The story of Detroit’s spiral into economic uncertainty is know to many. Images of bankruptcy, unemployment, and homelessness fill the nightly news screen. But, perhaps an often overlooked aspect of the city’s economic crisis are the feral dogs.
These dogs have lived on the street for most – if not all – of their lives with very little human contact. For Mike Walzak, a truck driver, dog lover, avid photographer and a resident of the Detroit suburbs, it has become his mission to ensure these helpless dogs have a future.
Mike blames the struggling economy as the primary factor for the abundance of feral dogs. “As the jobs left a once thriving city, the people started losing their homes and moved out, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves.” While Mike has seen estimates as high as 50,000 feral dogs, in his experience, he puts the number between 3,000 and 5,000.
A few years ago, on a cold November day, Mike was in downtown Detroit and a small pack of feral dogs walked past his car. Instinctively, he grabbed his camera. “From that moment on, I was on a mission to help these dogs with my photos, showing their struggles, hoping to get others involved.” After contacting a few rescues with unsuccessful results – feral dogs are generally viewed as too dangerous for rescues to take in – Mike came into contact with The Devoted Barn.
The Devoted Barn is an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility in Newport, Michigan, about 30 miles south of Detroit. Located on 53 acres, it is currently home to horses, llamas, sheep, pigs, dogs, bunnies and cats. Its feral dog program is one of its primary focuses. Naturally, it became a perfect fit for Mike’s cause.
Below is Punky, who Mike describes as “a major success story.” Now a resident of The Devoted Barn, she is “happy and warming up to people daily.” Mike cites the safe environment and, perhaps most significantly, the “group of great people who have dedicated their lives to helping the creatures society deems unworthy” with her transformation. Mike is an active volunteer, providing many of the photos they use on their website, as well as performing various maintenance tasks around the property.
As his work continued, Mike decided to compile his photographs and tell the story of the two primary packs he was feeding and tracking. “These dogs are survivors. They have survived abandonment, starvation, freezing weather, attacks from roving gangs who shoot them for fun and many other perils. It’s amazing to me that with all this – they still let me anywhere close enough to photograph them. To me, these dogs have dignity and class. They may be a bit scruffy but they possess an elegance that cannot be bought or faked.”
From its inception, Mike knew that if the book was printed, he would donate any proceeds to the rescues that were helping feral dogs. Using Kickstarter, he garnered support from across the country and even overseas. In just six weeks, the printing process had begun. Three months later, all copies were sold and the profits were donated.
For Mike, it was an affirmation of his tireless commitment and work. He reflects, “It was a great feeling to accomplish something that recorded what has been done to Detroit and the survival of the dogs. I felt good knowing I could do more now than just take photos and leave food and hope to rescue a few pups.”
Mike once rescued four three-week-old puppies from an abandoned building. While his heart ached for their mom, he knew that by rescuing them from the street, he was ensuring a safe future with forever homes. In his book, Mike explains, “They were delivered to the care of a qualified veterinarian…received treatment for mange and were given appropriate preventative medical care.” Eventually, one of the puppies, Louie, joined Mike’s family.
Mike writes, “The connection I felt between these dogs and myself was immediate and intense.” This sentiment is clear in his words, his photographs and his actions.
All photos by Mike Walzak