The Thin Line Between Dog Rescuing and Dog Hoarding

With the city overrun with strays, Dallas' animal rescuers want to save dogs from cruelty and neglect. But some need to be saved from themselves.

"The shelters who were transferring to her didn't have any idea that she was getting all these animals from all these other groups," Bias says. "In their minds, they thought she was only getting from them."

Don Feare, an animal-law attorney who represents Ogden, rejects the notion that she's a hoarder. "This lady is highly thought of in the community," he says. "Did she have too many animals? Absolutely. But every one of those dogs was OK."

Feare argues that rescuers need better legal protection, especially in Dallas. He works with rescuers in several North Texas cities, and he's alarmed by the way the city handles animal-related complaints. People with concerns call 311, and Animal Services officers are dispatched to look into the matter. But they're required to go every single time there's a call, and calls can be placed anonymously.

Neighbors can "use the city as a weapon," Domanick Muñoz says.

Judy Griggs was briefly a rescuer herself, before starting a food bank for the rescue community, R-PAL. She's "from a family of lawyers," as she puts it, and has become a de facto advocate for many other rescuers. She points to another Dallas couple, Mark and Lynn Gideon, as a prime example of how Code Compliance needs to deal differently with animal complaints.

The couple weren't formal rescuers, but they had over the years acquired 17 dogs, which were by all accounts settling into elderly canine-hood healthy and well cared for. But one dissatisfied neighbor kept calling the city, leading to a protracted court battle. The Gideons were eventually allowed to keep their pets. One condition of the settlement, according to their lawyer, was that the city would ignore future calls from the cranky neighbor.

"As long as people can continue to call [Code Compliance] anonymously," Griggs says, "there's no accountability. ... Think how much money it costs the city, and how much time."

Neighbors who call the city persistently, even after their complaints have been invalidated, simply need to be told to stop, Feare says.

"I don't think the government has to go out every time some lunatic calls," he says. "The city needs to quit worrying about politics and the public view and start being a governmental entity."


The issue of rescuer rights and responsibilities may soon run headlong into an evolving Dallas Animal Services, where there's finally cause for some optimism. In June, the city appointed a new shelter manager, Jody Jones, and animal welfare advocates speak warmly of her. At a recent meeting, Jones told city council members that things are improving: adoption rates are up, euthanasia rates are slightly down and measures are being taken to respond to last year's drubbing by the Humane Society. Animals are also being examined and vaccinated upon intake for the first time.

The shelter is also focusing on something called the Dallas Companion Animal Project (DCAP), a new task force working to reduce the number of "healthy, adoptable animals" that are euthanized. Rebecca Poling, who is serving as DCAP's chair, calls the project "a blueprint to foster a more humane community in Dallas."

It's a laudable goal — no one can argue with fewer dead animals — but it comes with consequences. Cities that have successfully gone "no-kill," including Austin and Kansas City, have reported overcrowding at their shelters. And with no room at shelters and no euthanasia, rescuers' roles will increase dramatically. According to Poling, many rescuers are already operating "at or near capacity," meaning either existing rescues will have to expand or new ones will have to be created.

With rescuers in line to inherit even more responsibility, the SPCA's Bias says it's time for rescues to be better regulated, either by the city or through an internal watchdog group. "Shelters fall under [state supervision] through an annual inspection and licensing process," he says. "But the rescue community falls through the cracks. ... I've encouraged the rescuers I've talked with to come up with a system to police yourselves, so you can go in and create a rescue stamp of approval."

Houston rescuers tried that out a few years ago, forming the Texas Animal Release and Placement Association. But that organization is now defunct, says Rich Hoffman, a Dallas rescuer familiar with the group, due to "philosophical differences." (TARPA's former website, tarpa.org, is filled with ads for real estate. In Japanese.)

