Where the Wild Dogs Are

by

02/17/2008

Dwight Street and Otsego Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Red Hook

Feraz and I are on the prowl in Red Hook. We drive slowly over wet cobblestone streets by the old wharves, past crumbling warehouses and parks bright with new grass over to Beard Street, where the silver frame of a new IKEA is going up. Two construction workers wave us over.

“Have you caught ‘em yet?” the stocky one asks.

Feraz says no, and asks if they’ve seen them around, but they haven’t, not since the morning.

“Do they run away from you guys?” I ask.

“They run away from me, ‘cause I’m ugly,” the stocky one laughs, sticking his thumb at his buddy. “They run towards him, because he’s handsome.”

Cruising on to Otsego Street, we pass their usual hangout – a sunny patch of grass – but the only thing moving is the slow crawl of traffic high on the Gowanus Expressway. Twenty minutes in we still haven’t got a visual, so we circle the streets yet again in a nauseous loop.

To be a dogcatcher in New York City, you need patience, cunning, and enough coordination to lasso a canine on the run. To tag along with dogcatcher, you either need an iron stomach or Dramamine.

Two other vans canvass nearby streets, one of them manned by Mike Pastore, the Head of Field Operations at Animal Care and Control, a 13-year-old nonprofit hired by the city’s Department of Health. A film crew from Animal Planet is along for the ride. It’s a big production, but we’re not after any old strays. We’re looking for the last of Red Hook’s wild dogs.

While not technically a wild species, like dingoes, people like to think of the dogs as something special. For generations, feral dogs sired by escaped and abandoned pets have roamed in Red Hook’s warren of junkyards and derelict factories. But as this old industrial waterfront develops, the wild dogs’ unnatural habitat is shrinking. That spring day in 2007, they numbered just two.

Earlier in the morning, Mike Pastore explained the plan of capture to his team on camera. “We’ve tried a few strategies that have failed. The baseball field failed. Our best shot is to get them down a narrow street like this one where they can be lassoed.”

This is the team’s fourth or fifth attempt to catch the dogs. On the last try, Feraz managed to lasso a bitch everyone calls Big Mama, but the remaining sibling pair are canny and cagey and always manage to slip away.

Feraz’s radio crackles to life and Mike orders us to meet on Dwight Street, where he’s gotten word on the pair’s location. Climbing out of the van, Feraz reminds me to take my rope along: earlier, he showed me how to lasso a dog, something he claims is “easy.” As we congregate by a high fence, a red-haired woman wearing purple clogs and green pants walks up to us with a Tupperware full of hotdog bits.

“They’re in there,” Harriet tells Mike sadly. “They never come out anymore.”

A set designer who owns eleven dogs, Harriet has been feeding Red Hook’s wild dogs for over a decade. Three years earlier, she even worked with Mike’s team to capture and spay four dogs living on the grounds of the closed Revere Sugar Plant where, oddly enough, Mike’s team re-released them. The reason, Mike told me, was that the wild dogs were safe and looked-after there, fed by everyone from the plant’s security guards to truck drivers to residents like Harriet.

But in 2006, the Revere Sugar Factory, with its conical dome and old conveyer structure that wobbled out into the bay was pulled down to make way for a mysterious project by Thor Equities, the same company that’s transforming Coney Island into a glitzy new resort. The dogs fanned out onto nearby streets rumbling with trucks and student drivers taking their road tests. Worried the dogs might get run over, Harriet called Mike again, with mixed feelings.

We all clamber under a gap in the wire fence, into an enclosure of rubble and graffitied concrete blocks. As the cameraman takes in the scene, Mike says that they’ll flush the dogs left to right. A cool breeze blows in, carrying the briny smell of the bay, and probably wafting our scent to the hiding dogs. Mike asks Harriet to point out the openings to the street, and she gestures vaguely saying, “Oh, there’s a zillion.” As it turns out, the high fence to our right is actually a swinging aluminum gate held shut by a rusty chain, a detail no one notices until it’s too late.

Suddenly, the dogs skitter out from behind some debris. A pair of slinky black-and-tan mutts, like a smaller, snakier breed of German Shepards, they break for the gate in a flash and squeeze through the six-inch opening.

