Celebrating 35 Years: Feral Dogs and Community Development

35 Facts for CNT’s 35 Years: Each week we’ll expand on one fun fact. Enjoy!

#7 Feral Dogs and Community Development

alley dogFeral dogs. Not exactly what you think of when you think “Center for Neighborhood Technology,” right? Well…

To be fair, this story predates CNT by just a bit, but you might say it was a catalyst of sorts. Here’s how it goes:

In 1973, Scott Bernstein was involved in a seminar at Northwestern University that was investigating two important ideas:

  1. The development of a system by which universities, rather than bringing ideas to communities with a top-down approach, could ask relevant questions in order to understand community needs and how a university might be able to assist; this was to become the Community Service Voucher Program.
  2. The understanding of non-therapeutic determinants of health; what ailments send people to seek medical treatment and what can be done to make people healthier?

Since Scott had a background in designing medical record systems, it was suggested that he and a team of students be organized to go into local hospitals on the West Side of Chicago and re-code medical records into lay terms, adding specific reasons for injuries or ailments; basically, to put back in what the standardized medical codes stripped out.

Given access to a year’s worth of medical records from Bethany Hospital on Chicago’s West Side, the team was able to determine the top 10 reasons for hospital visits by community residents. The top five reasons were personal attack, traffic-related accidents, fires, falls, and respiratory difficulty. Rounding out the top 10 was an injury many might think of as inconsistent with city life: puncture wounds sustained as a result of dog bites.

That dog bites were among the top ten raised red flags for Scott and the team. What they found was that there were a lot of feral dogs, alley dogs, living in proximity to people in West Side neighborhoods. These stray dogs may have started as family pets or guard dogs, but as times got tight many were left to fend for themselves. Too often, they would clash with residents, causing injury.

Scott and team quickly saw that this public health problem could be solved at the community level. They worked with residents in West Garfield Park to develop a very safe way to capture the dogs, and offered a $5.00 reward for each dog brought to the Christian Action Ministry at 3932 W. Madison (where CNT later worked on a solar greenhouse project). The Chicago Police Department arranged for daily (or as-needed) transfer of the dogs to the Anti-Cruelty Society for health checks and to be made available for adoption.

As part of the project, the team asked residents to point out on a map where the dogs were caught: vacant lots, abandoned buildings, under-serviced alleys, etc. This provided invaluable data and illustrated the extent of the problem, and allowed residents to effectively address them through subsequent local community action.

This was community organizing at its best. For a few thousand dollars, the dog bite problem was solved in West Garfield Park. Police got credit for improving public safety, and Scott and the team learned critical lessons about the impact of community-level, community-based problem solving.

The model was extended to community intervention to improve traffic conditions (including “pothole parties”) and what’s today called traffic calming, and to improving nutrition through local urban agriculture. All of this led to the creation of CNT and the continuation of thinking about and implementing place-based solutions.

We’re celebrating CNT’s 35 years of impact on sustainable urban development through 35 weeks of posts like this one. If you have a story or picture from our past, please share it with Anjuli@cnt.org. Thanks!

CNT’s work is made possible, in part, through generous support from individual donors. Please click here to make a gift in honor of our 35th anniversary.

Next week: #8 Energy Efficiency in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood