The Town That Cried Dog: Why The 50,000 Stray Dogs Stat Makes No Sense

August 23, 2013, 9:37 AM

I know a thing or two about Detroit’s stray dog problem. A couple years ago my wife came across a puppy scavenging in a trash bin on Bagley in southwest Detroit. The dog, a Rottie mix, was friendly and a neighbor said he’d been hanging around the area for a few weeks. Our initial plan was to foster the dog until we could find him a home, but after about two hours, we decided to keep the little bastard. We named him Mencken, after my favorite writer.

Detroit seems to be a popular place to dump unwanted dogs, and so many other things, for city residents and suburbanites. It's a problem for both humans and dogs, but the first step to addressing that problem is to stop spreading imaginary statistics and hysteria about post-apocalyptic packs of ravenous canines.

The claim that Detroit has 50,000 strays roaming the streets will get your attention. However, since the number isn’t based on hard data or verifiable research, it’s only prudent to ask if this guesstimate is in any way reasonable. 

If there were, as has been alleged, 50,000 dogs in Detroit, wouldn't they’d be omnipresent?

One thing about dogs is they know how to find food. If there was a wild dog for every 14 humans in Detroit, as the 50,000 number would work out to, there wouldn’t be a dumpster or restaurant/grocery store alley that wasn’t overrun with scavenging dogs. That isn’t the reality in Detroit. Occasionally, you’ll see a dog but it isn't like seeing birds and squirrels in a park. They aren't literally everywhere.

Just Wednesday, my colleague Lauren Davies and I spent the afternoon driving Gratiot and its surrounding neighborhoods. We saw many things and many people, but no wild dogs. Not in the dumpsters behind Popeye’s or White Castle, not on streets where rows of trash bins sat on manicured lawns awaiting the garbage man, and not in the area’s vacant fields. If one wild dog existed for every 14 Detroiters, then it stands to reason we would have seen at least a couple that day. 

Even experts who deal with Detroit’s dog problem scoff at the 50,000 number.

Detroit Free Press: [The 50,000] estimate equates to one abandoned dog for every 14 Detroit residents. It’s about 360 stray dogs per square mile in the city. At least one leader of a animal care nonprofit doesn’t believe it.

“That’s not true,” said Kristen Huston, Detroit team leader for southwest Detroit clinic All About Animals Rescue. “That number has been floating around for a couple of years.”

Less important than what you or I may think or what someone like Ms. Huston says, is the lack of supporting evidence to back up the 50,000-dog estimate. It’s pure guesswork with all the accuracy of someone predicting lottery numbers.

Guesswork may be sufficient for someone like Detroit Dog Rescue’s Daniel “Hush” Carlisle to proclaim there are 50,000 stray dogs (or even 100,000, as he claims in this video) in Detroit, but these numbers do little to help us understand the scale of the real problem. I get that DDR is something of a local cause célèbre right now, but let’s be at least world-weary enough to recognize that an organization raising money based on concerns about abandoned dogs may have good reason to use garbage statistics to improve their sales pitch. There's probably nothing malicious about it, just well-intentioned opportunism.

Everyone agrees Detroit has a dog problem. The very real statistics about postal workers attacked by dogs in Detroit compared with other cities bear that fact out. Propagating phony-baloney numbers to spike interest in Detroit’s strays may attract attention in the short-run, but in the long-run it can only harm the cause by undermining credibility.

As someone who cares greatly about the health and welfare of dogs, and as someone who has adopted a Detroit’s stray, I’d like to see us address this problem with less hysteria than Sen. Joe McCarthy’s infamous hunt for communists.

Right now, 50,000 stray dogs in Detroit sounds a lot like 205 reds inside the State Department.

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