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

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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.

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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.

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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