The Alligator Whisperer On the trail of man and animal with D.C. animal control officer Ted Deppner

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Deppner on a call to rescue a snake trapped in netting in a backyard on Capitol Hill. View more photos here.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Ted Deppner says the worst thing he’s ever seen on the job was about 10 years ago. Deppner, a D.C. animal control officer, was called by cops to retrieve a dog—a Husky—whose owner had died. When he arrived at the apartment, the deceased owner’s body was still there. She had died face-down. The stench was overwhelming.

“By the time they’d found the body, the dog had eaten her entire ass,” Deppner says.

The Husky was quite happy to be rescued, though. He went willingly into Deppner’s van, which would carry him back to the shelter and, perhaps, to a new owner. But on the way, Deppner heard a familiar horking from the rear.

“The dog threw up his dead owner’s ass all over the inside of my van,” Deppner says. “That was before we got the new carriers with drains in the bottom so we could just hose them out. I had to clean it out myself. That was probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me on this job.”

A tall, amiable man given to wearing fatigues at work, Deppner, 51, will have been on the job for 30 years in October. He went to vet school, but never passed his boards; instead of becoming a vet tech—the veterinary equivalent of a nurse—he chose animal control. Over the years, he’s wrangled cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, deer, raccoons, opossums, lizards, monkeys, and once, back in 2004, a full-grown alligator. It lived in a dog run behind the city’s New York Avenue NE animal shelter for a year, living on a chicken a week, before someone drove it to a reptile sanctuary in Florida. Nowadays, Deppner says, he’d never swap his action-packed days for a veterinary office job.


My day with Deppner begins at a small, neat rowhouse in a woodsy area of 56th Place NE, near Marvin Gaye Park. It seems there’s a starving raccoon in an upstairs closet. Last week, the owners patched a hole in the roof to prevent raccoons nesting in the crawl space. Unfortunately, the raccoon was inside at the time. After a few days of frenzied scratching, it finally broke through. Now, the family is huddled downstairs. Up in the bedroom, a dresser is pushed up against the closet.

Deppner strides in and throws open the closet door. The animal is curled in a corner, hissing. In one smooth motion, Deppner loops the wire of a catchpole around the raccoon’s midsection and pulls it tight. The critter writhes convulsively. Deppner carries it out on the end of the pole, past the dumbfounded family. There’s a vague smile on his face.

For a guy who’s just cleared up a raccoon problem in a mundane corner of the District, Deppner is a pretty well-traveled animal rescuer. Among other things, he does work for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in his free time. “A few years back we went to India, to monitor the cattle situation there. Now that was bad. Me, the founder, Ingrid Newkirk, and her assistant, following all these trucks around southern India. To slaughter the cattle, they have to transport them from the Hindu areas, where they’re protected, to the Muslim areas. They just pack them into trucks and go barreling across the country. A lot of the cows have these long, pointed horns, so they’re just goring each other over this entire days-long journey.”

Newkirk remembers the trip well. “He has this calming effect, and he’s sturdy and uncomplaining, and he has a great awareness of an animal’s pain,” she says. “A lot of the animals we saw were in extreme pain—they’d had acid thrown on them, pieces of metal shoved through their noses so they could be led around—and Ted helped them all. For example, we went to a religious compound in India where they had all these sick goats and cattle around that were in horrible pain, but these monks did nothing because they believed that these animals were fated to suffer in this world. Ted very discreetly went from animal to animal and gave them painkillers.”

But, right now, we’re not in an exotic foreign locale. We’re standing on a forlorn patch of D.C. trying to figure out what’s next on the day’s agenda. Deppner consults his sheet, covered in his tiny handwriting.

“I’ve got a lot of follow-up visits scheduled, but other stuff always comes in,” he says. “Depends on the time of year. We’re just coming up on kitten season now, so we should get a bunch of those coming in. Right around this time of year, I also get a lot of calls about ducks. Ducklings. Downtown are a lot of rooftop gardens where ducks nest, and come spring there are all these cute little fluffy ducklings on top of these offices and penthouse apartments. People love them. But then one day the mother takes off flying and the ducklings try and follow and plummet nine stories to their death. So I try to get there before that happens.”

Photo Slideshow: On The Job With Ted Deppner

Our Readers Say

This is a great read. Thanks for the collecting the stories Mr. Schnieder. Mr. Deppner, a career civil servant, has an interesting gig. I am glad to see professionals are still around in DC Government.

But the most glaring takeaway (which Mr. Schneider hints at but doesn't explore deeply) is glaring disparity of ridiculous pet treatment is located throughout the city. As we have seen, the poor and stupid tend to be the ones who are more likely to mistreat, harm or generally not care for their animals. And the costs of this are borne by our tax dollars being spend to pay for Mr. Deppner's salary. Now, this doesn't count raccoon or possum emergencies, but certainly does count for dogs not being fed or pit bull attacks.

Finally, one thing the piece is missing is a graphical breakdown of the types of responses that Mr. Deppner handles. Does he get more "cat in the tree" calls or more dogs running rampant in Agier Pl, SE? Location and type of response would really aid the reader's understanding of the time of pet dealings that the City has to deal with.

I would hope our city managers would also have that data...which would help them allocate their precious resources more carefully.
Why do we need more funding for programs like "sanctuary" or "spay/neuter programs" when it sounds like what we really need is the pet owners, or prospective pet owners, to make better decisions? If you can't handle the responsibility of another living creature, you should not own one. All the government programs in the world aren't going to overcome the fundamental irresponsibility of certain segments of this city, whether it be the irresponsible bulldog owner in NW or the irresponsible pit bull owner in SE.

