I'll do," he frets. Though the Miami native, a solidly built young man with a boyish, aw-shucks demeanor, has been driving for the Humane Society for only ten months, he tells stories as if he's been on the road his whole life. Many of his tales have little to do with his job, except that they take place during the down time when he's not rescuing animals. He tells of assisting cops in DUI arrests, of coming to the aid of an overturned vehicle on the turnpike, of bailing numerous commuters out of middle-of-the-night flat-tire nightmares. "The police dispatchers know me for getting into trouble," he boasts.

While in high school, Vinton worked part time at the emergency animal clinic where the Humane Society takes animals in need of immediate nighttime medical attention. Through that job he heard about the opening for a driver. His earnestness isn't entirely embraced by his boss, Ernesto de Palacios. "I'm afraid for him, to tell you the truth," admits de Palacios, the director of operations. "It's part of his personality, to be extremely available. He goes after-hours to rescue animals even though he's uninsured when he's off the clock. He's not insured to go into storm drains or up trees."

Lawrence Cure is more forthright about his colleague. "That dude is weird, pointblank! He's okay, but pointblank, he's weird! He tells us these things he's done and I say, 'Jeez, Mark, all these years me and Mike [Stukes] been here we never had all these problems.' I just hope he ain't bringing it on himself."

Everyone admits, though, that the nature of the overnight shift is more dramatic than the day shifts, and sometimes more challenging. For one thing, de Palacios points out, you're often dealing with people who are tired, cranky, or asleep by the time you arrive.

Although the Humane Society is the only active animal rescue team on duty at night (Metro-Dade's Animal Care & Control Division keeps a couple of people on call for police-related emergencies only) it's usually the slowest shift. This night, though, seems busier than usual. Three calls that came in at the end of the second shift are still pending. Vinton sets off to see to the first, an injured dog in Hialeah, tuning in some light rock as accompaniment while he drives.

The Hialeah location is a parking lot next to an apartment building. Vinton scours the place with his flashlight, looking under every car and tromping through undergrowth. Failing to find the animal, he vows to return later on.

"When a dog is hit, no matter how hard, they want to lie down because their body goes into shock," he explains, heading south now toward the Dolphin Expressway and Coconut Grove. But the animals sometimes wander, then settle down. "I remember once I was out by the airport, and I couldn't find this dog. I looked and looked and looked, and it was getting on 45 minutes. There was this huge field and I said, There's no way the dog is out there. But I scaled the fence and by George, the damn dog was out there, in the furthest part of the field."

At the Coconut Grove address, an apartment building on Bird Road, he finds a couple that has befriended a tiny stray kitten. Camped out on their doorstep next to Tupperware bowls filled with dry kitty food and water, the kitten is mangy and covered with scabs; Vinton suspects it suffers from other ailments, as well. Though he stops short of saying it, the animal's fate seems obvious. The woman comes out in her bathrobe and begins to cry. "I don't want you to put him to sleep," she pleads.

"But doll," her boyfriend says, "you can't keep him. You're hyperallergic."
"Please, I don't want them to put him to sleep. Maybe we can test him and he doesn't have all these diseases."

"Close the door!" the boyfriend commands. "I'll take care of this."
When Vinton returns to the truck, he's carrying the kitten.
As he heads toward his third stop, in West Miami, another call comes in: A dog has been hit by a car in Hialeah. Vinton opts to see to the pending calls first. He takes no action at the West Miami address when a groggy resident whom Vinton awakens with a cellular phone call says he'll decide in the morning whether to keep the cat.

Stop number four -- a report of a pack of stray dogs -- takes Vinton to a shoddy block of duplexes outside Homestead. As Vinton pulls up, a Metro-Dade police cruiser rounds the corner. When the cops report that they just chased a man who was firing a gun, Vinton can barely suppress a smile. The Metro cruiser takes off in response to another call, leaving Vinton to prowl around on his own.

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