All Guts, No Glory
Three days ago, it might have answered to "Spot." Or "Checkers." Or - God forbid - "Pumpkin." But for now, the mutt heaped like soggy coal on the asphalt fringe of Miami Gardens Drive is fetching slippers for a higher authority. Its muzzle, framed by a Rorschach of dried blood, is crushed into an eerie grimace; tongue poked out incongruously, eyes dead as a doll's. Maggots already have mined its midriff, boring through fur and bone to the intestinal mother lode.
"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.)
Still, both women concede, the diversionary exits are few on what seems an interstate of horrors.
For starters, there are the creepy calls, the ones involving animals that have been subjected to something more than automotive reassembly. Barreling down U.S. 1, Dettman remembers the sinister specters of a skinned dog, another left dangling by its paw from a tree limb, a baffling pile of fifteen ducks, and the decapitated aftermath of alleged Santeria rites. "We get a lot of Santeria stuff around here," she says, pronouncing the word in the flat, gringo tone that makes it sound like a Southern California retirement community. "Chickens and goats with their heads cut off. Now that stuff I don't like. Sometimes they even leave change scattered on top of it - like they're trying to pay us for picking it up or something."
Here Dettman leans forward, hugging the steering wheel in a posture she assumes unconsciously when stalking a call. With a sudden twist, she bangs her vehicle onto a median and pulls alongside a brown lab mix. Like most roadkill, the animal lies on its side, as if sleeping, blood drops from its snout staining a nearby puddle scarlet. Pronouncing the kill "fresh," Dettman uses the inside of her bag as a glove, handily drawing the mongrel in by its tail and knotting the affair. Then she spins and hammer throws the sack into the back of her pickup, where it lands with a postmortem thud. The whole action, performed with hog-tying fury, takes perhaps fifteen seconds. Would that it were always so easy.
"Sometimes the animals are still alive," Dettman relates, as the reek of rotting flesh begins to seep through the air vents of her Chevy Sierra. "And you'll grab them and they get up like, `What the hell are you doing?' Plus, they can be dangerous if they're injured. That's when I call for support. I don't get paid enough to mess with anything dangerous. I'll never forget one little mutt that got injured. I put it in the cab of my truck and it went nuts, jumping all over the place, and shitting everywhere."
Vermin pose a more vile threat. While skilled at avoiding the parasites that compose her primary competition for the county's roadkill, Dettman is far from immune. With no small measure of embarrassment, she narrates a script of woe whose skin-creeping culmination is almost too icky to bear:
Scene 1: Dettman knots an innocent-looking bag and chucks it into her truck, inadvertently freeing a clutch of flesh-seeking lice.
Scene 2: Dettman slips on her sunglasses, unaware that two maggots have, in fact, crawled onto the lenses.
Scene 3: Screaming ensues.
Not to be outdone, partner Marts relates the following chiller:"Once, when I was throwing my bags into the incinerator, one of them broke - I guess it had been out in the sun too long - and this stuff came straight at my face. I was like `AAHHHHHH.' I don't know what it was, not blood. Some kind of fluid. Warm fluid. It was just like in the friggin' movies. Like in The Exorcist, when Linda Blair pukes in that guy's face, except it was me and dog stuff coming straight at me."
"But really," Dettman reassures, "we don't worry about disease or infection. What we worry about is getting hit." As it turns out, the most serious threat the roadkill duo faces is not handling, but becoming, roadkill. "You see that? People in this city don't stop," cries Dettman, as a smug-looking BMW whizzes within a foot of her pickup, which is stopped next to a disembowled tabby on NW 19th Avenue. "We used to do highways, but it's too dangerous, really. I tried to get the Highway Patrol to help me and you know what they say? `No way. We ain't gonna stop. They'll hit us, too.'"
Not surprisingly, roadkill is something of a hot potato within the corridors of civic duty. While the county used to handle Dade's 40-plus state roads, last year it returned the task to Florida's Department of Transportation, which in turn found the perfect men for the job: prisoners from the minimum-security Dade Work Camp.