"We all agree that we know what good is and we know what bad is, but we can't agree on how we're gonna get there," he says of the rescue community. "TARPA couldn't agree on how to tell somebody how to do it. One group would sit there and say, 'I spay and neuter all my puppies before I put them out.' Another group says 'Put them in homes first. It's more comfortable. Then do a contract, the way the city does, that says the owner has to spay and neuter.' They couldn't get anybody to agree."

Another risk with accreditation, says shelter manager Jones, is that it could make it harder for rescuers to pull animals from the shelter. And shelters depend on rescuers to reduce overcrowding.

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33 comments
nancyt
nancyt

This has nothing to do with my disability which you insinuate is somehow unwarranted. I cant believe the personal attacks just because we find living next door to umpteen dogs is a problem.Maybe you should live here. All we are asking for is some quiet between the hours of 11 and 5. And we would like to be able to use our yard in the summertime without smelling the urine and feces of 16 + dogs. Not to mention that they bark the whole time we are outside. As far as the taxpayers paying my disability, I worked since I was 15 and payed into s.s. all those years and I would much rather work than be in my condition I can assure you. It is not you or the taxpayers supporting me. And the ammount I receive is not enough for ANYONE to live on.My physical condition nor my husbands has anything to do with the issue at hand. My yard is the smallest in the neighborhood and I wish I could keep it up to the standards I would like to.You obviously have not seen my yard.We have not attacked Ms Steel personally and my personal health circumstances have nothing to do with this issue.I too love animals and spoil and treat my dog as one of the family.You do not know me or the efforts we have put forth to resolve this problem peacefully with Ms Steel for years. It is easy to sit in the quiet of your home and judge. Have we asked for anything unreasonable? I guess it is easier to attack people you dont know the facts about rather than hold someone resposible to the laws of the city. Ms Steel has called the city many times reporting my dog wasnt registered or our car was parked illegally and numerous other things.We register our dog and he has his shots and is treated monthly for fleas and heartworms.The Mejias are also responsible pet owners along with the other neighbors who have complained about the situation.The point is that she is over the legal limit of animals you can have in the city of Dallas. That is a fact . This is not a story about wicked people ganging up on an innocent woman. The story did not go into all the years the neighbors tried unsuccesfully to reason with Ms Steel about the problem.There are many things that MsSteel has done to get herself to this point which would serve no purpose in writing about on here. I am sure she would like to keep personal many of her problems.

Petto_princess
Petto_princess

I've found the addresses of Ms. Steel and Mr. Mejia on the internet.... If you want to know the truth, you have to investigate for yourself. I love dogs and I am currently trying to find homes for my cousin's dogs so I know how important people who can foster animals are. On google maps her property looks neat and Ms. Steel (I'm assuming) is even seen outside with them. Reading this article made me want to send Ms. Steel a letter of support and Mr. Mejia one of disappointment (or bag of poop haha jk) for harassing her. I will refrain because I know that I'm not there to know the full story.

Really though...so many sweet adoptable animals are killed each day it breaks my heart.

P.S- who wants a sweet German Shepherd mix and/or his two chihuahua buddies?

Beauverre
Beauverre

Although we were talked to this time around we still come accross as being intolerant neighbors who have nothing better to do than call in on our neighbors. It was not mentioned that we asked,begged and pleaded with Ms Steele to control the barking so we could rest at night. Anyone in their right mind knows that dogs bark. Our dog barks every time her dogs bark. While I find it hard to belive that 16 dogs never bark when she is being interviewed belive me, they DO bark and it is loud.I have had numerous surgeries and my husband has cancer. We have repeatedly appealed to Ms Steel for the dogs to be kept quiet at night to no avail.After having several spinal fusions I have had to stay at friends homes to recover because of the barking.Most dogs defecate at least twice a day and whether she has 16 or 30 it smells terrible! Especially in the summer months. Not to mention the strong urine odor. We spoke of these things in the interview with Ms Merlan and I was disappointed to see that more of our efforts to solve the situation neighborly were not stated in the article. And MANY animal control officers and other city personell have been to our home and witnessed the problem although they were not interviewed for this article as the two who seem to believe (like Ms Steel) that there is no problem here.I believe the judge in her case felt as frustrated as we have in trying to reason with Ms Steel. And not that it matters as far as the article is concerned but my hair is grey and is cut in a short pixie and the curtains are lime green.It just seems that if these inconsequential things were to be mentioned in the article they should be correct? It makes me question the truth of other statements.

