Dead Dog Day Afternoon
Paul Peaty rolls up to the scene in his white pickup truck. The victim lies lifeless on the side of the road. Hit and run.
"That's a nice one," Peaty deadpans.
He gets out of the truck, and, even upwind of the carnage, the putrid stench is thick. It's only 9 o'clock in the morning, but the sun has had enough time to overcook the canine's dead flesh.
Peaty goes to the back of his truck and produces a pair of thick rubber gloves, a heavy plastic bag and some safety cones. He sets the cones out behind the truck so distracted motorists rushing to work don't plow into him.
The large, black male chow has been turned inside out from the force of the impact. As Peaty lifts the stiff dog up by the legs, pink entrails stream out of the exposed belly and stick to the pavement. He drops the whole mess into the bag, ties it shut, and puts the plastic coffin into the bed of his truck. Peaty cleans the bloody spot with a water-and-bleach mix that kills bacteria.
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He radios the location, time and a description of the animal back to base. Peaty's communication ends on a familiar note:
"No tags, no collar."
Another Dog Doe.
The information is entered into a computer at the headquarters of First and Last Pest Management, the company that the City of Phoenix pays about $12,000 a month to keep the streets carcass-free. The company also has a contract with the City of Mesa and hopes to eventually expand to other cities.
Robin Calhoun, dispatcher and secretary, is the central nervous system for First and Last. Besides keeping the computer records, she takes calls from the public and police and tells the crew where the dead animals wait to be scooped.
Calhoun is also responsible for calling the families of the victims.
"It sucks, it's awful," she says. "A lot of times they go crazy. They're hysterical and crying. I just try and break it to them as easy as I can."
Her job is made more difficult because the majority of the animals are not properly identified. General manager John Weiler estimates that less than 10 percent of the pets they find have collars and tags.
First and Last provides a variety of services to various clients--general pest control, trapping, removal and relocation of nuisance wildlife, and spraying manholes with insecticidal paint to protect against sewer roaches.
But the DAC (dead animal collection) is by far the most publicly valuable--and disgusting--aspect of First and Last's repertoire.
"If someone wasn't doing it, it could get real ugly, real fast," says Weiler.
As the DAC supervisor, Peaty is in charge of the crew patrolling the streets of Phoenix. Since First and Last was hired by Phoenix in February, it has collected 2,408 animals. Peaty alone has picked up and disposed of 1,121 of them.
The DAC shift runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Besides being grueling, the job is also depressing. The burnout rate is high among employees, but Peaty seems to embrace the work. He rarely takes a day off, and even when he does, he stays on-call.
"My guys know that if I have a day off, they can call if they need my help," Peaty says. "My attitude is, I'm not going to ask them to do something that I'm not willing to do myself."
DAC workers are paid $60 a day for their services. New employees ride along with Peaty for a few days so they can learn how to handle the job. Peaty says that most of the new guys are shaken at first and usually go home and hug their pets for hours.
"It takes a special breed to do this job," says Peaty. "DAC is not for everybody."
Peaty is stuck in an odd position. He admits that his job is not the greatest in the world, but he takes pride in his work and excels at it. Peaty says his grandfather taught him that the sooner a job is done, the sooner you get to go home. That advice helps him deal with handling corpses all day.
Like morticians, cops and others with unpleasant jobs, the DAC crew also has adopted its own brand of dark humor.
"Ever seen a blue-eyed German shepherd?" Peaty asks. "One eye blew this way; one eye blew that way."
Some might find it morbid and disturbing, but Peaty says the jokes help break the monotony and maintain his sanity. He has three dogs of his own, and his love for animals allows him to deal compassionately with distraught pet owners.
On one occasion, Peaty had to remove a drowned dog from a woman's pool. After the incident, the woman wrote a letter thanking Peaty for his kindness and compassion in handling the situation.
In his three months on the job, Peaty is already a grizzled veteran. He's picked up everything from a rat to a slaughtered cow. While the stench has caused him to vomit a few times, he's reached the point that it doesn't bother him anymore. However, Peaty's appetite has been affected.
"I usually don't eat much during the day," says Peaty. "After working at this job, you don't look at food the same way.
"With all the maggots I've seen, I don't eat much rice anymore."
Road kill may be commonplace in Peaty's line of work, but the unusual cases still disturb him, especially when there are signs of abuse. Peaty has found a dead dog with its legs taped together and its nose broken. He once discovered a charred cat lying next to a bottle of lighter fluid. Those animals are turned over to the Humane Society or Sheriff Joe Arpaio's infamous Pet Posse.
The Humane Society is also called in the rare instance an animal is still alive when the DAC arrives.
"Those bother me a bit," says Peaty. "You can see them suffering, but there's nothing you can do about it."
Not everyone in Phoenix suffers from a lack of humanity. DAC once found a flattened cat, mercifully covered with a sheet and with flowers left on the body. A note, left by the woman who hit the cat, apologized for the unfortunate loss of life.
There are some benefits to working the DAC crew. Peaty enjoys the fact that he gets to work outdoors and explore the city. He puts about 200 miles on his truck every day, and has stumbled across streets that don't even appear on the map.
And he's exposed to the more bizarre elements of city life. On one trip into an alley for a pickup, he startled an oversexed couple who fled the alley with their pants around their ankles.
"I'm still getting teased around the office for that one," says Peaty.
On an average day, DAC bags around 35 critters. The animals are taken to a landfill where there is a mass burial site. Any identification is saved for three months, but the rest is dumped, bag and body.
Peaty thoroughly cleans his truck with water, bleach and Pine-Sol after every trip to the landfill.
"Some guys don't clean their truck, and you can smell them coming from blocks away," says Peaty. "You can have a conversation right next to my truck and not know I pick up dead animals for a living."
It's not the kind of job you brag about at parties, but Peaty wonders if the public even is aware that such a service exists. He says he gets strange looks from passing motorists when a paw tears through the bag, exposing his macabre trade.
The City of Phoenix requires a three-hour response time from DAC, and Peaty strives to keep his crew short of that limit. Priority is given to sensitive calls, like a dead dog near a school or when parents want an animal removed before the kids find their deceased pet.
DAC workers wish their job was unnecessary, but the reality is that animals are going to die. They want the public to know that the easiest way to keep track of their pets is to have them marked with tags and collars. Owners can even tattoo their pets or have microchips implanted. Peaty wonders why people who love their animals would not take even the most basic steps to ensure their safety.
"If someone comes to check your water meter, they can leave the gate open, and your pet can get out," he says. "All you have to do is go to PETsMART and spend the 10 bucks. Even if it's just a collar with a phone number taped on."
Contact Matthew Doig at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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