“James, go go,” Mike shouts. “Feraz, you get to Bay Street.”

We dash across the rubble, the soundman nearly losing his balance on some corrugated metal sheeting. I run after Feraz with my lasso and as I slam the van door, Feraz accelerates rapidly over the asphalt, breaks, and yanks the van into a sharp u-turn. The dogs are running across Red Hook Park, dun streaks against the green grass, tails high in the air. They’re disappearing fast.

 

When my friend’s fiancé told me there were wild dogs in Brooklyn, I didn’t really believe him. Strays, sure, but the idea of dog packs roaming the streets sounded only mildly more credible than albino alligators swimming the sewer system. Still, he insisted, “There’s a pack of wild dogs in Red Hook.”

This gave me pause, because although I’d lived in nearby Cobble Hill for four years, I’d never actually been to Red Hook. I imagined the place as vaguely unsafe — an expanse of warehouses, falling-down docks and empty streets. As I discovered, Red Hook has big parks and good bars, but at the time, it seemed to me that if there were bands of marauding dogs somewhere in New York, they’d be in Red Hook.

Leafing through old newspapers, I found that the area really has hosted packs of dogs since at least 1895. “South Brooklyn’s Wild Dogs,” an old New York Times headline blared. “Some Have Left Homes for Evil Ways and Companions!” The dogs lived under piles of lumber on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, foraged for food in nearby garbage pails at night, and ventured forth by day only to sun themselves briefly before diving back underground. “They are wild dogs,” the reporter insisted. “After a fall of snow, a lumber yard where they have taken up their habitation looks as if it might have been visited by a pack of wolves from the tracks.”

These dogs were peaceable and shy, but wolfish behavior was not unheard of in Brooklyn. In 1913, for instance, a man escaped a pack of wild dogs in Highland Park by climbing into a tree, where he perched for hours while his “hungry pursuers sat beneath him with lolling tongues or ran about howling dismally.” Reading the newspaper accounts, I wondered what qualified the dogs as “wild” (as opposed to merely stray or feral). Maybe readers just liked the idea that even in citified America, predator creatures were running amok frontier-style

Newspapers reported on the doings of New York’s wild dogs on into the new millennium. My friend’s fiancé was right: wild dogs were reported in Red Hook in 2001, and far out in Queens, and in the Rockaway’s where, in 2002, Animal Care and Control caught more than three-dozen wild dogs after one of them bit a jogger. Wild dogs show up in the urban hinterlands, places that are lightly-owned and rarely policed. You’d think that in the Rockaways, residents would have been happy to have thirty-six violent dogs removed, but oddly, some stole and vandalized the dog traps laid out by Mike Pastore’s team. ”You have different factions out there,” he told The New York Times. ”You have some people who don’t want to see the dogs caught.”

Wild dogs, it seems, live where people tolerate, ignore, or even like having them there.

Brooklyn-dwellers have traditionally disliked dog-catching personnel, inspired either by libertarian verve or pure canine sympathy. In the 19th century, New York City dogcatchers were paid 30 cents for dog captured. Corrupted by this questionable reward system, dogcatchers regularly lured dogs off stoops and one even beat up an old lady to snatch her poodle. Once imprisoned, strays and vagabonds were drowned. When a dogcatcher was spotted coming down the street, neighbors shouted warnings to each other and sometimes took things further. In 1894, a mob in Flatbush gathered in a saloon, waited for the dogcatchers’ wagon and, when it rumbled into view, beat the men up, overturned the wagon, and freed fourteen dogs bound for the pound.

Angry mobs have never attacked Mike’s team but, then again, Animal Care and Control’s practices are much more humane (only very ill dogs are euthanized). And today, there are less stray dogs out there than ever before.

“Over the last ten years, you really don’t see packs of dogs like you used to back in the 80s and early 90s,” Mike told me. At the same time Giuliani was getting tough on crime and the homeless, Animal Care and Control cracked down on canines. Captured and neutered, the wild dogs of the late 1990s never had a chance to breed, which reduced their population. Also, the city has built up a lot of the empty lots and tenement houses where the dogs used to den. “In a nutshell,” Mike concluded. “Feral packs of dogs are not a problem in New York City anymore.”