Perhaps we should dissuade these irresponsible owners from more bad decision-making by using what's already in place, i.e. animal abuse laws. Sounds like a better use of money to me.
One cannot generalize a "glaring disparity" of "the poor and stupid" tending to mistreat their animals based on an article which cherry picks the craziest stories to highlight an interesting line of work. Several of the stories made no hint as to socioeconomics (the "I need help" cat, the American bulldog with a cold, the ass-eating Husky).

Even if one attempts to analyze the socioeconomics latent in this article, the conclusions are much more subtle. What is the takeaway from the child being bit by the pit bull? Deppner concedes that the pit bull was just doing what a dog does, and the article makes no indication that this dog was mistreated or untrained. Since Chris is looking to play the blame game, who is at fault in this situation? The neighbor kid trying to force his way into the house? Tough to blame a kid. The neighbor kid's parents who weren't around much? We don't even know why they weren't around much. God forbid if they were both working. Obviously this is an ambiguous situation that warrants more than knee-jerk blame on the "poor and stupid." Ditto for the troubled cat-killing kid. That scene involved many things - roadkill, troubled kid who hurts animals - which can be seen in plenty of wealthier neighborhoods.

Granted the article does claim that animal control is a way to plumb socioeconomic diversity and implies that animal mistreatment is greater east of the river than west of Rock Creek. But is this animal mistreatment due to character flaws or more to to the fact that pets cost money and poor people by definition lack money? Many working poor on the margins may find themselves one day able to own pets and later unexpectedly -- due to layoffs, illness in family, rent increase, or some other curveball of life -- unable to properly feed or give medical care to an animal. Maybe the animal has to be abandoned because nothing else can be done.

A "blame the poor" attitude is unfounded and inhumane. I would like to see may tax dollars go to adult basic & GED eduction, job training and other programs to help the poor help themselves (and their animals). It is unfortunate that this article, in light of Chris' response, reinforces the claims that some DC residents care more about their animals than they do about their fellow DC community members.
@ Response to Chris: It's very typical of City Paper readers, whatever the story, to thrown in their pissy little socioeconomic manifesto to "explain" the world they live in or the world they like to bitch about, rather. It's not just an internet thing, it's a cocktail party thing. Usually, people like that bug their eyes out or make a snap judgement about where a party guest lives or works or how they dress or what car they drive or don't drive.
But if they post some b.s. on a web-site and you question them about it? They get all upset and call you a reverse racist or a sideways and upside down racist and uppity-dom abounds. Just ignore people like that and move on. Some people have nothing better to do than blame people in public housing or in a tough neighborhood about something. Why not? It's the only string they have to play on the only answer they have is to insult someone.
Officer Deppner will always be the best ACO there is.................
I give Mr. Deppner credit for doing a difficult, heartbreaking, sometimes dangerous job. (I especially appreciated his work on the scooter).

What I could have done without was the PETA propaganda, or I would have liked to see CP include an alternative point of view.

There are many in the world of animal rescue and sheltering who vehemently disagree with Ms. Newkirk's view that animals are better dead than rescued. There is an entire movement which has been made a reality in major cities where a commitment is made to end the killing of healthy animals and to find a good home for each and every one of them.

When the community and the leadership of the shelter make it their goal, it works.
Ingrid Newkirk loves killing animals. PETA's sole animal shelter, located in Virginia, kills 92% of the animals it takes in. And not necessarily by methods accepted as humane and decent. Animals from PETA's shelter have been taken out of the shelter to be shot and dumped in grocery door dumpsters.

Ingrid Newkirk used to work for the Washington Humane Society. She didn't think they were killing enough animals. She would stay until after business hours, and select the animals she believed were better off dead, and kill them herself.

I am not for a minute denigrating the good work of Mr. Deppner in DC. But the article did not need the heavy helping of PETA better-off-dead proselytizing, and if you would like to read more about why it is so wrong, visit It will enlighten you immensely.
Thanks for giving Ted Deppner some of the applause he deserves. I work at Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast DC, part of the territory he serves as an animal control officer. The Hospital's grounds were home to farm cats before 1800 and home to their descendants and abandoned cats since the Hospital was established in 1855. We have about 30 feral cats currently living on the grounds and interacting with staff and patients. Officer Deppner patiently provides advice about the felines' care, helps trap and transport them to the Washington Humane Society's CatNip program for neutering and shots, and keeps both cats (and humans) healthy. The importance of these cats to persons confined to institutions such as Saint Elizabeths Hospital is obvious to me everyday. They are proof of Temple Grandin's observation that "animals make us more truly human." Thanks, Ted, for all you do for animals and for humans.
This is a great article, and I'm glad there are people like Mr. Deppner who cares about animals. The way people treat animals, children included, is shameful and heartbreaking. I'm devastated.
I am the owner of the dog that was viciously attacked on Ames Pl., so I know personally whereof Mr. Deppner speaks. My sweet, unassuming dog sustained 4 deep puncture wounds requiring over 20 stitches and two large wound drains. KK is a German shepherd/pit bull mix, which I believe are purposefully bred solely as attack animals. Mr. Marshall has yet to reimburse the veterinarian fees, and I don't expect he will.
How on earth is a dog that has had multiple bite incidents still in a home? How is that dog's owner not cited? How is the ultimatum of spaying or removal enforced? I was under the impression that once a dog has bitten a person and has a history of aggression, as noted by multiple visits to the same address, that the dog would be humanely euthanized...on a separate note, I met Mr. Deppner after calling animal control for a severely emaciated and abandoned dog left tied to the front gate of a home and appreciated his professionalism. While the dog ultimately was euthanized (discovered after calling the shelter for follow up inquiries to the dog's status), I find solace in knowing he is available to provide the assistance these voiceless animals deserve.

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