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The rank odor of filth and death can be detected in the parking lot outside the Oak Cliff animal shelter, located on a dead-end street next to the Dallas Zoo. The stench settles into clothes, and it grows stronger inside the building. The employees here have been guilty of failing to keep the place clean, but there's not much they can do to rid themselves of the smell. It is embedded in the concrete floors and worn tiles--porous materials considered appropriate in 1960, when the place was built.
Behind the welcome counter, inside a cramped office, animal control officer Courtney Collins sits at a new computer and quietly updates the day's euthanasia log. The sound of his typing can't be heard over the constant din of barking dogs. So far today, Collins has killed 20 dogs and cats, and it's not even lunchtime.
Last year, the city of Dallas killed more than 22,000 animals here and at its second shelter, on Forney Road in far northeast Dallas. One animal was killed about every six minutes, of every hour, for each day the shelters were open.
The killing is part of the job duties expected of all animal control officers, who rotate onto euthanasia duty twice a week. A starting officer makes about $11 an hour, plus benefits.
The officers react differently to the chore, but most try to distance themselves from it. Officer Pat Grecco, a five-year employee, spends her free time, and her own money, on constructive tasks. Last year Grecco helped save a record number of impounded animals, more than 2,000, by tapping into a network of 300 rescue groups across the country.
"I use my own cell phone to get them transported from point A to point B. So my cell phone can go to $300, $400 in one month alone, not counting the other expenses," Grecco says. "The idea is to get 'em out of here."
Other employees simply grow callous. At least that's what a team of inspectors from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) saw when they visited the city's euthanasia rooms last summer.
"Some staff were observed playing loud music, laughing and talking inside the room while the euthanasia process was being carried out," they reported. "Animals are dragged into the room and shoved into cages with poles. Dogs are tied to cages as others are euthanized and dumped into carts. Some [euthanized] animals...were immediately thrown into the cart with dead animals."
Samuel Rice, who became the director of animal control two years ago, knows some of his employees are unprofessional, but he says it is time Dallas residents understand what they ask of them--especially now, when Dallas City Council members are deciding whether they have the political will to ask voters for a tax increase so the city can build the new shelter Rice needs.
Rice is the man responsible for a department that critics say is stuck in the "catch and kill" mentality of yesteryear. A 30-year veteran of the department, Rice has killed his share of throwaway pets.
"It's a hard thing to do, to destroy life. You can rationalize it, but you can never get away from it," Rice says. "You have dreams."
Rice is a shy man, one loath to make eye contact, but he allows a touch of disgust to enter his voice when he talks about what his employees go through every day. The nightmares aren't the worst part. Unlike the directors of private shelters, Rice says he can't refuse strays, most often the unwanted offspring of animals whose owners are too cheap or ignorant to sterilize.
"They'll come in and say, 'How can you people do these kinds of things?'" Rice says. "We're a city operation. We're supposed to be customer-friendly. But we're not here to accept somebody's guilt trip because they are not responsible pet owners. This is a constant day in and day out situation."
Rice says the city was a leader in animal control circles when he was hired in the 1970s. Dallas was one of the first cities to convert to the use of injections for euthanasia. The city was also at the forefront of developing new animal control laws, which Rice says allowed it to keep its stray animal population and, as a result, the department's caseload in balance.
"At that time our leadership wanted us to be more professional in what we were doing," Rice says. "We were on the cutting edge."
Today, Rice doesn't hesitate to say he agrees with the Humane Society investigators, who in December presented city officials with a 121-page damning critique of Rice's department. After all, Rice was part of the group of city employees and community activists that wanted the HSUS to visit Dallas. Rice calls the process "tough love."
"I knew there would be some things that would come out that I would not be happy with," Rice says. "Even though they were some hard things to look at, those were the kind of things that needed to be brought out."
In general, the HSUS found that everything that could go wrong in an animal control department is going wrong in Dallas. In recent months, Rice has begun correcting the problems the HSUS highlighted, a process he is carrying out with the agency's continued assistance. In addition, the city auditor's office has begun monitoring the department to ensure the changes are implemented.
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