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.”