On a cold, crisp morning, Sam Treasure patrols a leafy neighborhood in northwest Baltimore, looking for a medium-sized white female who has been causing trouble.
"She's threatened a couple of children," he says, turning his truck down another street. "Grabbed one by his ankle. Didn't break the skin, thank goodness."
Treasure spots a couple of cats, several kids dragging off late to school, folks putting out garbage. But not his suspect.
He turns again, down an alley. The white truck, its sides studded with cages, slows to a crawl.
His targets tend to pop up suddenly, he says. "That's how I spotted them yesterday. There was three of them with her. I chased them all the way to Duvall Avenue, but I couldn't corner them in no place. They know the trucks, they break as soon as they see them. They know how to run through the yards, to go in the front and out the back."
It's another chapter in the never-ending search for delinquent dogs. Sam Treasure is a veteran animal enforcement officer, a public servant better known as The Dogcatcher.
In his 28 years at the Bureau of Animal Control in South Baltimore, the 61-year-old warden has gained rare insight into the city and its many creatures. He has protected people from vicious and ignorant animals and animals from vicious and ignorant people.
He has rescued emaciated dogs, found help for tortured cats. He has been a final friend to thousands of pets who, for one reason or another, outgrew their welcome. And he has comforted their owners.
Each day provides fresh proof of the world's unpredictability: its snarling strays, its well-intentioned souls. But Sam Treasure, as a dedicated member of Brooklyn's Church on the Rock, chooses to minister to all he finds, whether they inhabit spit-spot rowhouses or alleys with more rats than garbage cans.
Driving through a drug-infested corridor of Pimlico, Treasure shakes his head at the teen-agers who should be in school. From his perspective, this neighborhood has as many needy humans as animals.
"I had a prostitute jump in the truck one time," he recalls. "I said, 'Look, ma'am, you're a beautiful woman. There's something else out there you can find to do. Don't go doing stuff like this, you can wind up with a disease!' "
He gave her a religious tract and $2 to buy milk for her children. Treasure has nine of his own, as well as 23 grandkids, two great-grandkids and two more on the way. He thinks of them whenever he sees young lives spoiling on the streets, sees the work to be done.
His next assignment is to pick up T.J., a not-wanted cat who belongs to an elderly woman with a notary-public sign. She seems embarrassed as if this transaction were a bad smell she hopes no one will mention. After all, she is consigning a healthy, unsuspecting pet to probable death. Some people who call animal control to pick up pets are so ashamed they tell wardens they "just found" them.
With T.J. in the truck, Treasure turns his attention to a dog whose owners leave him outside to wander. He's a nuisance, a neighbor complains. When the warden catches him with a steel-reinforced rope, he sees that the dog has no tags. No one's at his home. Treasure leads him to a cage in the truck.
"I'm glad you got that dog," calls out an elderly woman in curlers, raking leaves in a nearby yard. "You have a nice day, now."
Treasure tips his cap.
The next pickup is a not-wanted near Garrison Middle School. When he arrives, Mada Dean is waiting out front in her nightgown and slippers, gospel music spilling from her house. She seems dazed. Her landlord has ordered her to get rid of Chelsea, the skinny chestnut-colored dog who is straining at her leash. Chelsea also has five tiny puppies in the garage.
"We've had Chelsea five years," Dean tells Treasure. "The landlord, he won't let me keep her. She's no trouble. Just some people don't like animals."
Treasure nods sympathetically. "I don't know if they told you this on the phone," he begins gently, "but there's no guarantee what happens to the dog. You understand? In other words, I can take her right in and "
He stops abruptly as Dean's eyes fill with tears. He takes her aside for a private moment of consolation. Then he turns his attention toward soothing Chelsea and the box of puppies Dean's companion brings toward the truck.
"You can at least try to get her adopted, don't just kill her," Dean sniffs. "She's real smart, she's real obedient, she's housebroken and everything. She'd be really good once she got her nourishment back together. The puppies were taking a lot from her."
Treasure settles the confused and skeptical dog into a cage with her squeaking, squirming babies. "There you go, girlie," he says.
So far, Chelsea's life has been mostly bad news. Before she found Mada Dean, she was used as bait to train pit bulls for fighting. Then she got pregnant. Then she alienated the landlord: Maybe she barked a lot, maybe a neighbor just had something against her. At this point, it doesn't matter.
"I have a lot of compassion for people and animals where I never used to," Sam Treasure says. "I see men crying and women crying and it stirs me up. All I want to do is pray for them, let them know that someone has feelings for their feelings.
"This woman today is so distraught. I prayed with her while they were getting out the puppies. I just asked the Lord to show her peace. She had to give up something she loved -- which we all do sooner or later."
Treasure is a thick slab of a man with a craggy face, bright blue eyes and hands thick with white scars from years of scratches and bites. Over the years, he has learned how to handle most animals. More important, he knows how to talk to people "without getting them all upset."
Along with picking up not-wanteds and chasing down strays, Treasure dispenses citations to owners who fail to have their pets licensed, fail to have them vaccinated for rabies, fail to display tags on them when they are outdoors, fail to confine animals in heat, fail to properly restrain animals, fail to clean up excreta on public property or their back yards, fail to have a kennel permit for three or more animals, fail to confine or restrain a vicious or dangerous animal and fail to provide an animal with sufficient food, water, shelter or veterinary care.
