Deppner on a call to rescue a snake trapped in netting in a backyard on Capitol Hill. View more photos here.
Deppner on a call to rescue a snake trapped in netting in a backyard on Capitol Hill. View more photos here. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Ted Deppner says the worst thing he’s ever seen on the job was about 10 years ago. Deppner, a D.C. animal control officer, was called by cops to retrieve a dog—a Husky—whose owner had died. When he arrived at the apartment, the deceased owner’s body was still there. She had died face-down. The stench was overwhelming.

“By the time they’d found the body, the dog had eaten her entire ass,” Deppner says.

The Husky was quite happy to be rescued, though. He went willingly into Deppner’s van, which would carry him back to the shelter and, perhaps, to a new owner. But on the way, Deppner heard a familiar horking from the rear.

“The dog threw up his dead owner’s ass all over the inside of my van,” Deppner says. “That was before we got the new carriers with drains in the bottom so we could just hose them out. I had to clean it out myself. That was probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me on this job.”

A tall, amiable man given to wearing fatigues at work, Deppner, 51, will have been on the job for 30 years in October. He went to vet school, but never passed his boards; instead of becoming a vet tech—the veterinary equivalent of a nurse—he chose animal control. Over the years, he’s wrangled cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, deer, raccoons, opossums, lizards, monkeys, and once, back in 2004, a full-grown alligator. It lived in a dog run behind the city’s New York Avenue NE animal shelter for a year, living on a chicken a week, before someone drove it to a reptile sanctuary in Florida. Nowadays, Deppner says, he’d never swap his action-packed days for a veterinary office job.

My day with Deppner begins at a small, neat rowhouse in a woodsy area of 56th Place NE, near Marvin Gaye Park. It seems there’s a starving raccoon in an upstairs closet. Last week, the owners patched a hole in the roof to prevent raccoons nesting in the crawl space. Unfortunately, the raccoon was inside at the time. After a few days of frenzied scratching, it finally broke through. Now, the family is huddled downstairs. Up in the bedroom, a dresser is pushed up against the closet.

Deppner strides in and throws open the closet door. The animal is curled in a corner, hissing. In one smooth motion, Deppner loops the wire of a catchpole around the raccoon’s midsection and pulls it tight. The critter writhes convulsively. Deppner carries it out on the end of the pole, past the dumbfounded family. There’s a vague smile on his face.

For a guy who’s just cleared up a raccoon problem in a mundane corner of the District, Deppner is a pretty well-traveled animal rescuer. Among other things, he does work for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in his free time. “A few years back we went to India, to monitor the cattle situation there. Now that was bad. Me, the founder, Ingrid Newkirk, and her assistant, following all these trucks around southern India. To slaughter the cattle, they have to transport them from the Hindu areas, where they’re protected, to the Muslim areas. They just pack them into trucks and go barreling across the country. A lot of the cows have these long, pointed horns, so they’re just goring each other over this entire days-long journey.”

Newkirk remembers the trip well. “He has this calming effect, and he’s sturdy and uncomplaining, and he has a great awareness of an animal’s pain,” she says. “A lot of the animals we saw were in extreme pain—they’d had acid thrown on them, pieces of metal shoved through their noses so they could be led around—and Ted helped them all. For example, we went to a religious compound in India where they had all these sick goats and cattle around that were in horrible pain, but these monks did nothing because they believed that these animals were fated to suffer in this world. Ted very discreetly went from animal to animal and gave them painkillers.”

But, right now, we’re not in an exotic foreign locale. We’re standing on a forlorn patch of D.C. trying to figure out what’s next on the day’s agenda. Deppner consults his sheet, covered in his tiny handwriting.

“I’ve got a lot of follow-up visits scheduled, but other stuff always comes in,” he says. “Depends on the time of year. We’re just coming up on kitten season now, so we should get a bunch of those coming in. Right around this time of year, I also get a lot of calls about ducks. Ducklings. Downtown are a lot of rooftop gardens where ducks nest, and come spring there are all these cute little fluffy ducklings on top of these offices and penthouse apartments. People love them. But then one day the mother takes off flying and the ducklings try and follow and plummet nine stories to their death. So I try to get there before that happens.”

Actually, maybe the ass-vomiting Husky wasn’t the worst thing ever. Back in the van, Deppner tells me about the “I NEED HELP” cat.

“It was a slow shift,” says Deppner. “The graveyard shift. Back when I first started, I had to work nights. I got a call to go pick up a cat from a residence; the owner had just been arrested.”

It was a nondescript apartment building, Deppner recalls. The cat was in the bathroom. “Before this guy went out and did whatever he did, he killed and dismembered the cat,” Deppner says. “There was nothing left but pieces. He used the cat’s blood to write ‘I NEED HELP’ on the bathroom mirror. That might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen on the job.”

Next up is a call to pick up a sick kitten on Ainger Place SE, just off Alabama Avenue. “Not a nice place,” Deppner says. “We call it ‘Anger Place.’”

