Those who have rescued a dog know firsthand that training, socialization, and bonding are a gradual process. They also understand that a mixed-breed mutt can be right up there with a pedigreed purebred when it comes to loyal, caring companionship. So the opening lyrics to rapper Daniel “Hush” Carlisle’s Rise Again are, in a way, intriguingly prophetic:
Sometimes, you gotta crawl before you walk / You gotta whisper before you talk / But when the right time comes / You’ll be the one to rise …
Prophetic in the sense that they could well be describing the earliest days — and the gradual, committed, tenacious rise to prominence — of Detroit Dog Rescue (DDR). Initially formed in 2011 as a nonprofit, foster-based canine rescue group, DDR was conceived to help ease the burden on Detroit’s overloaded animal control operation. In 2014, however, the initiative achieved a new milestone when DDR opened the city’s very first no-kill shelter facility and secured a state permit. This shelter, located on the city’s east side, is presently equipped to house roughly 30 canines.
From the very beginning, DDR’s pedigree was unique. The group was founded by award-winning rapper and Detroit native Carlisle and television producer Monica Martino. Carlisle was first approached by Martino in 2010 to participate in her Discovery series, A Dog’s Life. The show — intended to chronicle what many in Detroit have characterized as a near-rampant stray dog problem — purportedly rankled city officials to the point that it was eventually taken off the air. But Carlisle and Martino were undaunted in their determination to bring increased awareness to the matter. That’s when they decided to launch DDR.
Despite the relative notoriety of its founders, getting DDR off the ground was nonetheless a concerted grassroots effort. “In the early days, we started out with maybe $40 in donations,” says Kristina Millman-Rinaldi, the group’s executive director. “If we needed to sit on a sidewalk with jars requesting spare change, we did it — and we still do. Our goal is doing anything possible to help these dogs. Our current fundraising efforts may be a little more diversified, but that central goal has never changed.”
It may, in fact, be argued that the dogs DDR is trying to help require a special degree of intervention. “In terms of what they’ve experienced, the dogs who come to DDR tend to represent the worst of the worst,” explains Millman-Rinaldi, describing canines who’ve somehow (and in some cases barely) managed to survive gang fights, drug raids, teardowns, house fires, domestic shootings, and more. She says the city’s dogs often wander loose in the streets; they sometimes form packs, other times take up residence in the backyard of a well-meaning resident who provides food and/or water. According to DDR, those canines picked up by Detroit’s animal control team must be frequently euthanized due to limited funding and available resources.
Reports have varied widely regarding the precise number of Detroit strays in existence. In 2013, for example, Bloomberg News reported that up to 50,000 dogs were roaming in packs around the city. This figure was picked up and broadly circulated, even though many familiar with Detroit’s animal population maintained the estimate was too high. The Detroit Free Press itself pointed out that such a number would average out to roughly one dog for every 14 residents — essentially, 360 dogs per square mile. But regardless, outlets such as Bloomberg and The Huffington Post have cited a marked shortage of city resources equipped to deal with the existing stray population.
Exact numbers might be challenging to pin down — but according to Millman-Rinaldi, they’re largely beside the point. “Whether it’s 5,000 dogs or 50,000 dogs, the city definitely has an observable, ongoing problem, which DDR is determined to address,” she says.
Such determination extends well beyond DDR’s no-kill shelter facility. According to Millman-Rinaldi, the group maintains a five-person staff, a three-person board of directors, and a core volunteer group of roughly 45 people. These resources are continuously mobilized to address the issue on multiple fronts. First and foremost, this means continuing to work with an established and growing DDR foster care base that takes in surrendered dogs who can’t be accommodated within the existing shelter facility. Some of these canines, along with DDR shelter dogs, are featured at the organization’s various pet adoption events.
“Our foster mom Amanda is just one example, and she’s amazing,” says Millman-Rinaldi. “She takes in many of our incoming puppies, who would be far too traumatized in a shelter environment. To date, she’s fostered more than 50 puppies for DDR.”
Efforts also include the ongoing support and education of Detroit-area pet owners. “In many cases, for instance, we meet families who absolutely love their dog, but haven’t been truly informed about the importance of spaying or neutering,” Millman-Rinaldi explains. She talks to many of these owners in person, helping them appreciate the ongoing health and population-control advantages. DDR also works with residents to help socialize some of these dogs, as well as many of the dogs in its care. “We also put owners in touch with low-cost veterinary clinics and vaccination providers throughout the area,” she adds.
Food is another critical part of the equation, especially given added financial burdens in the wake of the Great Recession. “We never want to see a dog become separated from a committed, caring owner just because of temporary financial hardship,” says Millman-Rinaldi. She explains that once DDR can verify a dog has been spayed or neutered, the group will often assist by furnishing a provisional supply of food. “Our goal is not to enable, but to provide community support,” she explains. The group’s annual Pet Pantry Project in December is another way that DDR distributes food and treat bags to local community residents who are struggling to feed their pets. Well-regarded pet food brands like Dog for Dog, Halo and Nutro donate their products to help make these continued initiatives possible.
But there’s another ongoing hurdle that poses a continuing challenge for shelter and rescue groups like DDR. That’s the existence of current laws dictating that these organizations can harbor animals, but not actually capture them. This latter function is reserved solely for members of Detroit’s animal control team, which has the option of relocating the dogs to shelters for re-socialization and eventual adoption. This creates for DDR a frustrating gray area — particularly when it comes to helping dogs who, technically, have no official owner.
“I might get a call from a resident about a dog being kept in a backyard,” notes Millman-Rinaldi, “only to find that the animal is really a stray that’s hanging around the back porch because a sympathetic resident provided some food.” Under current law, she explains, DDR is not permitted to take that dog in without an official surrender from a designated owner. “And certainly,” adds Millman-Rinaldi, “there are plenty of times we do encounter actual owners who simply refuse to surrender a hurting or neglected pet, for a variety of reasons.”
This has spurred DDR to begin working with the city’s current administrative officials, prompting reviews of existing regulations for taking in strays. Many rescue advocates agree that the current approach is outdated and impractical — though they also recognize the larger reality of a judicial system that continues to regard animals as mere property.
“This past summer, we sat down with [current city mayor] Mike Duggan,” says Millman-Rinaldi, calling Duggan a “true friend of rescue.” As a result, review committees have been assembled to consider and discuss existing guidelines. Millman-Rinaldi adds that this represents an unprecedented step forward, as many existing pet-related laws have been on the books since the 1930s or earlier.
Within the next five years, DDR hopes to expand its existing shelter space into a larger, state-of-the-art rescue center. In the meantime, the group continues its numerous fundraising initiatives so that it may continue to help support the community. Efforts currently include ongoing grant applications, DDR merchandise sold via the main website, and a range of popular events such as the Canine and Couture fashion show each March, a yearly golf event in July, and a Walk 2 Rescue outing in October.
“There’s a reason dogs are considered man’s best friend,” observes Millman-Rinaldi. “They forge a one-of-a-kind bond with human beings. So we’re here to keep these canines safe. Many other shelters would simply put most of these animals down, but we’re committed to uniting them with human companions who will love them for life.”
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.