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."

The Humane Society doesn't keep every injured or sick animal that passes through its doors. In fact, only a small fraction stay around. The first concern is to determine whether a recovered animal has an owner. In the absence of an ID tag or tattoo, the rescue personnel scan the animal for the presence of a microchip, which some pet owners have surgically implanted in their pets. The microchips carry identification such as the owner's name, address, and phone number.

Unidentified dogs are usually sent to the county's dog pound, the Metro-Dade Animal Care & Control Division, although the Humane Society keeps some dogs (particularly puppies) it deems easily curable and adoptable. Cats and kittens with a good chance of recovery and adoption are also held. (Metro-Dade, on the other hand, doesn't take any cats unless they're dropped off by owners.) Those beyond repair get an immediate appointment with the euthanasia syringe.

Often the drivers themselves determine the fate of the animals they pick up. Otherwise that call usually rests with the shelter manager. Becky Reynolds, a compact, fit woman with a mane of black hair and a no-nonsense disposition is on duty when Yera reaches the Humane Society's North Dade headquarters. "Keep 'em," she decrees, and disappears.

The sprightly female Dalmatian gets a small run of her own in one of several kennels arrayed throughout the labyrinthine edifice; Yera carries the male to a small cage in what is known as the "isolation room," reserved for sick and hurt animals awaiting an inspection by the staff vet. The Dalmatian curls up and lies unmoving. By 8:30, Yera is back on the road.

He makes a run down to the Humane Society's satellite shelter in Cutler Ridge, where manager Dierdra "Buffy" Jorgensen tells a story to explain the presence of a ferret in one of the cages. "A lady came in with a garbage bag in her hand and said she had a raccoon, it was in her yard. I said, 'We don't take raccoons, you need to call [Wee Care] Wildlife,'" she recounts, referring to an animal rehab company that usually sees to such matters. "She said no, and took the garbage bag and went..." Jorgensen swings her hands in a shoveling motion "...and threw the animal on the floor. It wasn't a raccoon, it was a ferret. And that little ferret went all over the place." And the woman? "She took off."

Yera goes north, collecting a mangy stray cat from the bushes outside a townhouse condo complex in West Kendall before responding to an "owner request" in North Miami Beach. There he pulls into the circular driveway of a plush, Mediterranean-style spread. A tubby, barefoot man in a torn white tank top and too-short pants pads out of the house. His dog's out back, he says curtly. It has been acting strange lately. "Don't know what's wrong with her. Runs away sometimes for weeks at a time. She didn't used to leave. She hasn't been the same since the accident nine, ten months ago. Then she started to wander."

The man leads Yera through the gate of a low fence into a vast back yard with a dog pen set off to one side. "He's about two," the man offers, but the dog, a gold-color mixed breed with ribs that show clearly through patchy red skin, looks older than twelve. The man says he has taken his pet to the vet "several times" for treatment. It skitters off as he approaches. Using a long pole with a rope attached at the end, the modern-day dog catcher's net, Yera manages to capture the dog.

"I don't have much luck with them," the man continues, while Yera hoists the creature into his truck. "Had a Doberman, ran out, got killed." He fills out a personal check to cover the cost of the dog's removal and euthanasia A $50, which is technically considered a donation. "I'm sorry, but these things happen. Bye. All right." The man walks back into his house without a second look. "Looks like the dog's never been treated," Yera remarks, rolling out of the driveway and heading for the Humane Society.

In the euthanasia room, which is the size of a big walk-in closet and smells of old animals, Yera pulls on a pair of plastic gloves, fixes a leather muzzle to the dog's snout, and fills a syringe with blue liquid from a bottle labeled Fatal Plus. The dog waits patiently, a different beast from the skittish thing that refused to be caught half an hour ago. Its head hangs so low that its nose touches the ground. When Yera steps in front of the dog, it begins to wag its tail.

Yera reaches down, expertly grasps one of the dog's forelegs, feels for a vein, and guides the needle in. "It's very important to get that vein," he notes. "He didn't even make a sound, see?"

The dog slowly drops back on its haunches, as if drunk. Its tailbone hits the linoleum floor with a hollow knocking sound. Moments later, the body keels over with a muffled thump, tail curled taut between hind legs. It will be a few more minutes before the dog has officially expired.

"Hardest part of the job is putting animals to sleep," Yera confesses. Several staff members -- including all the drivers -- are certified to euthanize animals at the Humane Society. "Sometimes it gets to you, if you're an animal lover," he goes on. "A lot of people say, 'How do you do this job?' I say, 'Someone's gotta do it, if you love animals.'"

