Detroit won't bite on TV show about stray dogs

9:56 AM, Jan 13, 2011   |    comments
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(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - It's bad enough that Detroit's poor economy has contributed to an epidemic of stray dogs. The city has no interest in turning some street mutts into reality TV stars, too, as the Discovery Channel wants to do.

Mayor Dave Bing's film office has denied the cable network permission to film stray Detroit dogs, chronicling their miserable lives for a TV series called "A Dog's Life" -- even after the $1.4-million project qualified for a $559,361 tax credit from the Michigan Film Office.

Besides using crews to film the dogs, the project would attach small cameras to the animals to capture Detroit life from a dog's-eye view.

That's bad for the public, the dogs and the city's battered image, said Sommer Woods, head of Detroit's film office. She said it's the city's job to catch untended dogs, not stand by to watch them threaten people or suffer themselves.

Strays often live in parks and abandoned homes, said Woods, adding that celebrating their lives would be counterproductive.

In its tax credit application, the Discovery Channel described a docudrama series that shows dogs banding together as "a new type of family that lives by a distinct code of honor."

The network still hopes to reach a deal with the city. The project must begin by the first week of February to qualify for the state tax credit.

Detroit's trouble with stray dogs grows as economy sinks
Detroit has thousands of stray and abandoned dogs -- maybe tens of thousands -- and the problem has gotten much worse as the economy has tanked, said Harry Ward, head of Detroit animal control.

Ward said many dogs are simply kicked out by owners who can't afford them any longer. Many are left behind in a locked house when their owners leave because they cannot afford the mortgage or rent.

"It's pretty extreme," Ward said.

Sometimes, those dogs bust out from sheer hunger, or escape when the house is broken into by thieves, Ward said. His officers capture 20 to 40 strays a day, he said, barely denting the population.

So when the Discovery Channel asked the city for permission to film the daily lives of stray dogs for a TV series, Mayor Dave Bing said he wanted no part of it.

That's no way to depict the city, said Sommer Woods, head of the city's film office. She's intrigued by the concept, she said, but told the Discovery Channel that there are more positive stories in the city to tell.

The dog project illustrates the tension between efforts to lure movie and TV productions and the desire to polish the image of Detroit and Michigan.

Woods said filmmakers and TV production crews need city permits to use rights-of-way, to close off streets for scenes or parking and to set up lighting and equipment. She said nothing could stop a crew from following dogs on public land or from using private property.

But she said if the city finds out, it'll find the crew and capture the dogs.

Woods said strays often live in abandoned buildings owned by the city, and video crews need permission to enter.

"Stray dogs become the property of the City of Detroit, so we're responsible for those animals," Woods said. "We have an animal control unit whose task is to keep residents safe."

The animal control division has 17 officers and three investigators.

A negative image

Stray dogs are a problem in many cities, but a TV show that focuses on loose dogs would especially reinforce negative perceptions of Detroit, said Mike McElrath, spokesman for the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, which oversees the animal control division.

Ward said dogs typically don't form organized packs like wolves, but rather, scavenge for food together. Often, loose packs form when a female is in heat. Most of the dogs, he said, have had contact with people.

The notion that stray dogs bond together with a "code of honor" -- as the Discovery Channel team suggested in its application for a tax subsidy from the state -- is anthropomorphic nonsense, he said.

Ward said more than 900 serious dog bites were reported in Detroit in 2009, a small percentage involving stray dogs. But he said strays often threaten mail carriers to the point where mail delivery is suspended in a neighborhood.

The fate of animals

Detroit's pound can hold about 200 animals. The Michigan Humane Society also has a Detroit facility for abandoned or abused animals and plans a new facility, thanks to a $1-million donation.

Ward said the city keeps animals that appear to have owners for up to seven state business days, four days for those with no sign of ownership.

After that, the animals are assessed for possible adoption through the Humane Society or euthanized.

Woods said the city's rejection of the dog project doesn't mean it doesn't want filmmakers in the city. Currently, the most notable TV project is "Detroit 1-8-7," a series about a Detroit police homicide unit that shows the city's hard-bitten landscapes.

Woods said some depictions of Detroit in "1-8-7" are unflattering. But she said the series contributes to a larger effort to build a movie and TV industry in Michigan.

She said reality TV shows are more likely to show the city in a negative light.

Last July, Bing ousted Warren Evans as police chief after Evans appeared in a provocative video promo trailer for a reality TV crime show set in Detroit. In the promo, Evans appeared holding an assault rifle declaring he'd do "whatever it takes" to clean up the city.

By CHRIS CHRISTOFF - Free Press Lansing Bureau Chief

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