Deppner’s phone chirps with a report of “two dogs running wild” on Anacostia Road SE. He turns the van around and soon we’re in a small cul-de-sac next to a bank of apartment buildings looking for the animals. Three men see the white van with blue siren on top and immediately sprint into a nearby doorway.
No dogs, though. Deppner cruises up and down the street, but there are cars parked on both sides, so it’s hard to see much. After three or four circuits, Deppner spots something. Sprinting along the sidewalk is a huge brown Cane Corso, which looks like a cross between a pit bull and a rhinoceros, and a small Jack Russell terrier puppy. Every few feet the Jack Russell leaps into the air and punches his two front paws into the Cane Corso’s side, and the Cane Corso turns to nuzzle the Jack Russell. They seem to be having the time of their lives.
Deppner floors it and pulls into a narrow street about a block ahead. A couple dozen people are leaning against cars and standing on stoops. When the van screeches to a halt, everyone freezes to see what happens next. Then the Cane Corso hurtles into view and people sprint for doorways or duck behind cars. One man looks on, horrified, and wraps his arm protectively around an elderly woman tottering along.
Deppner leaps out of the van, trots parallel to the two dogs for a few feet, throws a rope leash, lasso-style, over the Cane Corso’s neck, and scoops the Jack Russell up with his other hand. The entire thing takes less than 10 seconds. A smattering of cheers goes up from the crowd. “That was awesome, man!” the protector of the old lady shouts.
The day is still young, but the truck is full. We head back to the cramped New York Avenue shelter to offload the passengers: four dogs, two cats, and the raccoon.
As anyone who’s seen Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer show on the National Geographic channel knows, working with animals is mostly a matter of body language, of projecting confidence. It’s something subconscious, and as such, it can’t be forced or faked or learned. Deppner has it in spades. All of the animals we encounter, even the wild ones, seem to defer to Deppner. Of course, like a savant, Deppner can’t quite articulate what it is.
But it’s not like Deppner hasn’t had his failures: He’s been bitten dozens of times and accepts it as inevitability. He still pulls his hand back when a dog snaps at him, but says it’s only a matter of self-preservation, not fear.
“With most animals, it’s a battle of the will,” Deppner says. “They don’t really want to fight. They just want you to back down. But if you show that you’re not going to retreat, most of the hostility usually disappears. Then it’s a different game.” In Deppner’s experience, the dogs most likely to bite him are Chows. “Those are mean, mean animals. Unpredictable, moody,” he says. “You know what else are bad? Cocker spaniels. Horrible biters.”
But Deppner says a job that exposes him to the worst of animal behavior—and, perhaps, to even worse human behavior—doesn’t actually get him down. Not even the parade of euthanasia. “It still bothers me to have to put down a healthy animal,” he says. “But the way I justify it is that they’re better off dead. Their lives were mostly just suffering.”
All the same, he has his moments. “Some guy called me up a couple weeks ago and wanted to give up his American bulldog,” Deppner says. “It was sick, he said. But all it had was an upper respiratory thing. A cold, basically. Thirty dollars at the vet. But he couldn’t be bothered. I spent half an hour on the phone with him, convincing him to keep his own dog. And then the next day, he calls back. He’s changed his mind, wants to give it up again. So I’m telling him what could happen to the dog if he surrenders it, including euthanasia, and he starts berating me—me!—about being a dog killer. I was like, hey, I’m not the problem here.”
Deppner, technically, doesn’t work for the D.C. government. He works for the Washington Humane Society, which has the District’s animal control contract. But like a lot of government careerists, he spends a bunch of time talking about how scarce resources have gotten, and how few people there are to do a thankless task. “I generally let my bosses worry about the budget stuff, but it seems like there’s less money to go around these days,” he says.
In terms of pure dollars, though, funding has climbed. The present contract, in which WHS is paid by the D.C Department of Health to operate the city’s animal shelter and oversee all animal-control operations, dates back to 2004. According to the D.C. Department of Health, the city paid WHS just under $2 million in 2004, plus transportation and veterinary expenses. The number has climbed to just more than $2.7 million for 2011. The average number of calls a year—about 15,000—has held steady.
Doing what Deppner does, it’s easy to feel like you’re always losing ground. His job essentially involves putting a Band-Aid on a problem that wouldn’t exist in the first place if the District’s humans didn’t behave like a bunch of animals. Like our health care system, urban animal control follows the model of forgoing prevention and education—in favor of punting on the problem, then slapping together a crude endgame solution when it’s already too late. Deppner feels overwhelmed for the same reason emergency-room doctors feel overwhelmed.
After all, those two kittens from Aigner Place wouldn’t have been born into neglect if there was a better spay/neuter program, nor would Dino have been put down if there was more money for rehabilitation and sanctuary. But this is America, where we spend billions on diabetes treatment but don’t bother taking the soda machines out of public schools.
And so Deppner is resigned to having a larger than expected chunk of his career involve the grim business of facilitating euthanasia. His old pal Ingrid Newkirk, of PETA, says it’s not a horrible thing.
“For a lot of these animals, [euthanasia] is the kindest thing that’s ever happened to them,” Newkirk says. “There’s no magical place where we can put all these animals. In a lot of these cases, the animals are injured or suffering and there’s really nothing else to do. It’s a matter of taking limited resources and using them to do the most possible good. These are hard choices, but what else can you do? You can ignore the problem, walk away, but that’s not helping anyone.”
It’s not the worst thing he’s ever seen, but here’s one last unusual thing Ted Deppner, animal rescuer, has done. It was in the Philippines, where he went to veterinary school at Araneta University. Among other delicacies, the local cuisine included dog. The meat isn’t on the menu in the main places, but it’s not hard to find either, he says.
It’s not bad, Deppner says.