He loads another syringe. In one smooth motion, he reaches into the cage where he has placed the mangy cat, pulls the animal out by the scruff of its neck, plunges the syringe into its belly, and swings the dangling animal back into the cage. The cat begins to cry, a dirge of long vowels: "Owwwww, owwwww, owww, owww." As the toxin moves through its system, the cries lower in pitch. The cat executes a woozy half-turn, stumbles backward, leans against the cage door and slides its head along the slender bars, first one way, then the other. Finally it collapses on its side as softly as a cotton ball, dead.

Yera slips the cat into a bright yellow plastic disposal bag and carts it into a walk-in freezer, where it will remain until a driver takes a load of the dead to Mount Trashmore, the Dade County dump in South Dade. He grabs another bag for the dog, but the animal's lungs are still pulsing slowly, as if it is in a deep sleep. "His brain is still sending messages to the heart," Yera explains, "but he's more dead than alive now."

As he is waiting for the dog to take its last breath, a kennel assistant passes through with grim news. At about ten o'clock that morning, the male Dalmatian began hemorrhaging blood from its penis and died.

The cries echo off the isolation room's white walls and linoleum floor. Their source: a brown-and-white retriever puppy, no bigger than a child's lunchbox. A gaping divot in its head oozes pus and blood. Minutes earlier, a man dropped off the puppy, saying he'd taken it from a child who was mistreating it.

Staff veterinarian Marat Dubrovsky wanders in wearing his customary blue doctor's togs, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "Okay, okay, okay, give me a second," he admonishes the puppy with mock impatience. A man most physically distinguished by a mop of unkempt white hair, Dubrovsky speaks in broken English and the thick, throaty accent of his native Ukraine. "Oh my," he whispers, firmly probing the wound. "Abscess. Probably somebody beat it. It be all right. I put in tube and drain for few days." By the doctor's estimate, the dog is no more than nine weeks old.

Two staffers carry the yelping puppy into an adjacent room to clean the wound. "Pretty sight, eh?" one asks. "Least there're no maggots!" Spraying the puppy's scalp with water, she looks into the raw gouge. "Guess I'll go have my lunch now," she jokes darkly, then apologizes. "We're sick here," she says. "You have to be, considering the stuff we see."

There was a time when the Humane Society performed all sorts of veterinary surgery, but these days Dubrovsky concerns himself with spaying and neutering only. Budget constraints, he explains. Occasionally he'll do basic surgery on an animal deemed adoptable, like the wounded puppy. "It will heal better than old dog. And it is puppy," he says. "When it have stitches on its head, it is adopted three times faster. You be surprised how people fight to adopt crippled dog with amputated leg. Animal who is damaged adopt really fast. They feel sorry."

A week later the puppy will be put up for adoption. Within half a day, someone offers it a home.

You don't have to be an animal freak -- or, for that matter, an animal lover -- to drive for the Humane Society, as Lawrence Cure will attest. A beefy 34-year-old with a short goatee, Cure has been driving for about eight years, but he pretty much backed into the job. He used to do odd jobs around the Humane Society, he explains: mowing the lawn, minor repairs. He stepped in as a driver when one quit, and then just stayed on. By his own admission he had no interest in animals when he joined the crew. "I never had a dog or cat growing up," Cure says in a rumbling low voice that at normal volumes verges on a shout. "But I had a ferret. His name was Screech. I used to take Screech everywhere. I put it in the car with me because it pulled the women."

Among the drivers, Cure is the utility man, working full-time but floating from shift to shift as needed. This week he's covering the 2:00 to 10:00 p.m. slot, the one usually filled by veteran driver Michael Stukes, who is on vacation. At a few minutes past 2:00, Cure is preparing for his shift in an office at the Humane Society A punching the time clock, stocking up on blank report forms A when the first request for service crackles out of his walkie-talkie: an ailing stray kitten in a trailer park off NW 36th Street. He wedges himself behind the wheel of the truck, scratches the address onto a call log, and pulls out of the parking lot. As he heads south along 27th Avenue through Liberty City, he tunes the radio to a pirate station playing hard-core rap.

Half the job, Cure says, is knowing how to deal with people; the animals aren't the problem. "Sometimes people call and say their animal's sick and when I get there, there ain't nothin' wrong with it. They just want to get rid of it. We get that all the time, all the time."

Sometimes people try to drag the Humane Society into the middle of their disputes with neighbors. Once, Cure remembers, the Humane Society got a report that a neighbor's cat had been poisoned. "I went to the neighbor's apartment and the husband pulled a gun on me," he says. "The cat looked okay to me."

When he gets to the trailer park, a woman waves Cure to a stop. She has trapped the kitten under an upturned laundry basket. Pus dribbles from an infected eye. On the way back to the Humane Society, Cure suggests the kitten's fate without actually saying it: "Underweight, too young -- two and a half to three weeks old -- eye infected. Not adoptable. Lot of strays carry diseases you might not see on the outside." Within ten minutes, the animal is in a yellow bag.