Deppner has some history with the block. “I was here a few months back, looking for a dog on the loose,” he says. “Middle of the day. I walked around the corner of the building and there was some guy laying there in a pool of his own blood, clutching a belly wound. No one around. I asked him, are you all right? He just moaned. I called 911 and told them someone was there bleeding to death.”

Did he die? Deppner shrugs. “No idea,” he says.

But if working animal control is a good way to develop a tough shell around one’s emotions, it’s also a good way to plumb the city’s socioeconomic diversity. In the District’s Northwest expanse, calls are often about possums in attics. There was one for a poodle in a tree. On the other side of town, the real estate is different, and so is the work.

Woodland Terrace, the residential complex on Ainger Place, features long expanses of bare dirt, scattered beer cans, overturned milk crates, and the occasional boarded-up door. It’s a maze of monolithic apartment blocks numbered with no discernible logic.

Today, there are sickly animals everywhere: on sidewalks, in parking lots, slinking between buildings and through overgrown vacant lots. One gaunt mangy cat hunkers down in front of us, licking an oily puddle. A ratty Pomeranian barks at us but scampers off when Deppner makes a grab for it. It’s a Sunday, so a growing number of kids trail after us, Pied Piper-style, talking shit in falsetto voices. When Deppner stops to call headquarters for directions, he places the cat carrier at his feet while talking on the phone, and one of the kids grabs it and runs off with it, to uncertain purpose. One of the older ones tears it out of his hands and brings it back to us.

Deppner says we’re here to pick up a cat. One of the kids points toward my feet. I’m standing on one. I’d been so focused on the scene that I haven’t even noticed its dead body, intestines unfurled across the pavement. The kids break out in uproarious laughter.

Deppner ascertains that the building he’s looking for is across the street. We make our way over, trailed by the kids. Two women and a gaggle of little girls emerge to hand over a tiny kitten wrapped in a small towel. Its eyes are encrusted shut and it’s mewling nonstop. They also hand us a popcorn bag. Inside is another kitten, unconscious and curled in the fetal position.

“That one’s neck is broke,” says one of the women.

“How do you know that?” Deppner asks.

She tells Deppner that a seven-year-old boy in the building broke it. The kid’s nine-year-old sister says she found the kitten and was cradling it when her brother ran up, grabbed it, and threw it down on the ground as hard as he could.

“This is the third cat he’s murdered,” the girl says.

As we talk, the young perp circles us on a little scooter.

“Why’d you kill that kitten?” Deppner asks.

The kid stares blankly at him. As we look on, the front wheel of his scooter hits a rock and he pitches violently face-first onto the pavement. No one expresses any sympathy for him. “God’s punishing you,” his sister says.

Deppner heads back to the van. The two kittens he’s collected are put in the back, to be euthanized later. As he pulls out, the van bumps over the boy’s scooter, which is in the middle of the parking lot.

You ran over his scooter, I say. It’s a tight lot, so Deppner has to do a five-point turn to exit. He bumps over the scooter again on the way out.

“Twice,” he says. “I ran over it twice.”

Actually, Deppner says as we drive past RFK Stadium, maybe the worst thing ever wasn’t the ass-vomiting Husky or the dismembered “I NEED HELP” cat.

“This couple called in and wanted to surrender their dog,” Deppner says. “So I go to the house and it turns out that they’ve been keeping it on the balcony behind the house. All the time. But the balcony had sort of collapsed, so then the dog basically lived down in the backyard. So they’d open the door every day or two and throw food down to the dog, but it wasn’t getting over the railing, or something. When I got there, the dog was starved down to just skin and bones. Just staring up at me, emaciated. I picked it up and while I was carrying it to the van, it died, right in my arms. That was really bad.”

It’s just before noon. One dog on the 1400 block of Ames Place NE on Capitol Hill mauled another last week, and had bit a person a few months before that. Under city rules, animal control officers have to conduct visual checks on the animal to make sure it isn’t sick. That task falls to Deppner.

He’s been to the house before, for a previous biting incident. Deppner says the occupants include three brothers who don’t take any great pains to keep their dog restrained, with predictable results. “Going to have to be stern with them,” Deppner says.

An older woman comes out. Early as it is, she seems out of it. Two youngish men soon emerge behind her and give us hard looks. “I just need to look at the dog,” Deppner says. “Just to make sure it’s not sick or anything.”

“You’re not here to take her?” one of the men asks, suspiciously.

Deppner shakes his head and the two men relax. “KK!” one of them yells, propping the door open. A compact tan dog barrels out, ears flattened, and goes directly for my crotch.

Deppner calls the dog by name. KK immediately trots over to sniff his hand. It seems healthy enough and, though protective, not overtly hostile. “I got this theory,” says the owner, a rotund man in basketball shorts and white socks and sandals. “Since she’s not fixed and she’s never been mated, she’s, you know, lonely. Pent up. That’s why she’s so aggressive. She really only attacks people if they come onto her territory, though.”

Deppner consults his paperwork. “She bit someone a few months back, yeah?”

“Yeah, the guy going door to door,” says the owner. “Fenty.”

The former mayor?

“Nah, not Fenty himself,” says the owner. “Just a campaign worker. I wish he’d bit Fenty.”