In a city where almost 30 percent of the residents are struggling to rise above the poverty level, Treasure winces at some of the citations he must write. And many situations are complicated: What if the 37-pound Rottweiler belongs to a developmentally disabled teen-ager who is also trying to feed three children of her own?
"You get used to taking the animals after a while," Treasure says. "It used to bother me real bad because I was always a dog lover. Then I seen some of the animals, the way they was treated. I figured, 'The animal's better off being put to sleep out of its misery than to have to be like that.' "
The next pickup is Diamond, a collie/shepherd whose matted coat is covered with mud. The woman who signs the form says Diamond belongs to her brother, but he can't keep her. No, she's not sure that he knows Diamond may be put to sleep.
Treasure writes this down. "Diamond, come here, girl. I'm glad you're friendly, Diamond," he says. "You sure need a bath!
"Seeing as your brother's not here, I'm going to put her down as a stray dog. That way, they'll be sure to keep her five days. If your brother changes his mind, he can pick her up."
Treasure heads back to the animal shelter with the morning's haul: one stray dog, name unknown; Diamond; T.J.; two half-grown cats named Inky and Midnight; Chelsea and her pups.
When he arrives, other wardens are also bringing in their animals. Carolyn Machowski, the veterinary technician supervisor, decides which animals the shelter will keep and which she will euthanize by lethal injection.
Last year, the city's shelter received roughly 12,000 live animals. Of those, 937 were either adopted, reclaimed or "rescued" by animal groups.
Treasure lives with the memory of the rest, mostly dogs and cats who belonged to the wrong people. Folks didn't realize what they were getting into. Or changed their minds. Or couldn't afford spaying or neutering -- or feeding. Or mistreated animals in horrible ways. Every day, the city's animal wardens deal with the shame and waste of it all.
As she looks over Treasure's animals, the vet tech's expression is grim and focused.
She already has 22 dogs designated "adoptable" waiting to get into the filled-to-the-brim adoption kennel. She is legally bound to hold stray dogs for five days. Not-wanteds, however, are immediately disposable.
As Sam Treasure brings in his two strays, Machowski records their condition and sends them off to cages. Then it's time to direct the not-wanteds toward adoption -- or the euthanizing room behind the blue door.
It's Chelsea's turn. Machowski notes the dog's age, size, skinniness and indeterminate breed as the trembling dog sniffs at her. Nothing needs to be said. Treasure and Chelsea follow her into the euthanizing room. The blue door closes behind them.
A few minutes later, Treasure comes out and heads back to the truck where Chelsea's pups are clumped in a dusky, sleepy mound. He picks them up, two at a time, cuddling and cooing, and brings them into the room where their mother's body, still warm, lies on the cement floor.
T.J., Inky and Midnight also go through the blue door.
Through it all, Sam Treasure sweet-talks the not-wanteds as if they had nothing to fear.
"You always treat someone the way you want to be treated," he says. "Even if the dog has got to die, you should have respect for the animal."
After the animals are delivered, it's time for lunch. While other wardens catch up on soaps, Treasure eats a chicken bologna sandwich and listens to Christian tapes. He's already read through the Bible, King James version, 13 times.
"I've come across vicious dogs," he says. "I've come across friendly dogs. I've come across sick dogs. Across hurting animals, across all sorts of animals. The Lord showed me how to handle them all. And the Lord tells me I will run across people with those same kinds of attitudes."
Treasure often finds himself contemplating the stray people he sees outside his truck. He sees sadness and discouragement. He sees people who are angry, people who are lonely, people in pain.
One of them cornered the dogcatcher in an alley a dozen years ago. Treasure was writing up a work report when a young man in his 20s pulled out a gun and held it to his head. He told Treasure he wanted to kill somebody.
Shocked, Treasure asked him, "What's the matter?" The gunman repeated, "I want to kill somebody."
Then the dogcatcher asked the gunman if he could have a minute, a minute to pray. The gun against his head, Sam Treasure closed his eyes and silently prayed: Lord, you've got to get me out of this one. Holy Spirit, tell me what to do. Tell me what to say.
Then he was ready. Opening his eyes, he told the stranger: "If you shoot me now, I want you to know I forgive you. I don't know if my wife and family will forgive you, but I want you to know that I forgive you."
All of a sudden, the gunman started to cry and lowered his weapon. No one had ever said that to him before, he told the dogcatcher.
"And I said, 'You know, Jesus loves you,' " Treasure says. "And right there, I was able to lead him to the Lord. He turned the gun over to a police officer."
The dogcatcher pauses for a moment.
"I like people to know that I don't consider myself no better than them," he says. "The people out here are all God's people."
Before Sam Treasure calls it quits for the day, he will teach folks in Reservoir Hill how to clean up after their dogs. He will warn a widow in Walbrook about raccoons. He will decide against giving a citation to a poor woman in Park Heights who hasn't yet gotten a dog license, but has cobbled together something resembling a dog house. He will wonder about Diamond, the "stray" dog with the muddy coat. He will help a few more creatures, perhaps even lead them toward safety.
Pub Date: 12/21/98