"The inmates don't complain," notes Tony Ruiz, an area engineer at DOT's South Dade maintenance yard. "Tell you the truth, I figured it would be a good job for them to do. I saw it as a way for them to pay back their debt to society. I was hoping they would be like, `Wow, I shouldn't have robbed that bank.'" But it didn't quite elicit the desired effect.
"A lot of the guys loved it," Ruiz says. "They said, `C'mon, send us back to pick up another dead animal.' I had one crew that were barbarians. One time I sent them out to bury a horse and they left four inches of each hoof exposed - above ground. Absolute barbarians." Necrophilic high jinks aside, the program is a breeze, according to Ruiz. Because only two or three roadkill reports come in daily, crews hit them on the way to other calls, a measure that - along with the free labor - renders costs negligible.
Not so on the Florida Turnpike, where private contractors charge $85 to remove a critter under 100 pounds, $225 for big mamas. Though fenced off, Dade and Broward's share of the Turnpike chalks up ten to twenty calls per month, a minimum annual outlay of $15,300. (By contrast, the county pays Dettman and Marts about $80 per day for carting off about twenty animals).
"The guys are not fond of that particular job," admits Dick O'Brien, general manager of Joey Chambliss, Inc., the Turnpike's "emergency response" contractor. Exotic fare hasn't made the task any more enticing: Since last fall, crews have de-asphalted five alligators in South Florida; the most recent specimen was more than fifteen feet long. Turnpike contract engineer John Vecchio can hardly dispute the heady price of fetching the pike's slow-footed fauna, but the private service does guarantee calls are answered hastily, within three hours for jumbo kills.
The same motivation drives ever-immaculate Coral Gables, which shuns county service in favor of its own waste division. "We have the cleanest streets in the county, I would boast on that," boasts George Burrows, the Gables' preternaturally jolly Waste Division superintendent. With strictly enforced stray pet statutes and around-the-clock road crews, it's no wonder. And get this: Burrows says even police scout the city's roads for unsightly kills. (Oddly, roadkill's actual health risks pale before its aesthetic offenses. "I certainly wouldn't let kids play around a dead animal," offers Joseph Bernstein, an Animal Services vet. "It is a breeding place for bacteria. But I can't think of any specific medical threat. Mostly it's unpleasant.")
In tiny West Miami, the same cleanliness-before-austerity dictum applies. "Why don't we let the county do it? That's a question I've asked myself often, because our guys don't even like doing it," says Maria Gonzalez, secretary of public works. "Mainly, I think, because residents are so impatient that they call back within an hour or two if someone's not out there." In Miami, it's a simple case of demand. With ten to fifteen calls daily, the city has had to hire its own full-time staffer.
But the real stink over roadkill isn't over who cleans it up, but how it comes to be. (Yes, macabre as it might seem, there is an ontology to roadkill). Officials at Animal Services contend that the domestics splattered across Dade's roads are gruesome tribute to underfunding. "It comes down to the fact that we have a token Animal Services department with just enough to carry out the minimum necessary services," says Zoraida Diaz-Albertini, Animal Services' flustered director. In the past decade, Diaz-Albertini says, the department's staff has plummeted from 80 to 42. Last fall, after voters sank a proposed one-cent sales tax increase, the county cut off Animal Services altogether, forcing officials to jack up pet-licensing fees in order to support themselves. The withdrawal of county support meant a loss of about $900,000 annually, or 60 percent of the department's budget. For good measure, the county then reneged on a $1.1 million promise to expand Animal Services' cramped facility.
The result has been a woeful drop in enforcement - fifteen agents monitor all of Dade County - that allows more and more owners to let their pets roam free. And with fecund Fidos running rampant, the Animal Service Division's headquarters has become a death factory. Now stuffed with 400 to 450 pets, the office puts to sleep 2400 to 2500 animals every month.
