By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Located in Collin County between Plano and McKinney, the 29-acre campus promises to be a "pastoral oasis," as one report put it in 1997 when the project was announced, for the thousands of abandoned, abused, and otherwise homeless animals the SPCA takes in each year.
When it's completed, livestock will munch grass inside a spacious paddock near the campus gates. Behind them, a tiny island will rise from a large pond brimming with marine life. To the left, injured horses will have room to roam and a new barn to call home. There is even talk of a bird sanctuary.
The campus' heart will be three buildings housing a 33,000-square-foot animal adoption center, an expanded veterinary clinic, and an education center. One of the buildings, the Lynn T. and Russell E. Dealey Life Care Cottage, is designated as a retirement lodge for elderly cats, dogs, and other pets whose owners precede them in death.
What is unique about the proposed complex is not its modern grounds, but the philosophy behind them: Campus visitors will be encouraged to roam about a network of nature trails intended to give them a positive experience with animals without the depressing sight of overcrowded cages.
No one wants to see the campus finished more than Warren Cox, the SPCA's longtime executive director. For him, the campus is a dream -- a place where humans, having failed in their duty to care for animals they domesticated, can carry out the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' mission "to foster a public sentiment of humanity and gentleness" toward animals.
"We're going to be a green oasis right in the middle of a bunch of concrete," Cox says.
Cox speaks of the campus as if its grand opening were imminent, but the truth is, his utopian island of misfits is slowly drifting away. Initially scheduled to open in spring 1998, the project has been stymied by a lack of money and construction costs that have rocketed well beyond their original $4 million estimate. In its public relations material, the SPCA is still fishing for deep-pocketed donors who will make the campus a reality, but Cox concedes he has decided to quietly pull the plug on formal fund-raising efforts. Although the pet retirement lodge is scheduled to open later this summer, when construction on the rest of the campus will begin is anyone's guess.
To Cox, the blame for the project's indefinite delay falls on you, the residents of Dallas and surrounding suburbs, whom he accuses of failing to donate to the cause. "People say they like the animals," Cox says, "but they don't give the money."
As far as fund-raising goes, Cox is right about one thing: Given the amount of wealth Dallas has to offer, donations to animal charities are a trickle compared with cities like San Francisco, where the budget of the local SPCA is three times what it is in Dallas. To make matters worse, critics say the city's government-funded animal-control effort ranks among the nation's poorest.
But a shortage of public goodwill isn't the only problem facing the city's largest animal welfare agency.
In recent months, the SPCA has become the target of a growing number of complaints from animal lovers who say the agency has grown so focused on fund-raising and expansion that it is neglecting the day-to-day management of its facilities. As a result, critics say, the animals are beginning to suffer. While the sniping at times resembles a catfight, evidence is mounting that the SPCA's downtown shelter is troubled by mismanagement.
In February, someone walked into the SPCA's downtown shelter and stole a Saint Bernard. Weeks later, an SPCA customer walked into the same area during peak business hours and encountered a man sexually abusing a golden retriever. The man has been indicted on a misdemeanor charge of public lewdness, and his case is still pending.
The SPCA installed a new gate and razor wire atop its fence after the theft, but the agency has taken no formal measures to improve security or supervise its customers once they are inside the kennels. During a recent tour, shelter manager Debbie Younts explained that the SPCA can't afford to hire more employees to better monitor the shelter.
SPCA critics say the incidents support their allegations that the agency is losing sight of its original mission to prevent animal abuse. More important, they say, it raises doubts about the agency's ability to successfully operate an expanded campus in Collin County.
Whether the SPCA can eventually make the campus a reality is a question Cox himself has recently been forced to ask. But with the city's animal overpopulation problem still festering at what animal welfare activists agree is a "crisis" level, perhaps a better question is whether it should.
Since it opened its doors in 1938, the SPCA of Texas has become the most prestigious nonprofit animal welfare agency in North Texas. The agency, which has no affiliation with the New York-based ASPCA, is so well known that people often assume it is the city's animal shelter, kept afloat with government money.