It's a slow evening. The next call doesn't come in for a couple of hours. As long as they're readily available to take a call, the drivers can do whatever they want during down time; this evening Cure makes a stop at a relative's house to check on an old car he's restoring, has an early fast-food dinner, visits some friends, and catches part of a college football game on TV. At about 7:00 he is notified about a stray cat with a broken leg that has wandered onto the grounds of a doctor's house in Kendall. When Cure picks up the cat from the plush estate -- complete with an electronic gate and a Lexus and Jag in the garage -- the couple makes a donation of $50 without being asked.

Back behind the wheel, Cure observes, "Most people don't come looking for their animals. Sometimes we find dogs with dog tags on 'em and we call up and they don't want it any more. A couple of weeks ago we had a dog with a beeper number on the tag. I called the guy and he said it wasn't his dog. But I picked up the dog in the area where the guy lived, so I knew good and well it was his dog."

Then come two more calls: an injured cat presumably hit by a car near Naranja in deep Southwest Dade, and a wounded dog in the Brownsville neighborhood of Miami. By night's end both will have been euthanized. But Cure still has a lot of driving to do. (The cat with the broken leg will remain in the truck throughout the ride. Animals injured at night and in need of immediate medical attention are taken to a private veterinary clinic in North Miami that treats the Humane Society's animals at no charge.)

Out of range of the pirate radio station, Cure twists the dial, then settles his bulk back into his seat. "If there's one thing about this job, it's that you find the shortcuts," Cure crows. "Ooooh, you find the shortcuts. I don't think there's a shortcut I don't know." He goes silent for a while, letting the sounds of Barry White fill the cab. "So," he pipes up, "You think the Gators'll win the national championship?"

Most of the Humane Society's charges don't come in on the back of a rescue truck; they arrive through the door marked "RECEIVING," led or carried by the people who don't want them any more. "Here we're the local dump," spits Becky Reynolds, the shelter manager. "People who bring their animals here don't care what you do with them. They don't want to know what you do with them. The burden and guilt they throw right on the people who work here."

The kennels are always crowded with "donated" animals that were abandoned for ridiculous reasons. There's Suki, a two-year-old Akita from Hialeah, whose owner claimed the dog was "hyper." The former owner of Rocky, a year-old Lab-chow mix, "has too many animals," according to intake documents attached to the dog's run. A beagle mix named Sunrise came from a home in southwest Dade ("Can't afford to keep"). Nearby is Keisha, a six-year-old Siamese cat cowering fearfully in her litter box. The owner was "allergic to hair."

Other common (or notorious) excuses: "doesn't get along with my kids"; "jumps on the children"; "moving"; and the legendary "doesn't match the furniture."

Scoffs Reynolds: "Most of the time it's behavioral problems, and that could be changed. If they'd read up on their breed, they'd know. We've had 'em when they've brought a Labrador retriever. Now, the animal's 45 pounds and they say it's too large. Or ~`The cat sheds in the house.'"

Scott Jelescheff, the center's coordinator for volunteers and special fundraising events, points out two dogs, both rottweilers, that had been dropped off that morning. Their owner gave their names as "Luggar" and "Barreta." When the intake staffer pointed out to the man that if he'd intended to name his dogs after firearms he'd misspelled the names, the man declared that he had spelled the names correctly, and left in a huff.

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.

A neighbor had said the dogs were rampaging around a piece of property behind his: a duplex, vacant, its front and rear doors ajar. Armed only with his flashlight, Vinton pushes his way in. An old stove sits in a corner, trash is strewn on the floor. Vinton moves slowly through the house and out into the back yard and wanders around the property. He spots several small puppies running loose. Though he notes that they're too young to be out there, he won't touch the animals because they are on private property.

Next door a dog in a squat, locked cage begins barking. From a distance it appears to be a pit bull. Pit bulls are illegal to possess in Dade County unless they were owned before the legislation passed in 1989, in which case the dogs must be registered with Metro and possess special liability insurance. "I don't think they can have a cage like that," Vinton muses, making a note to report both the cage and the puppies to the county.

Driving north, Vinton swings past the parking lot where he began the shift -- again without turning up anything -- then moves on to the location where the other injured dog was reported more than three hours earlier, as he was on his way to West Miami. The address is a narrow, tree-lined street of modest townhomes and broken sidewalks. Vinton locates the dog, a puppy, but he's too late. Teeth bared, eyes wide, ears erect, it has been dead for hours and is stiff with rigor mortis. It wears a collar but has no tag.

Packing the carcass in a yellow bag, he returns to the Humane Society, where he scans it for a microchip. "I'm very confident some of the animals I pick up at night belong to people," he laments.

The kitten recovered in Coconut Grove makes a quick trip from the truck to the euthanasia room. Its tortured cry, like a creaky door, ceases in seconds, and Vinton swings the pair of plastic-swathed bodies into the cooler with the week's other dead awaiting their final ride south.

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