Which, you might argue, qualifies the roadkill patrol as lucky. Except that no office worker knows the trauma of breaking the bad news to "master," in person. An often neurotic lot anyway, pet owners can become downright hysterical at the news of a dear departed domestic. Dettman says she's usually spared the task, since roadkill rarely have tags.
But not on this suddenly sunny Friday afternoon. After lunch Dettman spots a smallish cocker spaniel on NW Eighth Avenue. Obviously a pampered pet, it wears a license listing an address two blocks away. With a collapsing sigh, Dettman pulls up in front of the house and approaches an older woman watering plants. The woman, who apparently speaks no English, seems to grasp the key word "dog" (and perhaps the other key word, "dead") and runs inside to fetch her daughter.
The young woman understands instantly. "I only let her out for a few minutes last night," she says, trying to collect herself. "That's it." Between sobs, she describes the dog, "Cindy," as a playful one-and-a-half-year-old and ponders whether to retrieve its collar. Dettman, who clearly doesn't relish the idea of untying Cindy's bag - in fact, she isn't even quite sure which bag contains Cindy - looks a bit lost. "You shouldn't let the dog out even for a few minutes," she says at last, in her best attempt at a bedside manner. As she hops back into her truck, a second young woman pulls up and apprehensively eyes the Animal Services truck, its fetid bags shining like giant pebbles. "Here comes the other sister," says Dettman, over the AM radio doo wop of Dion and the Belmonts. "She's probably going to go in and hear about the dog and then they're both gonna be ballin'." The comment spills out, the regrettable upshot of a long day with two hours still left, coupled with an emotional callousness impossible to avoid in this line of work.
"Even when you work on the inside [of Animal Control] you get the sly comments," Marts notes. "People give you an attitude like, `How can you do this!' The fact is, somebody has to do it and if these people loved animals as much as we do, as much as they say they do, they could do it, too."
"When I first started out at Animal Services, I wanted to bring everything home. But after a while your feelings begin to change," Dettman observes. "You realize you're not going to be able to save them all." Given her current job, this is an especially useful epiphany.
Yet despite the shield of bravado both women carry into the field, each suffers stabs of vulnerability. A half-hour after picking up Cindy, Dettman comes upon a freshly maimed rottweiler. "Awwww, it's a puppy," she croons, inspecting a collar that hangs from its neck like a noose. Back in the truck, she confides, "I don't like doing the little ones. It's the same with the ambulance drivers. They feel more for the babies."
Even Marts, whose appetite for gallows humor appears insatiable, has her soft spots. Cruising Homestead on a recent Saturday morning, she comes upon a beautiful black Labrador. As she prepares to bag it, a frail woman in a robe the color of Pepto-Bismol emerges from a nearby house. "My poor husband nearly died this morning when he found it under his truck," she says, glancing in dismay at the animal's pancake-flat jaw. "I think the guy who owns it lives around here." Three blocks away, according to the tag. "I'll let Lost and Found tell him," Marts murmurs, a bit guiltily. "I can't stand to see a grown man cry because you can see how much it hurts them, and then I start crying and it ruins my whole day." But it's more than just tragic, it's awkward. "What are you supposed to say: `Uh, hey sir, I just picked up your dog...dead'?"
If the dynamic seems a bit strained, imagine the conundrum posed by cocktail chatter. "I usually tell people I work at Animal Control and try to leave it at that," Marts says cautiously. "When people ask, I say I take care of the animals and things like that," Dettman seconds. "Sometimes I tell them, but then it's always the same thing: `Oh Gawd, how can you do that, doesn't it stink!' And I'm like, `Of course it does!'"
Dettman's son Jason, on the other hand, accepts his mother's job as a gift from the God of nine-year-olds. "When I go to pick him up from school he'll say, `My mom picks up dead dogs. HEY MOM, didja get any dead dogs today?'" - and here the puppy-enthused imitation drops into a tone of muzzled, adult rage - "and I say, `Let's not talk about it right now, okay honey?'"
