"It's a job somebody's got to do," said Eduardo Seth Sr.
Seth is an experienced hand in the city's collection and disposal of an estimated 70,000 inanimate animals each year.
Little known but vitally important, a four-member collection crew picks up about 500 animals per week from the streets, 450 from hospitals, 150 from the city pound, 100 from the Humane Society and 150 from the Animal Rescue League, according to Ben Stultz, chief of solid waste collection.
The job has surprises in both breed and behavior.
Seth said he has twice been bitten while lifting dogs that were allegedly deceased. He once picked up a goat that had given up the ghost.
Roy (Fuzzy) Cobb once landed a late llama, whose owner "had him on a chain like a dog." He also recalled being summoned to a house on Reservoir Road NW, where a departed deer lay on the living room floor.
The report of a another dead deer triggered an unusual rescue mission in the Tidal Basin.
"We'd go to check, and we couldn't find it," said Cobb of the deer, which they finally found after three weeks of reported sightings.
Cobb recalled that while at the Tidal Basin, the crew was observed by a sunbathing couple. The woman called city officials to complain. "She thought that we were dumping animals in the river," Cobb said.
Each collector drives a refrigerated truck. When it is full, he unloads it at a room-sized refrigerator on the grounds of the city incinerator on Benning Road. Three times a week, Stultz said, a company from Elkridge, Md., picks up the remains, for use in the manufacture of cosmetics.
The cosmetics industry uses the animal fat, and the animal protein is sold to feed companies.
According to Dr. Alan Beck of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, landfills, incinerators and rendering companies are used for disposal of animal carcasses. Rendering, by which the corpses are processed into usable byproducts, "is probably the most ecologically sound but sounds the most terrible," he said.
Only on Christmas Day does the entire staff get the day off, Stultz said. But the collectors agree that the job has a seasonal aspect: As the mercury climbs, so does the misery. Seth noted that fleas become a factor in the summer; Cobb pointed out that the odor gets worse.
Cobb recalled a seafood merchant on Maryland Avenue NE who lost his business license and abandoned his storehouse. For two weeks in the summer, eight crates of fish rotted inside the building.
"We're not allowed to break into places," Cobb explained, so a police officer joined him at the scene. Although there was nothing criminal other than the smell, they gained entry and removed the fish.
The clean-up crews say they get help -- or competition -- from private collectors. Louis Anderson was once called to pick up a raccoon on Military Road. He spotted it on the opposite side of the road and noticed a car pulling up next to it.
"By the time I turned around and came back, I saw the man pick it up, open the trunk, throw it inside and drive away," Anderson said.
Despite the physical strains, the fleas, the stench, the gore and the constant reminders of death that make the job trying, the men said that among the worst ordeals is the collection of a cherished pet from a devastated household. "You almost have to have a funeral," Seth said.
"If you've got a heart at all, it makes you cry too," Cloyd Latney added.