The Oak Cliff home looks like every other house on the street: well-kept, neatly trimmed lawn, and a brinks home security sign out front.

But animal cruelty investigator Dee Stephens suspects the home’s inhabitants are breeding and fighting pit bulls out back, and she offers some advice as she walks toward the door.

“Don’t stand directly in front of the door after I ring the bell,” Stephens says.

“Sometimes they shoot first, and ask questions later.”

Truth is, Dee Stephens can encounter danger just about any day she’s on the job. Back yards full of pit bulls bred to fight, auto shops guarded by attack dogs, acres of land outside the city where creatures such as lions and bears are kept on what Stephens calls a “shoelace” as restraint: These are the places where Stephens does her job.

Stephens works for the animal cruelty division of the Humane Society of Greater Dallas, a division established just over a year ago. Its offices opened in October at the intersection of Northwest and Ferndale.

“One of the reasons we picked this area is its security and safety,” says Stephens, who also lives in our neighborhood. “I like Lake Highlands because we’ve got the lake and the animal-friendly atmosphere. There’s so much going on, and the community’s great.”

Since it opened, the division has investigated hundreds of complaints of animal abuse, ranging from lack of shelter to more serious offenses.

In a strange twist of fate, the first big case the division handled came to a head Sept. 11.

“The Sunday before that, someone called to tell me that a dog was dying,” Stephens says. “So we called emergency rescue and went out there.”

They arrived at a guard dog business in South Dallas and, within 15 minutes, the dog’s condition deteriorated significantly, to the point where Stephens says: “I had to get him out of there.”

She called police, and the responding officer declared the dog in “imminent peril,” a statement that has to be made before a dog can be removed and taken for treatment without a warrant.

One day and $1,500 later, the dog died. Back where he’d been found, there were 28 other animals being used as guard dogs.

“We decided to go in and seize the rest,” Stephens says. They obtained a warrant Sept. 10, and the state police became involved. In an effort to educate the public, Stephens called the local TV stations for media coverage.

“On the way there, everything started happening in New York. But we couldn’t say: No, we can’t do this. We had the warrant, and we had to serve it.”

The remaining dogs were seized, taken to vets, and subsequently placed with shelters and foster homes. The animals’ owner, who had been peddling guard dogs since 1969, was forced to sell his business and will not be able to apply for another license with the state for 20 years. He has refused to accept a plea bargain, and the case is still making its way through the criminal courts.

Because Stephens’ office hasn’t been open long, no statistics are available about how many civil and criminal cases the division has investigated or solved. But Stephens and a second investigator, Tommy Lindley, each make between five and 20 house calls a day – throughout the city.

“I get bored easily, but not with my job,” she says. “It’s just non-stop something, every day. I need about three more investigators to do what we need to do effectively.”

But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

“We’re supported entirely by private donations,” Stephens says. “It takes about $8,000 a month to run this office, and we’re nowhere near that.”

The guard-dog case cost about $16,000 and, though they’ve filed for restitution, it’s unlikely they’ll see any money.

Until more funds can be raised, Stephens will work what often amounts to 80-hour weeks to get things accomplished.

“I know how to push things through, and I know what agencies to use. I know how to prosecute. We do whatever it takes to get the problem solved,” she says. “My biggest issue is quality of life for these animals.”

Stephens pulls up to a used-car dealership in West Dallas. She’s doing a spot-check; the owner, who has started using guard dogs, has had visits from Stephens before.

“He doesn’t like me too much,” she says with a grin.

Most of the cars look as if they haven’t been started in years. A note on the door says the owner is away, and no one else appears to be around.

“No trespassing signs,” Stephens says as she walks toward the back of the building. “Watch yourself. I’m not sure where they are.”

Stephens soon finds what she suspected she would: two dogs, on chains that don’t look to be more than three feet long, tethered to rusted-out trucks.

One of the dogs is older and growling. He has no food, and what water he had – in a shallow bowl – has long been lapped up or kicked over. The other dog is just a puppy that doesn’t know enough yet not to wag his tail at strange visitors.

Though the dogs look well-fed and healthy, they’re not likely to be walked or taken to the park or have a ball thrown for them. Based on the surroundings, it’s likely they won’t be receiving many pats on the head, either.

Instead, they appear destined to spend their lives on the end of a three-foot chain – and be trained to distrust humans. In just a few short months, if he’s still there, that cute shepherd-mix pup wagging his tail will want to chew someone’s head off.

Growing up in Arlington, Stephens wanted to be a cop. After school, she joined the U.S. Coast Guard and performed emergency search-and-rescue missions in Puerto Rico and Galveston. But she was never home, she says, and grew wary of that aspect of the job. She returned to Arlington and started doing private investigative work; again, she says, she found herself being “pushed into eight different states.”