“So there’s not a pack of wild dogs in Red Hook?” I asked him, feeling oddly disappointed.

“There are only two,” Mike said. “That doesn’t really count as a pack.”

When Mike invited me to go on a wild dog round-up in Red Hook, I happily accepted.

 

Feraz wheels the van around the curb, yellow siren flashing, and we speed toward the park, where I can still see the last of the dogs’ tails disappearing over a rise. But, looking at the beads of sweat gathering on Feraz’s brow, I suspect we’ve already blown it. A man mowing the lawn waves his arm, shouting, “They went that way,” and Feraz executes yet another gut-wrenching u-turn. We drive up onto the curb and into the park itself, but the dogs are gone.

Eventually, we rejoin the team on Dwight Street. The Animal Planet crew is filming Harriet. “These dogs have never been in a house,” she says, spreading her arms to encompass the concrete rubble and warehouses. “This is their house.”

Mike decides that we’ll wait another fifteen minutes and if they dogs don’t show, we’ll call it a day.

“They’re pretty smart, huh?” I say, and Mike agrees.

I ask if he thinks they’ll catch them eventually and everyone laughs.

Eli, a team-member whose hair is shaved to the scalp says, “I’ll have an afro before we catch those dogs.”

 

The next day, after getting a tip from Harriet, I decide to go looking for the wild dogs of Red Hook one more time.

The wild dogs are there on Van Brunt Street, just like Harriet said they’d be. There’s five or six of them, lean black-and-tan mongrels running around and barking behind a high chain fence, one pausing to sniff the new grass.

These dogs are puppies from the old Revere Sugar Plant, Harriet rescued them in 2004. Every April since, she’s held a birthday party for the dogs.

It’s a mellow Brooklyn scene – a pleasant afternoon in a community garden where people sit around with sodas, getting up every now and then to grab some rhubarb crumble from the picnic table or to dump ice cubes into a metal pot of water so that the dogs have something cool to drink too.

A truck driver named Carl who used to feed strays at the Revere Sugar Plant drove down from Syracuse to bring the dogs’ shared father, Scrappy, to the family reunion. Later in the afternoon, a financial analyst arrives with her three-legged dog Rudy from Philadelphia. Everyone else lives in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and works in finance, or advertising, or computers, or does school counseling, or runs pet stores.

I look closely at the dogs. They’re part Airedale and terrier and German Shepard and who knows what else – lithe and spry mutts, all with black backs and tawny faces, with black spots on their tongues like their sire Scrappy. The dogs may not be wild anymore, but they revert to a state of nature every time their owners’ backs are turned, lurking under picnic tables and, once or twice, rising up on their back legs to spar briefly until warned back down.

Before I go, Harriet presses me to eat a piece of birthday cake that both humans and dogs can eat: it is greasy but palatable, tasting sweetly of carrots. As I walk up Van Brunt Street homeward, I reflect that it’s somehow fitting to go looking for wild dogs in Brooklyn and to find them at garden party. Really, what could be more gentrified than that?

 

Abby Rabinowitz is an MFA candidate for creative nonfiction at Columbia University, where she also teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program.

Comments
Rate Story
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading...

§ One Response to “Where the Wild Dogs Are”

  • Maximo says:

    Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a entirely different subject but it has pretty much
    the same layout and design. Outstanding choice of colors!

§ Leave a Reply

Other Stories You May Like

Nearby Brooklyn, Red Hook Stories

I Would Have Wasted Those Thirty Dollars

by

There is a siren screaming past outside my apartment but it has nothing to do with me. My roommate is [...]

A Tree Dies in Brooklyn

by

When Minter comes home one day, one of her most cherished neighbors is gone and in its place, a hollow stump

Rollo

by

Rollo lived at the corner of Madison Street and Broadway. He was taller and stronger than my father. Rollo would [...]

Blood Brothers

by

This was no joke—it involved smuggling out one of Mom's sewing needles and actually drawing blood...

The Ayatollah of Nueva York

by

An INS dragnet; an ESL teacher.