NOTE: Windsor Terrace-Kensington Patch is happy to announce that our very own Sean Casey has been chosen as Huffington Post's "Greatest Person of the Day." Click here to see the feature.
Imagine, for a second, that Captain Ahab dwelled not on a boat bobbing through the ocean, but right here in Brooklyn. He swapped his spear for a sturdy steel cage, and he's searching not for a big white whale, but a big black pit bull.
It’s an association that’s hard to shake when listening to Sean Casey, whose takes in roughly 150 unwanted pets each month, describe the process of searching for a set of pit bulls who have been roaming the Midwood area for the past three years.
“When I’m chasing them, it’s not like a chase,” he said. “It’s not one of those things where I’m going to run up with a lasso and say, ‘I gotcha!’ It’s not gonna happen that way.”
No, the process of pit bull hunting is far more nuanced. It requires all night stakeouts in places the pits have been known to frequent. It requires elaborate traps, complete with carefully arranged dishes of cat food (stronger smelling than dog food) and cups of rotting meat (corned beef, from St. Patrick's Day).
It requires scrambling up and down the steep embankment by the railroad tracks that run parallel to East 16th Street, stretching all the way from Queens to Coney Island. Simply put, pit bull hunting requires enormous amounts of time, energy and heart.
Tracking the dogs hasn’t been easy, but it has paid off. After six months of hunting, Casey and his crew nabbed one of the pits after a dramatic three-hour standoff late one March night.
Casey had been down by the tracks investigating his traps, not really expecting to see the dogs on that particular evening. But suddenly, there they were, standing right in front of him.
He chased them down the tracks and cornered them on Coney Island Avenue, where he tried to call his staff. None of them could be reached.
His next call was to the NYPD's Emergency Service Unit, who could shoot the dogs with tranquilizers. It took the next three hours to try to coordinate his location with his team and the ESU. Three hours, in the dark, with two cornered pit bulls.
Oddly, the one who got hit with the tranquilizer was the one that managed to slip away, out of the grasping hands of Casey and his crew. She—Casey speculates that the dog is female—watched from the tracks, the dart still hanging uselessly from her haunches, as her companion was loaded into the rescue van. Casey waited, hoping she would come up, but she didn’t. She sat in the darkness, staring, until the team finally got in the van and drove away.
The next night, Casey got calls from across the neighborhood, reports of a dog howling. It was a howl louder than any they’d ever heard. The callers assumed it was the black pit bull, having finally succumbed to Casey’s traps.
They were right in one respect: It was her all right, but she hadn’t been trapped. When Casey showed up, he saw her sitting under the overpass that stretches across the tracks, her cries reverberating off the concrete above. Her screams emanated far into the night as she tried in vain to call back her friend.
Looking at the brown pit bull—who isn’t actually a purebred pit bull at all, Casey said—cower in her cage, ignoring a generous pile of deli meat placed at her feet, it’s tough to imagine this dog surviving in the wild the way she did.
So scared was she at the presence of humans that this reporter all but shoved a camera lens into her jaws, the same jaws that at one point bit into a number of small neighborhood dogs, killing one and injuring the rest.
“She was a different animal on the tracks,” Casey said, recalling a dog that charged and growled when Casey approached her. But for all their posturing, he said, both the dog currently in the cage and the one still on the loose, have never displayed real signs of aggression toward humans.
“You hear people saying ‘Oh, they’re aggressive.’ They’re not aggressive. If you stumble upon them in your yard, they’re going to bark at you. But ultimately they run away.”
"If they were running up and biting you, we’d have a whole different ball game.”
The dogs may not be aggressive toward humans, but it’s safe to say they’ve wreaked a fair amount of havoc among neighborhood dog owners. To Casey’s knowledge, the pits have killed one small dog, and injured six others over the course of the last year.
But why would a non-aggressive dog that just wants to be left alone go out of its way to attack a neighborhood pet?
“We’re not sure what triggers it,” he said “They could just be territorial. All of the dogs seem to be small, so it could just be a prey thing.”
At some point, Casey said, the dogs were owned by somebody. Residents of the area told Casey that when they first spotted the pair around three years ago, they’d both had collars. Maybe they were pets, and maybe they were guard dogs for one of the nearby auto body shops.
“Obviously they don’t have the collars anymore, but somebody put a collar on them,” said Casey, who estimates that both dogs are between 4 and 5-years-old. “Somebody, at some point, owned them. “
“This is an irresponsible owner who didn’t look after these dogs,” he said. “And look at the havoc it’s caused.”
On a cloudy morning last week, Casey was paying his customary visit to his traps, which are situated at the end of a dead end street off Avenue I (he asked that the exact location not be named so mischief makers don’t interfere with the set-up).
On this day he’d caught a feral cat, a springy gray little guy lured in by a large cut of steak. The cat was just one of scores of animals that regularly find their way into the traps, which consist of two large wire cages set to slam shut if anything enters.
The cage has attracted all kinds of animals: Other stray dogs, feral cats, possums and raccoons—Casey even arrived one day to find two of the critters stuck in the same trap.
The one thing, of course, the trap has yet to snare is the remaining pit bull, but it’s not for any lack of preparedness.
Next to the two cages—one of which remains visibly mangled after the first dog’s dramatic capture—hangs a cup of rotting meat, its pungent smell intended to entice a hungry pit bull on a warm spring day. The entire area is dusted with flour, which Casey checks daily for fresh paw prints.
Finally, just outside the trap sits a blanket, rumpled and fetid, having been left for days in the captured dog’s cage. Casey let her lay on it, eat on it and urinate on it before dragging it from the cage and placing it near the trap. It tells the other dog she’s still around, Casey said, and hopes its presence will be enough to draw her back.
Eventually, he said he hopes the brown dog warms enough to where he can loop a chain around her neck and bring her back down to the tracks.
If anything will bring the other dog to Casey, it will be that brown dog, who after three weeks in Casey’s care is only just beginning to make eye contact.
Casey has only seen the black pit bull a few times since that fateful night back in March, and though he doesn’t plan to give up any time soon, he is ready for the search to come to a close.
He recently became a father, making it more difficult for him to leap out of bed in the middle of the night to chase down a dog, and besides, the whole process has been draining, both financially and emotionally.
But what comes next likely won’t be much easier.
“They’ve grown on me,” said Casey. “Initially we thought this was going to be like, you know, we’ve got to catch these guys to get them off the streets.”
"But now I’ve spent so much time with them and now I know what they’re about. Living their life every day for the past year has been…” he trailed off.
“I’ve become attached to them. I feel almost part of their pack,” he said.
What will become of the dogs once both are caught is unknown. Years spent in the wild means that neither will likely ever be fit for domesticated life. There are sanctuaries for rescued pit bulls, but the facilities tend to be small, exclusive and costly.
Casey said that though he initially assumed the dogs would have to be put down once they were caught, he plans to work with them and try to decipher their true personalities before making any decisions.
Many residents who have encountered the dogs in their neighborhood appear to bear no ill will toward the animals, either.
“A lot people believe they should be euthanized, but most people would be content just knowing that those dogs are gone,” he said. “Ultimately, as long as they know the dogs are removed, and they’re not going to cause anybody else any harm or danger, I don’t think most people are out for blood."
One woman, the owner of one small dog attacked by the pit bulls, even expressed concern for their fate.
“When I told her we caught one, the first thing she said was ‘Oh my God, is he okay? The other one must be very upset,’” he said.
For now though, Casey is focused on taking one step at a time.
“We’ll have to play that one by ear. There’s no life living in the shelter either. It’s miserable,” he said.
“I don’t want them living like that.”