Seeking a more settled life, Stephens answered a classified ad in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper.

“It said: Stop animal abuse and neglect. Send your resume (to a P.O. Box.). That’s it, that’s all they gave,” she says. She replied, received the job and began work with the Human Society of North Texas in 1999 before she switched locations and starting work in Lake Highlands.

A look at the felony cases on a dry erase board in her office reveals a horrific list of abuse: cat shot in head, dog stabbed, cat mutilation, dog poisoned.

“Those are only eight of the cases we’re sifting through,” Stephens says. “It’s horrible what people do to their animals. And the public doesn’t know.”

Occasionally, arrests can be made immediately. But more often than not, Stephens and Lindley have to do investigative work. They talk to witnesses and, if possible, interview the alleged perpetrators, take digital photos, order vet appointments, if necessary, and begin creating a paper trail. When they’ve compiled enough evidence in the most serious cases, they turn the case over to law enforcement.

While many extremes cases exist, the typical animal cruelty case deals more with issues of ignorance and neglect. Many of the complaints received are about a lack of the basics: food, water, shelter.

“One thing I’d like to stress is that if someone sees a dog without food, water or shelter, don’t wait until it’s 110 degrees outside. Call someone. Because when we get busy, I might get 30 calls a day to go out and check, and with two of us, if we don’t get out there that day within 24 hours, there’s a good possibility the animal dies. And that bugs me. I have issues with that.”

In the case of the car dealer, while it’s easy to think someone should go in and remove the dogs from his care, that’s not always what Stephens wants to accomplish.

“It does me no good to take their dogs away from them without educating them, because the response is: Fine, I’ll just go get another dog,” she says. “If I haven’t educated them, I’ve done no good except create a future cruelty case for myself.

Stephens says that probably 90 percent of her job is about education. In some cases, however, that’s not enough.

Back in Oak Cliff, no one answers the door, and Stephens decides to walk around the back of the house.

It isn’t long before she hears them.

Fourteen or 15 dogs are chained to trees on heavy tow chains. From a distance, they appear healthy, but as she moves closer to the first one, it’s obvious something is wrong. One side of his face is swollen, and there are fresh wounds on his face and body. He appears aggressive at first, but as we stay longer and wander around the yard, they all eventually quiet down and wag their tails.

The evidence is clearer. More than one has been fighting – as recently as three days before, Stephen guesses.

There is one dog, near the house, chained to what looks like a pen.

“It’s where they fight,” Stephen says, pointing out a mangled stick in the pen. It’s called a breaking stick and is used to pry loose one dog’s bite on another.

This dog must be the veteran of the bunch because he never stops looking like he wants to take a bite out of someone.

The puppy, in the middle, is a different story. Tied to a pole, extending from the tree he’s chained to, is a piece of synthetic fur. It’s a lure, put there so he’ll jump at it and strengthen his leg muscles. When he’s big enough, he’ll be able to hang from it and build his neck and jaw muscles, creating a powerful bite that will help him win fights.

But for now, the puppy wags his tail and wiggles around with enthusiasm. In fact, it looks as though he’d like nothing more than to be picked up and petted.

It could be worse, Stephen says. Many dog-fight trainers train their animals with live bait, such as a kitten.

Back in Stephens’ office, her supervisor, Patt Davis, executive director of the Humane Society of Greater Dallas, talks about two new laws addressing animal cruelty that passed in the 2001 state legislative session: the dangerous wild animal bill, which regulates the ownership of animals such as lions, tigers and bears, and the felony animal cruelty act, which clearly defines cruelty and makes many acts of it a felony.

“Those laws have really put the backbone into cruelty investigation,” Davis says. “Before that, we were working with one felony – which passed 10 years ago – and that’s dog fighting.”

Behind her desk, Stephens has answered a phone call: “The owner of the pit bulls is on the line. Whenever she comes across abuse, she leaves a form ticking off the offenses and asking those involved to phone her.

“Well, I don’t know where they came from,” she says into the phone, referring to the wounds on the dog. Her voice raises slightly. “You tell me.”

As she predicted, the man tells a rambling, improbable story, explaining that the dogs escaped into the neighborhood and all three returned home with lacerations. Stephens eventually hangs up after she has made an appointment to visit the man again the next day.

Stephens says when people report an animal cruelty incident, they tell her they find it difficult to sleep at night.

She doesn’t.

“I see justice. I see people go to jail. I know that every day that I go out, I make a difference. Every day that our investigative staff goes out, they get dogs out of bad situations.”

Davis agrees: “The more they realize that somebody will prosecute them, the more they’ll back off. And there’s no doubt that we will prosecute them. I don’t care who they are or what they are, there’s no excuse to abuse an animal.”