Since the dog seems healthy, Ted tells them about the required quarantine period: 10 days indoors, short walks allowed if overseen by someone physically able to restrain the animal, no exposure to other animals or non-household humans. The dog can’t be given away or leave the District during this time, and must be licensed and current on all vaccinations at the end of the quarantine.

While we’re talking, a third, younger guy jogs up. “Hey, that guy is down there,” he says, pointing to the corner. The three men file out onto the front walk, where they stand and stare impassively at a lone figure at the end of the block.

“Should we get him?” The younger one asks.

“Not with these people here,” the older man says.

“Actually,” Deppner says as we drive to the next call, “maybe the worst thing ever was when the two deer broke into the McDonald’s on New York Avenue.”

“I guess they saw their reflection in the big window in front, and they just crashed right through,” he explains. “This was at 10, 11 in the morning. The deer made for the food prep area and trashed the place looking for stuff to eat. It was my day off but I was the only one then who’d been trained on the tranquilizer rifle, so they got me out of bed and I had to hustle down there. The first one through the window had been sliced to ribbons. There was blood everywhere; it was horrible. I shot the wounded one with the tranquilizer dart but the other one leaped through the drive-thru window and got away.”

By 1 p.m., Deppner’s on a call on the 2200 block of Nicholson Street SE, near L’Enfant Square. The previous week, there was a minor furor at the animal shelter office when a TV station called and said they were working on a story about a child who’d been bitten in the face by a pit bull. According to the reporter, the kid’s upper lip had been almost torn off, and he’d needed 20 stitches.

The media call was the first animal control had heard about the incident. No one had reported a bite; the police hadn’t forwarded any paperwork about an attack. If this thing hit the news with animal control still in the dark, they’d look like incompetents. Then, this morning, a woman had called in asking to surrender a pit bull that, she said, had bit a child in the face. Could it be the same story?

Deppner arrives at a small white row house, where a child answers the door and lets him in. Inside, a woman identifies herself as the animal’s owner. “It’s a sweet dog,” she says as the pit bull sits, tail wagging. “It’s a shame. My man gave it to me when he went to jail, and I’ve had it ever since. But now that this biting thing happened, I don’t know if I should keep him around.”

“What happened?” Deppner asks.

There’s a kid that hangs around the neighborhood, the woman explains. His parents aren’t always around; he panhandles sometimes. He’d slept over a few times, since he was friends with her son. The day of the bite, this kid was trying to force his way into the front door for some reason. Her son was trying to hold it shut. When he finally burst through the door, the pit bull was there to meet him. The dog lunged, biting the kid in the face.

“So it was a provoked bite,” Deppner sighs.

She continues. Almost immediately, she says, the kid’s mother showed up and called the police, who came out and filed a report. Someone messed up, though—this report was never forwarded to animal control, as is standard procedure. She also called the TV crew, who showed up asking questions. Now, with the threat of a lawsuit looming, the owner wants to give up the dog.

Deppner explains what this will mean. A behavioral evaluation and then either adoption, placement in some sort of sanctuary program, or…euthanasia. She nods, and signs the paper.

The woman’s mother, who also lives there, brings the dog over. Dino is a hulking, powerful animal. But right now he seems friendly, wagging his tail and sniffing our hands. The mother asks if it’s OK if she takes Dino out for a walk before Deppner takes her away. Deppner says sure.

Waiting by the van, Deppner looks unhappy. “The dog was only doing what a dog does,” he says. “Someone was trying to break into the house. The dog was protecting its territory.”

As for what happens now, things don’t look good. “A pit bull, with a bite history?,” he says. “Adoption is probably out. There are programs, but spots are hard to come by. That just leaves euthanasia.”

After a few minutes, the woman’s mother returns with the dog. “He’s a good dog,” she says. She’s clearly Dino’s main caretaker. Though her daughter is the ostensible owner, we haven’t seen her pet or otherwise handle Dino, and somewhat conspicuously, she referred to the dog as “it.” The mother, though, is taking this hard. “We used to have people shooting up in our backyard, a crack house next door. He ran them all out. Never had any problems before.”

“It wasn’t the dog’s fault,” Deppner says.

“Is there any chance we could get the dog back later?” the mother asks in a small voice. “Maybe I could find a friend who could take him?”

“I can’t really answer that,” says Deppner. “Maybe.”

Deppner puts the pit bull in the back of the van and we drive off to the next call. Back at the shelter, Dino becomes aggressive toward other dogs and to the shelter staff. Seeing that adoption isn’t an option, and under perpetual pressure to free up the shelter’s limited kennel space, Deppner, exercising his authority as senior animal control officer, makes a judgment call. That evening, Dino is euthanized.

“Come to think of it,” Deppner says, “maybe the worst thing was when someone called me and reported that their dog had been attacked. Someone had slashed it across the throat, they said. So I go over and look at the dog and yeah, it’s got this horrible bloody wound across its neck. This animal was really suffering. So I’m examining the wound and it turns out that it had been wearing the same collar since it was a puppy, and it had grown into this tiny collar and was being slowly strangled to death. And these people had no idea.”

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.