unanswered
unanswered

I too wonder what Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Ehrenfeld were doing “to testify on behalf of Steel, the Thompsons' dog-rescuing neighbor, who's scheduled to be sentenced in her recent aggravated robbery case.” What were they there to testify about if this was a robbery case and not about her animals? And was the banter between them necessary for this article? As well as the other cases involving rescues? Couldn’t there have been more information about this story without all that other information? It seemed like more than half of this article is about the city of Dallas’ animal services than on whether or not Ms. Steel should be running a rescue. Most anyone who is an animal advocate is aware of the overpopulation problem and that rescue organizations are stretched too thin. I find some of the information about it unnecessary for this particular article. And how can rescue dogs be grandfathered? Wouldn’t the new ones brought in not be? I also don’t understand the statement "I was trying to do things legitimately." But there was "a problem" with some of the paperwork, she says, and she never quite managed to fix it.” What problem was this? What paperwork? And if there was a problem how did she run the rescue for so long? “Each time, she was required by law to let them in the house. Each time, she and investigators say, they wouldn't find anything amiss. "[The claims] were always unfounded," Ehrenfeld would later testify. "The dogs were always well cared for." That statement is untrue. She sometimes refused to let responders (including police officers) into her home. And the reports of fleas where not unfounded. There was a news report on channel 8 back in 2007 or 2008 that clearly showed the fleas in the yard. Why was this news report not brought up?I would think the fact that Ms. Steel was convicted of the crime she was charged with would be reason enough for Mr. Mejia to have no need to comment. It would also call into question Ms. Steel’s account of the incident.It says she lost her job which confuses me. I thought she ran a rescue group. How can she do that at the all by herself (there are no other ‘employees’ of her rescue) and have an outside job?I also find a problem with the statement that every 311 call is responded to. Anytime I have called 311 for an animal related issue they transfer me to animal control or the spca. And no people were not always dispatched. “When all this is over, Becky says, she wants to help Steel move away to New Mexico, where they can start a dog crematorium together.” That is the most bizarre statement. So you may not be able to run a rescue anymore your next move is to run a crematorium? I realize people have to have that job but that is a big leap from being a rescuer."I've done anything and everything they've asked me to do," she says. "How is that stubborn?” What is it that she has done? How has she cooperated? Also Ms. Steel states that none of the neighbors have called. This simply is not true. How come you were unable to provide any facts to prove or disprove this statement?And there are those who say there is nothing wrong with Ms. Steel treating her dogs as children. Well, she should be treating them as someone else’s children in her care since she is supposed to be finding homes for them not keeping them. This article is better than the previous one (even though it included some of the same misinformation) but at the same time leaves so many unanswered questions. Perhaps I am just expecting too much. I find that news reporting is all about spin nowadays.

Guest
Guest

I am not Mr. Mejia, I am one of the many other neighbors who have been affected by this situation, but whom you did not contact for comment. The points I made had nothing in particular to do with Mr. Mejia or his point of view. What I sought to do is clarify some misstatements for which you did find room in your article with information that you could have provided, with a little research, to give balance to some of the claims made that went unquestioned. I am not asking you to "include every single event", (though you did find room for irrelevant physical descriptions and Animal Control co-worker banter), I am asking you to do what used to be part of a journalist's job...reporting the facts, not just making statements. Obviously there are differences of opinion on this, Ms. Merlan. I would expect that you would stick to the facts in your reporting, and look for answers to questions such as; "Where is this mysterious unsolveable State of Texas paperwork that Ms. Steel just couldn't get fixed?", "Why would the City grant non-profit rescue privileges to someone in a single-family neighborhood without license and review? And/or where is the paperwork for that?" "Why is Ms. Steel no longer teaching school?", "How can one claim to have grandfathered animals, and at the same time be a rescue?". These are all issues referred to in this article but not scrutinized.All of these are questions raised, but not addressed, in your slipshod reporting.

