Caged and confused

While critics howl, the SPCA of Texas dreams of opening a rural animal utopia. Meanwhile, Dallas kills hundreds of pets every day.

Pawn shops, bail-bond businesses, and liquor stores surround the SPCA's clinic and administrative offices at 362 S. Industrial Blvd., next to Interstate 30. The agency is in the middle of skid row, and that's fitting, given the nature of its work.

A dog-eared artist's rendering of the planned Collin County animal campus rests on a metal easel in the corner of Warren Cox's office. A layer of fine dust has gathered on the drawing, but the project still consumes Cox.

"For years people got accustomed to seeing downtown shelters like this one," Cox says. "We wanted something that would be more conducive to giving people a positive experience. There's no reason we have to go on with the same old stereotype of animals behind wires."

A new, low-cost spay and neuter clinic run by the Fund For Animals in Oak Cliff offers Dallas a chance to alleviate its animal overpopulation crisis. Clinic director Joanne Jackson (left) watches as a vet technician prepares a feral cat for operation.
A new, low-cost spay and neuter clinic run by the Fund For Animals in Oak Cliff offers Dallas a chance to alleviate its animal overpopulation crisis. Clinic director Joanne Jackson (left) watches as a vet technician prepares a feral cat for operation.
Animal rights advocate Skip Trimble says the city of Dallas kills more unwanted cats and dogs per capita than most cities in the United States.
Animal rights advocate Skip Trimble says the city of Dallas kills more unwanted cats and dogs per capita than most cities in the United States.

Since becoming the SPCA's executive director nine years ago, Cox has wrestled with life-and-death questions every day. A staff of more than 70 paid employees and dozens of volunteers receive, nurse, adopt, and, tragically, kill more than 11,000 unwanted cats and dogs every year. Another 7,000 animals pass through the agency's satellite office in McKinney.

"We've saved the lives of more than 100,000 animals since 1976," Cox says proudly.

When it comes to selling reporters on the good deeds of the SPCA, Cox is a wonderful pitchman. But when the questions involve his management of the agency, Cox's ordinarily amiable demeanor stiffens. Seated behind a paper-strewn desk, Cox begins ticking off SPCA's programs, his words echoing those published in the agency's public relations material: to rescue and adopt animals, provide low-cost spay and neuter services, sponsor educational programs, and investigate cases of animal cruelty. Cox says no one aspect of the SPCA's mission takes priority over another, but in its most recent IRS filing, from 1997, the SPCA reported that $2.5 million of $3.8 million in total revenues were spent on programs that directly benefit the animals. The rest of the money is spent on management and fund-raising costs.

While the agency receives much media coverage when sensational cases of abuse are uncovered, cruelty investigations represent just 4 percent, or $99,060, of the SPCA's $2.5 million program-services budget -- the lowest amount of all its services.

By far, the lion's share of the agency's program-services budget -- some 62 percent -- is spent on its shelter. It is there, amid the dozens of kennels and cat cages, that the SPCA carries out its central mission of sheltering and finding homes for unwanted pets. The SPCA places more unwanted animals than any other adoption agency in North Texas.

Still, an animal brought to the SPCA stands an even chance of winding up dead. In 1998, the SPCA placed 9,123 animals in homes, including 368 lost pets reunited with their owners. In publicizing its work, the agency reports that the numbers represent a 93 percent adoption rate, but that figure is deceiving because it includes only the animals that the SPCA deemed "adoptable." Fewer than half of the 18,922 animals the SPCA admitted last year were adopted.

The SPCA kills more animals than it saves because the agency will not turn away any animal that doesn't have a home. While many of those animals are ultimately killed, Cox says, at least the SPCA gives them a second chance they otherwise wouldn't get.

"We live in a throwaway society," Cox says. "But when it comes to life, where do you draw the line?"

But Cox himself isn't sure where his agency draws the line between adoptable animals and others. He was unable to articulate any policy the SPCA uses in determining which animals are killed. Instead, he says, "there's got to be an unwritten thing where when [medical costs] get into the thousands of dollars" the animal is put down. Debbie Younts, the manager of the SPCA's downtown shelter, was similarly unable to define a concise euthanasia policy.

"We don't like to euthanize unless it's a necessity," Younts says. "We try not to give ourselves any limitations."

But with its policy of taking in animals slated to die at municipal shelters throughout North Texas in the hopes of selling them at its own adoption shelter, the agency is clearly pushing itself beyond its limits. The SPCA reported that it killed 199 healthy animals in 1998 because of a lack of space.

In recent weeks, several SPCA volunteers have said they and others left the SPCA because of what they believed was the unnecessary deaths of healthy animals.

Susan Knoll, a volunteer in the SPCA's foster program, says she resigned as a volunteer on August 2 because SPCA employees hastily euthanized a cat she had fostered this summer after incorrectly concluding it had feline AIDS. Knoll says she quit after trying to no avail to get an explanation for why the cat was put down. The lack of response, she says, is typical of the way the SPCA treats its volunteers.

"All I am trying to do is help animals out, but this situation for me was the last straw," says Knoll, who in 1997 was given an excellence award for her volunteer efforts. "They have told me it was a mistake, and nobody will step up to the plate and give me answers. Not getting any answers is unacceptable, and it's disappointing coming from an agency that is supposed to prevent cruelty to animals."

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