Actually, maybe the ass-vomiting Husky wasn’t the worst thing ever. Back in the van, Deppner tells me about the “I NEED HELP” cat.
“It was a slow shift,” says Deppner. “The graveyard shift. Back when I first started, I had to work nights. I got a call to go pick up a cat from a residence; the owner had just been arrested.”
It was a nondescript apartment building, Deppner recalls. The cat was in the bathroom. “Before this guy went out and did whatever he did, he killed and dismembered the cat,” Deppner says. “There was nothing left but pieces. He used the cat’s blood to write ‘I NEED HELP’ on the bathroom mirror. That might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen on the job.”
Next up is a call to pick up a sick kitten on Ainger Place SE, just off Alabama Avenue. “Not a nice place,” Deppner says. “We call it ‘Anger Place.’”
Deppner has some history with the block. “I was here a few months back, looking for a dog on the loose,” he says. “Middle of the day. I walked around the corner of the building and there was some guy laying there in a pool of his own blood, clutching a belly wound. No one around. I asked him, are you all right? He just moaned. I called 911 and told them someone was there bleeding to death.”
Did he die? Deppner shrugs. “No idea,” he says.
But if working animal control is a good way to develop a tough shell around one’s emotions, it’s also a good way to plumb the city’s socioeconomic diversity. In the District’s Northwest expanse, calls are often about possums in attics. There was one for a poodle in a tree. On the other side of town, the real estate is different, and so is the work.
Woodland Terrace, the residential complex on Ainger Place, features long expanses of bare dirt, scattered beer cans, overturned milk crates, and the occasional boarded-up door. It’s a maze of monolithic apartment blocks numbered with no discernible logic.
Today, there are sickly animals everywhere: on sidewalks, in parking lots, slinking between buildings and through overgrown vacant lots. One gaunt mangy cat hunkers down in front of us, licking an oily puddle. A ratty Pomeranian barks at us but scampers off when Deppner makes a grab for it. It’s a Sunday, so a growing number of kids trail after us, Pied Piper-style, talking shit in falsetto voices. When Deppner stops to call headquarters for directions, he places the cat carrier at his feet while talking on the phone, and one of the kids grabs it and runs off with it, to uncertain purpose. One of the older ones tears it out of his hands and brings it back to us.
Deppner says we’re here to pick up a cat. One of the kids points toward my feet. I’m standing on one. I’d been so focused on the scene that I haven’t even noticed its dead body, intestines unfurled across the pavement. The kids break out in uproarious laughter.
Deppner ascertains that the building he’s looking for is across the street. We make our way over, trailed by the kids. Two women and a gaggle of little girls emerge to hand over a tiny kitten wrapped in a small towel. Its eyes are encrusted shut and it’s mewling nonstop. They also hand us a popcorn bag. Inside is another kitten, unconscious and curled in the fetal position.
“That one’s neck is broke,” says one of the women.
“How do you know that?” Deppner asks.
She tells Deppner that a seven-year-old boy in the building broke it. The kid’s nine-year-old sister says she found the kitten and was cradling it when her brother ran up, grabbed it, and threw it down on the ground as hard as he could.
“This is the third cat he’s murdered,” the girl says.
As we talk, the young perp circles us on a little scooter.
“Why’d you kill that kitten?” Deppner asks.
The kid stares blankly at him. As we look on, the front wheel of his scooter hits a rock and he pitches violently face-first onto the pavement. No one expresses any sympathy for him. “God’s punishing you,” his sister says.
Deppner heads back to the van. The two kittens he’s collected are put in the back, to be euthanized later. As he pulls out, the van bumps over the boy’s scooter, which is in the middle of the parking lot.
You ran over his scooter, I say. It’s a tight lot, so Deppner has to do a five-point turn to exit. He bumps over the scooter again on the way out.
“Twice,” he says. “I ran over it twice.”