guest
guest

I would like to respond to a few misstatements/factual errors in Ms. Merlan's article. It is indicated that every call to 311 requires officer response. Perhaps that might be "required", but it is not what happens. Most 311 calls regarding animal noise complaints result, not in a visit from code compliance, but in a report number, (you have to know to ask for it), and a packet in the mail containing a formal complaint form. To make a "dog barking" complaint one has to have multiple dates and times of barking and be able to identify the individual dog that was barking and have proof that the dog was barking continually for 15 minutes or more to result in any action on the part of the city to fix the problem.Calls regarding animal fighting/mauling get even worse results. Several calls to 311 regarding dog mauling at Ms. Steel's address got no officer response. 311 would say "call 911", and 911 would say "call 311". One 311 operator, in response to my frustration that a dog was being torn apart in Ms. Steel's yard and my disbelief that there was nothing they could do, curtly replied "that's nature."Ms. Steel says that each time Animal Control officers came to her home, she let them in to inspect. This is not the case. Perhaps she allowed her friend, officer Munoz, in her home, but she rejected access inside to several other officers on different occasions. In fact, one of the non-compliance convictions she received that led to the revocation of her registration privileges for one year was a citation for interfering with an officer by not allowing him to check inside her home.In the article it is stated that every visit to her home resulted in an officer's report that found no violations. The revocation of her registration privileges in 2009 is nowhere mentioned in this article. The City of Dallas does not revoke these privileges lightly. Ms. Steel even appealed the revocation to a Citizens' Board who agreed with Animal Control that her registration should be revoked. Ms. Steel says that "my other neighbors have never once called." This is false. Neighbors left and right of her, down the street, across and behind her have called repeatedly over the years. Twelve neighbors filed a formal complaint against Ms. Steel with the City Attorney's office in 2009.Ms. Steel claims that she has done "anything and everything they've asked..."; if by "they" she means the neighbors who for years asked her to simply stop taking in dogs until some were adopted out, clearly she has not. If "they" is the City of Dallas, she is wrong as well...she is, even now, in violation of City Code. The City of Dallas has merely asked her to maintain the number of dogs that any other citizen with her property size and type is allowed to have. She currently, even according to this article, is exceeding this modest request by 10 animals (she, like the rest of us, is allowed 6.) She violated her revocation by smuggling dogs into her home under blankets. It is because she has perpetually refused even the merest show of respect for her neighbors, her rescues and the City of Dallas that she is in this situation now.Finally, Mr. Munoz claims that unwarranted calls are creating a strain on the already overextended resources of Dallas Animal Control. A wonder then, that he could spare the time to testify in a robbery trial that has nothing to do with Animal Control, and return (with yet another officer) to support the convict in her sentencing hearing, appearing as an officer with the City of Dallas.I am saddened by what passes as journalism today. Ms. Merlan must either have a huge agenda or a poor work ethic.

Rebecca Poling
Rebecca Poling

I have a problem with an "anonymous" quote, especially one that isn't true. There are nearly 100 rescue groups working in the DFW area and only 1 or 2 were ever confirmed as hoarders - one last year and one a few years ago. Even if there are a few more that I'm not thinking of, a handful out of 100 does NOT mean that many rescue groups are essentially hoarders. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Anna - this is a fabulous story and incredibly well written - thank you for taking the time to give people a peek into the world of rescue. It's just that one anonymous quote which is way, way off base.

college educated reader
college educated reader

Do any of you people have a mere degree? God, if a doctor ever read the Observer, they would laugh...you people must be all doctors and nurses and psychologists!!!!! Hoarding is a psychological mental disorder that is rare, but stupidity is not rare, obviously.

