Nearly two years ago, Pat Melton stood up in front of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board and vented. She was angry and, as an animal lover, she had good reason to be. Some of the 300 or so farm animals at an obscure city park were freezing and thirsty, unable to drink from frozen troughs. At least one, a pregnant sheep, appeared to be dying.
"I went to the farm with my son and daughter, arriving at 12:30 p.m. The wind chill was well below freezing and water troughs were frozen over, which meant that water was unavailable to any of the animals. We saw two cats at the main building. They were thin and very hungry; their dirty Styrofoam dishes were dry, empty, and overturned. Clearly, they had not been fed or watered recently," she told the board.
She described neglect of goats, cats, sheep, donkeys, emus, turkeys, chickens, and roosters. On that day, Melton, a farm volunteer to that point, launched into a diatribe and then into a crusade. She pestered the city to clean up the 320-acre Samuell Farm, a place where children were supposed to learn about rural farm life by looking at real farm animals. She sent letters. She called. She contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, because of Melton, began regular animal inspections and forced city workers into more humane animal treatment. She contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She pestered bureaucrats so much that eventually even those inside city government who initially sided with her stopped responding to her queries.
Melton describes her dogged interest in the farm as that of a taxpayer and animal lover. Two years after she started it, Melton finds her crusade for the animals of Samuell Farm near its end. That's because despite a newly bloated budget for the farm, the city is--and ever so quietly--ditching most of what remains of the 20-year-old botched experiment known as Samuell Farm.
Dallas didn't buy the farm. The city got it for free. In a cryptic will, Dallas resident Dr. W.W. Samuell gave the city his summer home and its acreage along with 15 other pieces of prime property scattered around Dallas. The farm property is 640 acres, with about half of it developed for use as a farm. The parcel is sandwiched between Sunnyvale and Mesquite in an unincorporated section of Dallas County off East Highway 80. In his will, the good doctor directed that none of the land he donated ever be sold. He earmarked money for a trust fund to take care of what he hoped would forever be park lands for all of Dallas to enjoy. The trust fund, established after Samuell's death in the early 1940s, is worth about $7 million today. Interest from the trust generates about $300,000 a year for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, which dumps the money into general funds.
For the first 40 years or so after Samuell died, the farm was mostly used by campers, bird watchers, and nature lovers. Then, in about 1982, somebody in the city came up with the idea that the property could be used as an educational tool, a 19th-century-style working farm with animals, crops, and horse-drawn wagons. By all accounts, the concept worked and was well received by schoolchildren and other visitors. The park wasn't getting money directly from the trust, but at least it started generating some revenue.
Over the last decade, the idea of a working farm sort of faded away, one former city employee says. Crops once grown to educate children weren't being planted anymore. A petting zoo was installed and the city entered into a contract with a horse-riding concessionaire who, for an additional fee, offered trail rides. And, in what would turn out to be the greatest move toward an eventually changed mission, the city in 1990 hired Doug Melton (no relation to Pat) to oversee farm operations and bring in even more money with staged events. Melton, a 43-year-old lifetime city employee, began using the farm for Civil War re-enactments and Old West gunfighter shows. He created spooky Halloween hayrides and an Easter event.
Doug Melton, who notified his boss of an inquiry but did not return telephone calls to the Dallas Observer for this article, may have been good at raising money but he was indifferent to the animals, and the type of events he promoted prove it, claims Kathy Rogers, a former farm worker who started a wildlife rescue program at Samuell Farm.
"He focused on things that entertained him personally, the gunfighters, Civil War...Not necessarily the things that would be beneficial," she says.
Rogers worked at the farm starting in 1985 as a volunteer and became an employee in 1987. She created the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the farm, which became widely known as a place for injured birds. After he was hired, Doug Melton turned over the care of all farm animals to Rogers. But, the two did not get along. Where Rogers saw the center as a place for the city to help hundreds of birds injured by humans, Melton saw only a way to make cash, she says.
"He was seeing thousands of people coming through bringing birds, so he decided to charge them three bucks a piece to bring the bird in...People were getting really mad."
Rogers, who reopened her center on closed landfill property in Hutchins and continues rescuing birds, was fired from the farm in June 1998 for allegedly grabbing a boy's arm to stop him from beating a peacock with a stick.
