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.

"We're really very picky, and we are proud of that," England says.

With revenue of just $850,000 and 17 paid employees, Operation Kindness pales in comparison with the size of the SPCA, but England says she intentionally keeps the agency small. "I am extremely conservative about growth and concerned about not biting off more than we can chew," England says. "We are concerned about quality, not quantity."

Operation Kindness is a good example of how a nonprofit organization with limited resources can improve its services with controlled growth. On a recent afternoon, England couldn't conceal her excitement as she gave a tour of her agency's new $1.75 million building, which sits on more than four acres of land in Carrollton.

SPCA of Texas Executive Director Warren Cox is fending off critics, while his dream of building an animal shelter in Collin County is slowly slipping away.
SPCA of Texas Executive Director Warren Cox is fending off critics, while his dream of building an animal shelter in Collin County is slowly slipping away.
Evidence is growing that the SPCA is troubled by mismanagement. Earlier this year, one dog was stolen while another was sexually abused inside the agency's downtown shelter.
Evidence is growing that the SPCA is troubled by mismanagement. Earlier this year, one dog was stolen while another was sexually abused inside the agency's downtown shelter.

A construction crew was busy pouring concrete for the parking lot while workers completed the interior. The shelter's design emphasizes natural lighting that floods into open rooms, where cats will lounge outside cages. Though the dogs will stay inside kennels constructed of glass block, they will be walked on several acres of wooded land.

The building's construction was made possible by a $1 million grant from Sarah M. and Charles E. Seah, who were impressed with the organization after adopting a dog in 1990. Operation Kindness raised the additional $750,000 through fund-raisers during the last three years. England earns $45,000 annually, compared with the $79,826 Cox earned in 1997.

England says she has no plans to expand the shelter's services because that would require hiring more employees, which she can't afford. But the building was planned with the future in mind. "We designed it so we can expand," England says. "We would like to have a clinic to do our own spay and neuter [surgeries] and to have a vet on staff, but that's a ways down the road."

Operation Kindness plans to celebrate the shelter's completion during a grand-opening celebration scheduled for August 21.


Despite the problems at its downtown headquarters, there is no question that the SPCA provides better refuge to animals than the city of Dallas, where the public's lack of interest in animal causes is reflected by the city's animal control effort.

Of the 40,000 or so cats and dogs snared by Dallas animal control officers and taken to one of the city's two animal shelters each year, some 75 percent wind up on a stainless steel table, where they are injected with an overdose of anesthesia. Their bodies are loaded onto trucks and driven to a landfill. Nationally, 30 to 60 percent of the animals in shelters are killed, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

"As far as the total number that we do kill, there may be a few cities that have a greater number, but per capita, we're right up there with the worst of them," says Dallas animal-rights activist Skip Trimble.

And those are just the city's numbers.

In the region, an estimated 200,000 animals are killed every year at area shelters, veterinary offices, and some nonprofit organizations, including the SPCA of Texas. That's the equivalent of one cat or dog killed every three minutes all day long, seven days a week.

While most municipal shelters have an average adoption rate of 15 percent, Dallas lags behind, in part, because few people know where the two shelters are located. Most residents are unaware that they can adopt animals from the city, says Trimble, who serves as chairman of a city council-appointed commission that monitors the two shelters.

Trimble says the city also does a poor job selling the animals it has in its custody. While city employees could, for example, wash and groom some of its animals to make them more attractive to the public, Trimble says they "just pick 'em up and haul 'em out to the landfill."

The city's main shelter is the sort of dreary place that could break the heart of any animal lover, assuming they could find it. The one-story brick building is located at 8414 Forney Road in the middle of a near-desolate industrial stretch on the city's eastern edge, near Mesquite.

In the heart of the building, row after row of dogs, few of them healthy-looking, peer longingly through chain-link cages in a windowless room where two industrial-sized fans do little to stir the stifling air. About the only customer service provided is two signs: One advises visitors not to stick their hands in the dog cages; another, posted in the cat room, points out that touching one cat and then another will spread disease. (The Oak Cliff shelter, located near the entrance to the Dallas Zoo, offers a similar atmosphere. Though voters recently approved a $3.5 million bond issue for a new shelter there, construction isn't scheduled to begin for several years.)

First Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm, who oversees the animal control department, says she is implementing a series of long-overdue management and personnel changes in the department, hoping to reverse what critics say is a history of bureaucratic indifference that has given the city one of the nation's worst reputations for dealing with its animal population.

In the last year, Suhm has severed the animal control and code enforcement units from streets and sanitation, giving them their own department. In addition, she has spent months filling more than a dozen vacancies. The new employees are receiving training, including Spanish lessons, while their former boss, Terry Kinsworthy, has been reassigned. Suhm says she expects a new director to be in place sometime in August.

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