Pschology and nursing major
Pschology and nursing major

Hoarding is a psychological problem that starts with trauma in childhood and is on a bell shaped curve an outliar and only 2% of the population...it's in the DSM IV and for anyone to say people just start hoarding is so stupid and an uneducated person who needs to speak with a psychiatrist before they make blanketed statements. The writer is an obvious low level thinker who has not had a statistics course or an abnormal psychology course...

Missmaei
Missmaei

Mr. Ehrenfeld, thank you for your service.

Samantha
Samantha

I love reading Anna's articles - always so well written.

clowe
clowe

My husband and I help with animal rescue, and I agree that this is a bad situation. No one, rescue related or otherwise, should have more dogs than the city code allows. Furthermore, if you're going to go into rescue, learn how to train animals. Well-behaved animals are a pleasure to be around, unlike the ones this lady has. While I applaud her compassion, there is a better way to do what she's doing.

Russp
Russp

A sad situation for the animals but until a better way is found to regulate or at least certify independent rescuers, they should be limited to the number of pets allowed by city codes and the larger job of pet rescue and placement left to groups such as Operation Kindness who have the facilities to properly care for the animals.

ladyoferie
ladyoferie

@Petto_princess If you want the problem solved the solution isn't more money or more rescuers-it's fewer dogs.  Make spay and neuter mandatory by law. 

Petto_princess
Petto_princess

the house to the right with the red fence has a yard between them and the dogs. To bother them, the dogs must be barking loud. The house to the left is right close so it wouldn't take much. I don't know, I mean I have the courtesy to shut my dogs up at night if they find something to bark at. So no one should have to hear barking all night. Appearances ,while doing a drive through on google maps, look fine but you can't smell or hear through a computer screen.

Can't Wait
Can't Wait

Ms. Thompson - you state you have had spinal fusions - and I understand you receive disability income from the tax payers. So, is it a good idea for you to be out mowing your large lawn all spring/summer/fall?

Anna Merlan
Anna Merlan

Let me make a couple of things clear here. Ms. Steel's revocation was mentioned in a first draft, but was cut for space reasons. In a case that's been going on for a decade, it's a bit difficult to include every single event that transpired, especially when we had other parts of a larger story to tell.

I think what's very clear is that there is a strong and ongoing difference of opinion between Ms. Steel, her neighbors, city officials and Animal Services about what the proper course of action should be regarding her case. But Mr. Mejia, you've been given at least three separate opportunities to share your side of the story. I'm regret that you chose not to do so until now.

What a shame
What a shame

The title and inference of this article does a disservice to all the valid rescue groups. While the article may have tried to explain that is rare, it's the headline people will remember when they think rescue.

The pysch eval said Ms. Steel considers her rescues children ... many people do. Most rescues treat their saves with the same kindness. The pet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry for that reason. Look at the Facebook profile photos and how many people use their pets or a photo of them with their pets as their profile photo. If pets are family and for life, why was that a criteria used AGAINST Ms. Steele? Even DAS cruelty investigation found no reason for concern. All across the US, we have campaigns against bullying, but when Ms Steel is bullied, and she reacts in exasperation, she is the one with the criminal conviction. Such a shame. Where was the protection for a single woman against a neighborhood bully? Dogs bark. And children make noise. No one would remove children from a home if the situation was reversed. What if the guy with the bullhorn had been doing the same thing to children playing in the backyard?

Austin has NOT reported being overcrowded as a result of becoming no kill - one guess where the author got the 'facts' on that one. Just because someone sits on a lot of committees doesn't make them very smart. Dallas just has a closed old-school clique and they do not welcome outsiders or support ideas that are not their own. They support no kill programs that have failed in every city they've been attempted in.