"The allegation was never substantiated, there was no police report ever filed, no doctor's report ever made, no report to child protective services," she says.
Rogers worked seven days a week at the farm taking care of the animals. After she was fired, the farm went quickly downhill, she says.
It was about a year-and-a-half after Rogers was fired, in December 1999, that Pat Melton saw the neglected animals. Even after reporting what she'd found to the park board, problems persisted. There were complaints about the appropriateness of staging loud events like the Civil War re-enactments and gunfights amid the gun-shy animals.
Pat Melton contacted the USDA, which quickly discovered the farm had no permit even to house farm animals. The USDA found all sorts of problems at the farm and centered on the care of the animals. But the worst news for the city was that the USDA lumped the zoo in with the farm in its inspections, meaning that if the farm looked bad, so did the zoo.
Somebody contacted the city's fraud, waste, and abuse hotline. That resulted in a city audit, which was released in June 1999. The audit pretty much said that Samuell Farm was a mess. The farm had been used as a dumping ground--182 truckloads of garbage were hauled out after the auditor's initial inquiries. The buildings were deteriorating, and the roads rutted. Animal waste was draining into the water system. Antique farm implements used by schoolchildren were hazardous. Two farm contracts appeared to violate city policy, workers were improperly using a city-paid toll-free number, and employees were working overtime without pay.
To correct the problems, the city created the Samuell Farm Animal Care Advisory Committee, which has representatives from animal welfare groups such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Texas Humane Legislation Network. The city increased the staff level at the farm by five and boosted the budget. The city also got rid of about half of the 300 or so animals with some, including animals from the petting zoo being sold for slaughter. Records show that the city received $415.26 for 16 goats it sold for slaughter.
Even with the changes, the farm was still under review by the USDA, because cows and sheep and other farm animals remained on the property. Getting out from under the watchful eye of the USDA inspectors was a factor in changing the farm's mission and booting the animals from the farm.
Carolyn Bray, the assistant director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department overseeing the changes, would only respond to the Observer in writing from written inquiries. In her three pages of responses, Bray agreed the farm's direction is changing.
"Samuell Farm will develop new programming ideas to maintain the educational experience and diversity without the animal exhibits," she wrote. "There are many types of farming operations common to the North Texas area. We will change the focus of Samuell Farm from an 'animal farm' to an 'agricultural and mechanical farm.'"
The word is that shortly after Thanksgiving, the city will essentially give away about 120 of the remaining 140 animals. The animals will not be sold for slaughter this time but will be transported to sanctuaries.
Pat Melton says that despite the good news that most animals at the farm are being removed, she worries that those remaining will flounder in the winter months. If 20 or so farm animals remain through the winter, there is a good chance for abuse, she says.
And then there is the money. Even with so few animals, the farm's budget for this year is $1.25 million, which is up about $368,000 over last year, according to one arm of the park department.
"It's a money pit. Taxpayers keep throwing money at it," Melton says. "They have been getting a half million dollars a year. You tell me where the money is going. I don't have a clue," she says. "It's very hard to get a clear answer from them."
It is hard. Numbers provided to the Observer by the park department show that the revenue for 1999-2000 was $631,640 and that the farm had a budget of $881,829. No actual revenues are shown for this year, but the farm number crunchers say because of the farm's "changing mission," revenue is expected to be down considerably.
Bray, in one of her written responses, said the 2000-2001 budget for the farm is $545,408. She did not detail revenue or spending, nor did she explain why there seems to be so much confusion within the department over the farm's budget.
Maybe things aren't quite clear because Samuell Farm is located outside Dallas' city limits, so it's not in any one city council member's district. That tends to mean that no one is a champion of the property or is willing to take the blame for its problems, Melton says. That's probably also why no one seems quite sure just what will happen at the Samuell Farm property once the animals are gone.
Bray says the city is considering using the property for hayrides, barnyard tours, candle making, birthday parties, fishing, camping, and other non-animal activities. One idea is to create a "pizza farm" on the site. The plan is to teach students that pizzas come from someplace other than cardboard boxes. Students would be shown a wheat field so they could see that crust is made of wheat, and maybe they'll be shown some tomatoes so they can see that tomatoes grow from the ground. Presumably, anchovies and pepperoni won't be among the ingredients.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.