On the job, public feedback ranges from lewd whistles to supplicant thanks. Dettman claims she has been hassled in rougher parts of town and once was pulled over by a cop, who suspected she might be a drug dealer. (The county vehicle, equipped with an orange, police-style siren light, apparently didn't clue him in.)
One constant, Marts notes, is that rubberneckers never stick around long, especially late in the day, when the cargo grows rank. "What I like best is when you drive up to someone at a stoplight, like the sophisticated ones, you know, and they start doing this [Marts sniffs frantically], and they'll start looking around and, you know, you're dying laughing inside, but you've got to keep a straight face until they realize what it is. Then they roll up their window real fast and screech off."
In fact, both Dettman and Marts seem to have evolved major nasal blind spots. With the malodor of rotting flesh cloaking her truck like a miasma, Dettman jerks a thumb toward the crowded pickup bed and perkily announces, "It's pretty good today, no? I could eat back there right now and it wouldn't bother me." Which is pretty much what happened the day Marts pulled into a Church's Chicken drive-through with corpses in tow. "I saw the girl at the window start to look around real funny. It took me a while to realize the smell," she giggles. Another time Marts headed out to a call where a cadre of brawny men - the sort who in another instance might be inspired to catcall - had been reduced to vomiting wretches by an especially rancid pig carcass. "Me and Kim picked 'er right up," Marts cackles, lighting up a Menthol Misty.
Driving under a sky full of bruised clouds and muffled thunder, Marts's mood turns somber: "Sometimes we have people come in and show us pictures of their animals. I usually say I can't say for sure, because we pick up so many. I tell 'em to go to the area where I picked it up and ask the people around there because they saw the animal in good shape, before it got mangled."
The sagacity of this advice becomes apparent as Marts pulls up in front of a Kendall house. No carcass is in sight, only a feline-shape scar, equipped with tail, darkening a nearby lawn. The few bones that remain are connected, not by tendons or muscle, but flies. "This," Marts admits, brandishing her log book, "is when you write, `Decomposed.'"
But it is Dettman who claims bragging rights to the week's most disgusting retrieval. On her last call Friday afternoon, she pulls off the road at NW 22nd Avenue. Before her lies something that can no longer fairly be called a dead animal. No, it is something too monstrously rank, a monumental refiguration of bone and membrane, adipose and fur. "This guy got hit a few times," she says unnecessarily, surveying the 30-foot spatter of browned blood that tails the mess.
Just a few minutes earlier, Dettman had tried to evoke the horror of just such a sight: "You should see the ones where you can't even tell where its head is or its tail is and its guts are twisted and twisted and twisted like a wet towel." Here she had offered a visual aid, pumping her arms like a lunatic crankshaft. Now, face to tissue with the creature, she does not tarry, grabbing at a mealy, fibrous tube - the colon? - and dragging it into her polyurethane sarcophagus. "I've seen worse," she says, pausing to let the image sink in. "It's worse when they're bigger." And so ends her eulogy.
Back at Animal Services, Dettman parks near the incinerator and unloads a few bags onto a concrete slab. Nearby two grocery carts sit stacked to overflowing with pets that have been "put to sleep" - or, to bludgeon the euphemism - poisoned. The larger ones lie on the ground, toppled rigor mortis statues bathed in the effluvium of disenfectant.
Today, even the hulking incinerator is full, bones petrified in the unnatural skew of death, a set of sepia ribs resting like a gutted ark on a sizzling bed of carcasses. Dettman throws a couple of roadkills in before the chamber's door clogs. Plastic vanishes from the first corpse like an uncertain apparition, revealing the limp spaniel form of Cindy.
Eager to start the weekend, Dettman turns away from the furnace, marches to her truck, and, while Cindy floats overhead in gossamer smoke, scrubs the bed with the muscled intent of Lady Macbeth.
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