While actively wooing film and television crews to its beleaguered streets, Detroit's mayor, Dave Bing, has taken a rolled up newspaper to the nose of a Discovery Channel crew that wants to chronicle the city's many stray dogs. Though the project, "A Dog's Life," qualified for a substantial tax credit from the Michigan Film Office, city leaders believe the show would harm the city's already-struggling image.
In addition to filming the strays, the crew had planned to attach small cameras to the animals to capture, quite literally, a dog's eye view. One can assume Detroit's leaders didn't cotton to the 'Doggie Cam' idea either.
Detroit, once a thriving city fueled by the state's vibrant auto industry, now struggles against increased crime, poverty and a steady foreclosure rate amid the ashes of deflated corporate giants. (Michigan ranked 7th in 2010 foreclosure rates and Detroit ranked 29th out of 206 metropolitan areas.)
Most of the city's stray dogs - some say they number in the tens of thousands - struggle for survival in parks and empty homes. Most of these animals are abandoned by owners who can no longer afford them … or the homes they are locked in. Driven by desperate hunger, the dogs break out of these empty houses (or escape once thieves have broken in) only to roam the streets and fend for themselves. Though Detroit's Animal Control rounds up 20-40 dogs a day, it makes little difference in the population.
"It's pretty extreme."
--Harry Ward, head of Detroit Animal Control, re: Detroit's stray dog problem, quoted in the Detroit Free Press
According to Ward, dogs don't technically form packs like wolves, but do often scavenge for food together. (Unless a female is in heat, then things get fiercely competitive.) And although 900+ serious dog bites were reported in Detroit in 2009, only a small percentage involved stray dogs, as most are not feral but familiar with people. However, mail delivery in some neighborhoods has been suspended due to carriers being threatened by strays.
Discovery's $1.4-million 'Dog TV' project qualified for a $559,361 tax credit from the Michigan Film Office but must begin filming by the first week of February to qualify. In its tax credit application, the cable channel described a "docudrama series" that shows dogs forming "a new type of family that lives by a distinct code of honor," a description disregarded as "anthropomorphic nonsense" by Mike McElrath, spokesman for the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, which oversees the animal control division.
"Stray dogs become the property of the City of Detroit, so we're responsible for those animals. We have an animal control unit whose task is to keep residents safe."
--Somer Woods, Detroit Film Office
The situation illustrates an ongoing challenge Michigan faces as it courts film crews with the nation's most lucrative tax incentive: 40%, which prompted Clint Eastwood to choose Detroit for his setting in his 2008 film, "Gran Torino." (Additional credits also can be earned in specific state regions.) But the pitch becomes a double-edged sword as Detroit tries to clean up its image while providing dilapidated backdrops for gritty crime dramas. (See the TV series, "Detroit 1-8-7.")
In fact, there are enough abandoned structures in Detroit to have earned their own Flickr photostream and several offshoot groups. Detroit's seemingly endless supply of empty homes have even been offered up as a film production perk: "Why build expensive structures for an explosion scene when you can blow up existing ones here?"
"The trend continues with Michigan offering the highest percentage tax incentive in the nation, if not the world. At 40% statewide and 42% in 102 core cities, Michigan production has experienced a volume of production unimaginable just a few years ago.
"With over 60 applications and 30 films shot, prepping or shooting since April, 2008 upon passage, the success of this program is indisputable. Crew members are returning to the state, productions are mounting daily, training and facilities are expanding and millions of dollars are flowing into local hotels, restaurants, shops, vendors, equipment suppliers, professional services and transportation."
In fact, Michigan is so film-focused that a former General Motors facility in Pontiac is now the site of a a new $54 million movie production facility, set to open sometime this year. The new studio is projected to create about 3,600 new jobs, giving the auto industry an economic elbow to the ribs.
Economics aside, what of the animals? Debate rages in the community about possible exploitation of the dogs while some argue the show may help the strays find homes. As it is, Detroit's pound can hold about 200 animals, not nearly enough to handle the situation.
The Michigan Humane Society also has a Detroit location for abandoned or abused animals and plans a new facility, although it doesn't address today's problem. Detroit's policy is to keep animals that appear to have owners for up to seven business days; four days if the dog appears owner-less. After that, the dogs are assessed for possible adoption or euthanized.
For Detroit's stray dogs, seems like becoming reality TV stars is the least of their problems. Meanwhile, Discovery hopes to change Detroit's mind before their tax credit expires.
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
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