Back in July, the Animal Shelter Commission met for an update from city staff on the state of Dallas Animal Services (DAS). As usual, they ended up talking about a few major, unresolved issues: The air-conditioning in the shelter doesn't really work. The shelter is still understaffed and manned with temporary employees who are often poorly trained and have a high turnover rate. And as the City Council's Quality of Life Committee heard again this morning, despite amazing increases in the live release rate over the past decade, a full two-thirds of animals who enter the shelter will die there.
But the Animal Shelter Commission is an advisory panel, and their suggestions (and complaints) aren't binding. Now, though, the Quality of Life Committee, which is chaired by council member Angela Hunt, seems to be taking up some of these issues. For the first time, she had the vice-chair of the commission, animal welfare advocate Johnnie England, sitting alongside shelter manager Jody Jones, Code Compliance director Jimmy Martin, and assistant city manager Joey Zapata. Hunt asked England directly what her concerns about the shelter are, and what the council members should be paying attention to.
England started out with some praise for shelter manager Jones, and how far DAS has come in the past few years.
"When I started out at the Animal Shelter Commission in 2001, the live release rate was 7 percent," she told the council members. Martin had informed them earlier that it's now up to 36 percent; since just May of last year, it's jumped about 14 points. "It's taken a decade, but we're making incredible progress," England added. The shelter takes in about 34,000 animals annually; in August, they averaged a daily intake of 82 dogs, according to Martin.
But England still has serious concerns. "The air conditioning at the shelter, I know there's money put into the budget for outside maintenance, which will help, but our feeling is the entire system needs to be overhauled," she said. "This is the fifth summer we've been in the building, and it's been unacceptable for people and the animals."
Hunt asked her about staffing, which has been a sensitive subject at DAS since last October, when a reduction-in-force process replaced 53 full-time staffers with temporary workers.
The staff level, according to England, is "inadequate." Although Jones has done "an incredible job against tremendous odds," she said, "the training issue is a real concern, because of the turnover with the temporary workers and the lack of permanent, full-time employees who have gone through the civil-service process and gotten hired and gotten trained. It's been a real challenge. We're not there yet."
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England also pointed out that in the past year or so, the number of animal services officers in the field dropped from 55 to 32. According to figures Martin presented earlier, DAS got 49,811 service calls in 2011-2012, an average of about 145 calls a day.
Martin and Jones told the council members that they're working on streamlining the 311 call system in several ways, including trying to map where the calls about stray animals are coming from, in order to be able to do large, targeted sweeps. They're also trying to improve the script that the 311 call-takers use, by asking if an animal is "mobile or immobile," for example, instead of whether it's "injured." An "immobile" animal call would take priority.
Hunt told assistant city manager Zapata that she wants a memo from city staff on all the issues England raised. She also said that in the future, the chair or the vice-chair of the Animal Shelter Commission will be told about every DAS-related briefing two weeks ahead of time, and will be present to answer questions.
"Don't circle the wagons on this," she told Zapata. "Don't tell us everything's good and it's gonna be fine. Give us a real picture."