If you really want to understand what happens in cities that choose to go no kill, there is a no kill conference in March here in the metroplex. Don't listen to people that always, ALWAYS, paint no kill as some kind of warped hoarding or doomed to fail debacle. Here is information about the no kill conference including the speakers and their bios: http://dallasfortworthnokillwo...

gsd
gsd

Rebecca, put down the sandwhich, and pick up a book...have you ever been to college? I have a psych degree, was married to a prominent physician and my best friend is a psychiatrist. You may not know the difference, but a psychiatrist is a medical doctor and a psychologist is a Phd. A few hundred animals does not make over populated hoarding. Why don't you ask the chair of the department of Psychiatry at a medical school? Genius you are not.

Anna Merlan
Anna Merlan

Hi Rebecca. I just emailed you, but I wanted to respond publicly also.

I think my source was referring to rescuers who aren't part of non-profits and just pull animals on their own, which is why I termed them "independent" rescuers. The person gave me several examples of cases where this had spiraled into something unmanageable. But I think ultimately what Jody Jones told me -- that "bad" rescuers and "hoarders" are ultimately very rare -- is what I've tried to convey, as well as how rescuers and shelters are all part of the same safety net trying to get a grip on an immensely difficult problem.

Thanks again for all your help.

Melinda Cook
Melinda Cook

Who gives a damn whether you have a degree? If the Observer is to 'low brow' for your self proclaimed superior intellect then don't read it.

unanswered
unanswered

Things are much better now than there were before she had her dogs removed. And not all the dogs were kept in the second lot. There are a lot of things that this article does not discuss. But I am glad that you agree that it is difficult to take sides without knowing all the facts. I only wish this article could have been more informative about the issue instead of the horrible problems animal rescuers face. It sure makes me think twice whenever I read a story that not everything is as it appears on paper.

unanswered
unanswered

Someone has to mow it or they would get fined. Although I believe it would be better if Ms. Thompson didn't have to mow her own lawn (which I do not know if she really does or not) with her disabilities you cannot fault her for doing what has to be done.

unanswered
unanswered

If you don't have enough space to tell the whole story then I don't understand why you write it at all. Maybe you could have done it is a series of articles if you needed more room. And what was the larger part of the story that you needed to tell? It seemed to me like you tried to gloss over the situation by moving the focus on the need for rescues and the problems with the city services as is.

Guest
Guest

Ms. Steel treats her rescues like her children. True, if she would allow her children to fight and kill each other and put the murdered child in a trash bag and toss it on the curb with a call to sanitation. True, if she would adopt more children than she could properly care for and nurture. True, if she would leave those children out in the elements with inadequate shelter and interact with them only by putting food and water out. True, if the only time she showed affection to them is when she is aware of curious eyes or cameras. True, if some of her children were kept imprisoned inside, never allowed to run or enjoy the sunshine, for fear of them being seen.She is a troubled woman. She has been the bully.

K. Cameron
K. Cameron

Wow, all those shrinks and none of them told you how rude you are. Learn to debate issues if you are going to comment, acting like this is not allow.

unanswered
unanswered

I really don't see how that has anything to do with the issue at hand anyway. But maybe she was trying to help out her husband who was enduring radiation treatments at the time as well caring for his brother and father who recently died. And again, I don't know that she was mowing the lawn as you say. Are you sure it wasn't someone else trying to help them out?

Can't Wait
Can't Wait

If she is able to mow her lawn - she should be able to work instead of claiming that she needs my tax dollars to survive.

unanswered
unanswered

There is someone in the neighborhood that slaughters goats for food?! This is the first I have heard of that. And as horrible as that sounds to me I don't see how that is any different than what goes on at every farm in the world. Or maybe you don't eat meat. Deflecting the focus onto someone else does nothing to help.

Can't Wait
Can't Wait

You are sadly misinformed or perhaps you are just a liar. Ms. Steel has adequate shelter, dog houses, food, etc. for her dogs and showers them with an abundance of love, attention and care. Are you the neighbor that slaughters goats in your backyard for family cookouts?

 
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