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

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By 1 p.m., Deppner’s on a call on the 2200 block of Nicholson Street SE, near L’Enfant Square. The previous week, there was a minor furor at the animal shelter office when a TV station called and said they were working on a story about a child who’d been bitten in the face by a pit bull. According to the reporter, the kid’s upper lip had been almost torn off, and he’d needed 20 stitches.

The media call was the first animal control had heard about the incident. No one had reported a bite; the police hadn’t forwarded any paperwork about an attack. If this thing hit the news with animal control still in the dark, they’d look like incompetents. Then, this morning, a woman had called in asking to surrender a pit bull that, she said, had bit a child in the face. Could it be the same story?

Deppner arrives at a small white row house, where a child answers the door and lets him in. Inside, a woman identifies herself as the animal’s owner. “It’s a sweet dog,” she says as the pit bull sits, tail wagging. “It’s a shame. My man gave it to me when he went to jail, and I’ve had it ever since. But now that this biting thing happened, I don’t know if I should keep him around.”

“What happened?” Deppner asks.

There’s a kid that hangs around the neighborhood, the woman explains. His parents aren’t always around; he panhandles sometimes. He’d slept over a few times, since he was friends with her son. The day of the bite, this kid was trying to force his way into the front door for some reason. Her son was trying to hold it shut. When he finally burst through the door, the pit bull was there to meet him. The dog lunged, biting the kid in the face.

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“So it was a provoked bite,” Deppner sighs.

She continues. Almost immediately, she says, the kid’s mother showed up and called the police, who came out and filed a report. Someone messed up, though—this report was never forwarded to animal control, as is standard procedure. She also called the TV crew, who showed up asking questions. Now, with the threat of a lawsuit looming, the owner wants to give up the dog.

Deppner explains what this will mean. A behavioral evaluation and then either adoption, placement in some sort of sanctuary program, or...euthanasia. She nods, and signs the paper.

The woman’s mother, who also lives there, brings the dog over. Dino is a hulking, powerful animal. But right now he seems friendly, wagging his tail and sniffing our hands. The mother asks if it’s OK if she takes Dino out for a walk before Deppner takes her away. Deppner says sure.

Waiting by the van, Deppner looks unhappy. “The dog was only doing what a dog does,” he says. “Someone was trying to break into the house. The dog was protecting its territory.”

As for what happens now, things don’t look good. “A pit bull, with a bite history?,” he says. “Adoption is probably out. There are programs, but spots are hard to come by. That just leaves euthanasia.”

After a few minutes, the woman’s mother returns with the dog. “He’s a good dog,” she says. She’s clearly Dino’s main caretaker. Though her daughter is the ostensible owner, we haven’t seen her pet or otherwise handle Dino, and somewhat conspicuously, she referred to the dog as “it.” The mother, though, is taking this hard. “We used to have people shooting up in our backyard, a crack house next door. He ran them all out. Never had any problems before.”

“It wasn’t the dog’s fault,” Deppner says.

“Is there any chance we could get the dog back later?” the mother asks in a small voice. “Maybe I could find a friend who could take him?”

“I can’t really answer that,” says Deppner. “Maybe.”

Deppner puts the pit bull in the back of the van and we drive off to the next call. Back at the shelter, Dino becomes aggressive toward other dogs and to the shelter staff. Seeing that adoption isn’t an option, and under perpetual pressure to free up the shelter’s limited kennel space, Deppner, exercising his authority as senior animal control officer, makes a judgment call. That evening, Dino is euthanized.


“Come to think of it,” Deppner says, “maybe the worst thing was when someone called me and reported that their dog had been attacked. Someone had slashed it across the throat, they said. So I go over and look at the dog and yeah, it’s got this horrible bloody wound across its neck. This animal was really suffering. So I’m examining the wound and it turns out that it had been wearing the same collar since it was a puppy, and it had grown into this tiny collar and was being slowly strangled to death. And these people had no idea.”

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 http://bit.ly/flnNB7 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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