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.

As employees and volunteers battle the never-ending flow of animals into the downtown shelter, the SPCA is faced with more problems than just deciding which animals are fit for adoption.

Within the last year, Younts has taken over the day-to-day operations of the downtown shelter, and the last six months have been a challenge. On this Friday afternoon, Younts apologizes for the mess. At the moment, they are redesigning the cat rooms, so cages filled with sleeping felines and rambunctious kittens clutter the shelter's hallways.

Animal rights advocate Tawana Jurek believes the only way to solve the city's animal overpopulation crisis is low-cost sterilization programs.
Animal rights advocate Tawana Jurek believes the only way to solve the city's animal overpopulation crisis is low-cost sterilization programs.

"We have cats everywhere," says Younts, who slips past a row of cages en route to the dog kennels. The rows of back-to-back kennels are located inside a large, windowless room bathed with the yellow glow of fluorescent light. A heavy door marks the entrance to the room, where no employees are assigned to monitor the dogs.

This is room where Ellie, a 90-pound purebred Saint Bernard, was last seen on February 17. Sometime during business hours, SPCA officials believe, someone took Ellie from her kennel and led her through the shelter and out the back door.

How the person made it out of the shelter without being detected is still a mystery to SPCA employees, who brought the news of Ellie's theft to the media, hoping that publicity about a reward would give them a break in the case. At the time, SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Casey told The Dallas Morning News that other animal thefts had occurred at the shelter in the past, but that they were usually of small dogs or puppies that could easily be concealed under a coat or sweater.

The agency didn't take the same approach two weeks later, when another bizarre event occurred during peak business hours inside the kennels. Sometime around 6 p.m. on March 2, an SPCA customer caught a 40-year-old man sexually abusing a golden retriever named Ginger.

The man had "placed a golden retriever's paws up on a 3-foot brick wall and was hunched over the rear of the dog. [He] was moving his hips in an in and out motion," states a police report detailing the incident. No SPCA employee was around.

Younts says the man had a habit of coming in to look at the dogs. In fact, Younts herself had noticed him with the dogs earlier that day.

"He was coming in here quite a bit. Some of the employees recognized him. Obviously he was somebody who had been in this facility a lot," says Younts, who adds that she's not sure when the man typically showed up. "Hopefully it was at five o'clock, when we're all really busy."

Despite the security breaches, Younts says the agency has not increased staff supervision of the animals or required customers to be escorted through the shelter -- a practice at other adoption agencies.

"We don't have the staff for that," Younts says. "We are personnel-limited."

But the agency could provide better security if it would only improve the way it coordinates its volunteers, says Mary, an SPCA volunteer who recently quit and, like other former volunteers, asked that her last name not be used. The problem, she says, is that volunteers are not formally assigned to work in specific areas of the shelter or designated to work at particular times. A little supervision, she says, wouldn't cost the SPCA a dime, and it would go a long way to bringing order to the shelter.

Younts says she tries to "make sure people are back here at all times," but her argument isn't convincing: Customers were walking through the kennels without an employee or volunteer in sight on this Friday afternoon. In fact, Younts was forced to interrupt her explanation when she spied a child in the hallway opening up a cage filled with kittens.

"I wouldn't open that without Mom," she tells the girl. "Not without Mom."

But Mom wasn't paying attention. Instead, she's busy reaching into her own unsupervised cat cage a few feet away.

Additional donations would no doubt allow the SPCA to increase the size of its staff, but other agencies with less money manage to police their shelters just fine. Since 1989, Operation Kindness has operated its tiny shelter in an industrial strip near the intersection of Belt Line and Webb Chapel roads in Carrollton. Today, the nonprofit organization is positioning itself to become the area's premier shelter for unwanted cats and dogs.

Unlike the SPCA, Operation Kindness doesn't kill any of the animals it takes in. The animals remain until they are adopted, which sometimes can take years. Tirade the cat, for instance, came to the shelter on May 8, 1993. The downside is that Operation Kindness is forced to turn many animals away so it can keep its population at a manageable average of 130 animals a day. Every year, the shelter places some 2,400 animals with owners, and it is known for the strict rules employees must follow before anyone is approved for adoption.

Those who want to view the shelter's animals must first fill out a form that asks for basic personal information and pet-owning history. No one is allowed into the animal rooms unescorted. Before any animal is adopted, employees attempt to verify the information contained on the screening form. If any of it is suspect, they will turn the customer away, says Jonnie England, the agency's executive director.

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