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Downtown Dogs

One day, Fouche turned down a dog.
“You’re gonna do this one yourself,” he told her.
“She’s too aggressive!” Weise complained. Lulu, a stubby white Pit Bull with one blue and one brown eye, was always picking fights.
“You can do it,” Fouche insisted.

So Weise started taking the incorrigible Lulu everywhere. Socialization “boot camp” lasted two solid weeks. Then, before releasing her into a group with a few of the calmer dogs, she walked her up and down the stairs of the three-story warehouse until the potbellied Pit nearly collapsed. It worked. One fight-free encounter led to another. Today, when the group gets raucous, Lulu tattles by barking. “She will kill the fun,” Weise says. “Lulu is more than ready to be adopted out to the right owner.”

The experience transformed Weise as well. Soon after her first successful rehabilitation, she says, “I began to implement programs no one had seen before.”

The Power of the Pack
Every day after work, Weise opens the kennels behind Modernica and about 20 “Bullies”mob together. The yard resembles a preschool, with a plastic pool and other fun fixtures. The dogs tangle, Lulu referees and Weise does her best to stay out of it. Play is expressive and an outlet for normal aggression within the pack, she says.When natural behaviors are suppressed, dogs become stressed, often acting out with greater aggression.“The trick is judging the limit, and what all the barks and growls mean.”

Unlike rescue facilities, she argues, shelters resemble prisons. The structure isolates dogs, reinforcing their problems and lowering their chances of adoption. She also notes that dogs with low-income owners are more often abandoned because their owners are more affected by fines and fees. Vets in poor neighborhoods have been known to charge very high rates, and neglect to tell eligible owners about free city services, Weise says. In other cases, people have actually chosen homelessness over housing that refuses pets.

When people call DDR, intending to relinquish a dog, volunteer Sandy Dragoits first asks, “What will it take for you to keep your dog?” The many answers to that question have helped inform Weise’s unique programs.While the usual menu of services is offered, there is nothing usual about distributing thousands of hip-hop flyers on gang turf that beckon homies to “Pimp Your Pit” and “Get Fixed or Die Tryin’.” Or hosting block party–style events in places like Watts, or Compton; a city only ten square miles in size that’s home to over 57 active gangs. “People told me it would be a disaster,” Weise says of the first large-scale spay/ neuter event in 2002—“and it turned out great.”

Unlikely Allies
Rosalie Bardwell, 67, a steely Compton volunteer, says that while they are able to manage the crowds, neighborhood reception is sometimes chilly.The notoriously tough city is even less welcoming to outsiders. It may be hard to get the keys to the restroom, says Weise, who often hears comments suggesting she doesn’t belong in a certain neighborhood.“Dog people are dog people,” is her standard reply. She admits that, in some cases—like the time she unwittingly walked in on a drug deal—fear has forced her to leave dogs “in terrible situations.”To deal with these circumstances, she relies on volunteers— her “street soldiers”who know the community. “They’re my eyes,” she says. She’s also learned to practice the “buy-in,” which simply means paying someone for help or information (like distributing flyers).Weise, a rap music lover who finds locations for events from songs, counts rapper Unkal Bean among her allies.Her low-income volunteers attend weekly adoptions, tell her about dogs in trouble, and talk each other into spaying and neutering. Pit Bull breeders are the toughest sell, but Weise takes their unwanted dogs, as well as their concessions: “For what you do, you’re all right.” Recently, the Humane Society’s Chicago dog-fighting division approached Weise, wanting to duplicate her urban programs in other cities with a “Pit Bull problem.” Her advice to rescue groups seeking streetcredibility: “Realize that you are the one who needs the education. Otherwise, there will always be the wall.”

Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.

Photography by Douglas Hill