Dead in the Desert

Activists stumble across a grisly dumping ground for pets—and say the recession may be partially to blame

There's a vile stench out here, on the trash-ridden land south of Tucson International Airport. But as smells go, this one's easy to peg: It's the stink of rotting flesh, riding for miles on robust winter breezes.

Just before Christmas, animal-rescue groups discovered what the human residents of this wasteland have long known: Their desolate real estate is a dumping ground for the animals people no longer want. Dirt roads are flanked by the bloated carcasses of dead puppies and washed-up fighting cocks. A horse silently rots on the dusty frontage, guts spilling out, its neck obviously shredded by a shotgun blast. Under a mesquite at the junction of Country Club and Old Vail Connection roads, a pit bull was tied by the leg and left to die. The dog eventually obliged.

Since this discovery and the resulting news coverage, the Pima Animal Care Center and the Pima County Sheriff's Department have been flooded with outraged calls. But the dumping goes on; just last week, a huddle of emaciated puppies was found clinging to life. But that's just the beginning, says rescue coordinator Nancy Maddry, of the Southern Arizona Arabian Horse Association, who talks to me by cell phone. It's a Sunday morning, and she's taking out another crew to scout for the living.

"There's a hell of a lot more going on than just dog-dumping out here," Maddry says, "such as cockfighting, illegal horse-riding, pit bull fighting. You name it, it's all going down."

The sheriff's department visited the area soon after the initial calls and is keeping tabs on the situation, says spokeswoman Dawn Barkman. "The majority of animals are in the city," she says. "There are a few that are in the county. Both the city and the county have referred cleanup to (the Pima County Department of) Environmental Quality."

Thus, the task of reporting these animals falls to the county's sole staffer charged with finding illegal garbage dumps. In the meantime, "We have not caught anyone dumping," Barkman says, "and that's what the charge would be—illegal dumping."

She says this upsurge of attention is new. "In fact, we'd gotten very few calls (from that area), and none in the last couple of months. The calls that come in are very scattered—we may have a 911 call that comes in about illegal dumping. It's one or two, but we get out there, and it's nothing. ... We send our Animal Cruelty Taskforce out there to investigate, and what they find are deceased animals. It's hard to determine animal abuse with animals that have been left out there for that long a period of time."

Adam Goldfarb heads the Pets at Risk Program for the Humane Society of the United States. He says such dumping is becoming all too common, given the number of people losing their jobs and their homes. "We don't have statistics, but anecdotally, there's definitely an increase in the number of animals being abandoned, and also those being surrendered to shelters. The economy is definitely the reason. ... People just aren't able to afford their animals anymore."

In turn, shame can keep people from taking their pets to a shelter. "It's a very sad thing for them," he says, "and they feel they're going to be judged harshly for giving up an animal, for giving up what a lot of people see as part of the family. So one way to avoid that feeling of being judged by other people is to turn the animal loose somewhere where no one knows what happened."

But that sentences the pet to death by starvation, exposure or being killed by other animals. "It's essential to remind people that their animal will be far better off with a local shelter or rescue group than being dumped in a field or tied to a tree somewhere," Goldfarb says.

Nor is Tucson the only city to suffer this dilemma. An animal-rescue blogger in Houston writes about what she calls the "Corridor of Cruelty and Neglect," a stretch on the city outskirts populated by abandoned sick and injured dogs.

"They live in wooded areas and travel through the ditches and across busy intersections. They get hit by cars and keep on going. ... They scrounge in the few parking lots nearby for food scraps," writes Deborah Hoffman of the group PAWS Animal Rescue. "They don't want to live like this. They are scared and lonely."

In a recent report, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that up to 1 million dogs and cats could be dumped before the recession ends. "According to national financial estimates, approximately one in 171 homes in the United States is in danger of foreclosure due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis," writes Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president of ASPCA programs. "And considering that approximately 63 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet, hundreds of thousands of pets are in danger of being abandoned or relinquished to animal shelters across the country."

That means remote reaches—such as this creosote desert on Tucson's southside—are likely to remain a tragic last stop. While dead animals are common here, "the level that it's gotten to is new," says longtime resident Cynthia Allen. "We know that the wash takes animals during floods, but I didn't know people were dumping them. We can't smell it from where I live, but everything out here is really bad. Honestly, it's out of hand."

Ramón Valadez, who represents this area on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But Jayne Cundy, a spokeswoman for the county's Pima Animal Care Center, says her department is doing its best to slow the dumping, "which has obviously gotten a lot worse. We've never seen it at that scale.

"The good thing to come out of this is that we've had so many phone calls and so many people going down there," Cundy says. "What we now need is the information to be able to prosecute."

But that can be a challenging ordeal, requiring license plate numbers and at least a vague description of those involved.

"It's trying to catch these people and educate them that they don't have to do this," Cundy says. "They can bring their animals (to PACC) for free. We'll take their deceased animals, too.

"They don't have to throw them on the side of the road with their garbage."