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.

Caged and confused

In the destitute world of animal rescue work in Dallas, the SPCA of Texas' plan to build the Russell H. Perry Animal Care & Education Campus truly is revolutionary.

Located in Collin County between Plano and McKinney, the 29-acre campus promises to be a "pastoral oasis," as one report put it in 1997 when the project was announced, for the thousands of abandoned, abused, and otherwise homeless animals the SPCA takes in each year.

When it's completed, livestock will munch grass inside a spacious paddock near the campus gates. Behind them, a tiny island will rise from a large pond brimming with marine life. To the left, injured horses will have room to roam and a new barn to call home. There is even talk of a bird sanctuary.

The campus' heart will be three buildings housing a 33,000-square-foot animal adoption center, an expanded veterinary clinic, and an education center. One of the buildings, the Lynn T. and Russell E. Dealey Life Care Cottage, is designated as a retirement lodge for elderly cats, dogs, and other pets whose owners precede them in death.

What is unique about the proposed complex is not its modern grounds, but the philosophy behind them: Campus visitors will be encouraged to roam about a network of nature trails intended to give them a positive experience with animals without the depressing sight of overcrowded cages.

No one wants to see the campus finished more than Warren Cox, the SPCA's longtime executive director. For him, the campus is a dream -- a place where humans, having failed in their duty to care for animals they domesticated, can carry out the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' mission "to foster a public sentiment of humanity and gentleness" toward animals.

"We're going to be a green oasis right in the middle of a bunch of concrete," Cox says.

Cox speaks of the campus as if its grand opening were imminent, but the truth is, his utopian island of misfits is slowly drifting away. Initially scheduled to open in spring 1998, the project has been stymied by a lack of money and construction costs that have rocketed well beyond their original $4 million estimate. In its public relations material, the SPCA is still fishing for deep-pocketed donors who will make the campus a reality, but Cox concedes he has decided to quietly pull the plug on formal fund-raising efforts. Although the pet retirement lodge is scheduled to open later this summer, when construction on the rest of the campus will begin is anyone's guess.

To Cox, the blame for the project's indefinite delay falls on you, the residents of Dallas and surrounding suburbs, whom he accuses of failing to donate to the cause. "People say they like the animals," Cox says, "but they don't give the money."

As far as fund-raising goes, Cox is right about one thing: Given the amount of wealth Dallas has to offer, donations to animal charities are a trickle compared with cities like San Francisco, where the budget of the local SPCA is three times what it is in Dallas. To make matters worse, critics say the city's government-funded animal-control effort ranks among the nation's poorest.

But a shortage of public goodwill isn't the only problem facing the city's largest animal welfare agency.

In recent months, the SPCA has become the target of a growing number of complaints from animal lovers who say the agency has grown so focused on fund-raising and expansion that it is neglecting the day-to-day management of its facilities. As a result, critics say, the animals are beginning to suffer. While the sniping at times resembles a catfight, evidence is mounting that the SPCA's downtown shelter is troubled by mismanagement.

In February, someone walked into the SPCA's downtown shelter and stole a Saint Bernard. Weeks later, an SPCA customer walked into the same area during peak business hours and encountered a man sexually abusing a golden retriever. The man has been indicted on a misdemeanor charge of public lewdness, and his case is still pending.

The SPCA installed a new gate and razor wire atop its fence after the theft, but the agency has taken no formal measures to improve security or supervise its customers once they are inside the kennels. During a recent tour, shelter manager Debbie Younts explained that the SPCA can't afford to hire more employees to better monitor the shelter.

SPCA critics say the incidents support their allegations that the agency is losing sight of its original mission to prevent animal abuse. More important, they say, it raises doubts about the agency's ability to successfully operate an expanded campus in Collin County.

Whether the SPCA can eventually make the campus a reality is a question Cox himself has recently been forced to ask. But with the city's animal overpopulation problem still festering at what animal welfare activists agree is a "crisis" level, perhaps a better question is whether it should.

Since it opened its doors in 1938, the SPCA of Texas has become the most prestigious nonprofit animal welfare agency in North Texas. The agency, which has no affiliation with the New York-based ASPCA, is so well known that people often assume it is the city's animal shelter, kept afloat with government money.

Pawn shops, bail-bond businesses, and liquor stores surround the SPCA's clinic and administrative offices at 362 S. Industrial Blvd., next to Interstate 30. The agency is in the middle of skid row, and that's fitting, given the nature of its work.

A dog-eared artist's rendering of the planned Collin County animal campus rests on a metal easel in the corner of Warren Cox's office. A layer of fine dust has gathered on the drawing, but the project still consumes Cox.

"For years people got accustomed to seeing downtown shelters like this one," Cox says. "We wanted something that would be more conducive to giving people a positive experience. There's no reason we have to go on with the same old stereotype of animals behind wires."

Since becoming the SPCA's executive director nine years ago, Cox has wrestled with life-and-death questions every day. A staff of more than 70 paid employees and dozens of volunteers receive, nurse, adopt, and, tragically, kill more than 11,000 unwanted cats and dogs every year. Another 7,000 animals pass through the agency's satellite office in McKinney.

"We've saved the lives of more than 100,000 animals since 1976," Cox says proudly.

When it comes to selling reporters on the good deeds of the SPCA, Cox is a wonderful pitchman. But when the questions involve his management of the agency, Cox's ordinarily amiable demeanor stiffens. Seated behind a paper-strewn desk, Cox begins ticking off SPCA's programs, his words echoing those published in the agency's public relations material: to rescue and adopt animals, provide low-cost spay and neuter services, sponsor educational programs, and investigate cases of animal cruelty. Cox says no one aspect of the SPCA's mission takes priority over another, but in its most recent IRS filing, from 1997, the SPCA reported that $2.5 million of $3.8 million in total revenues were spent on programs that directly benefit the animals. The rest of the money is spent on management and fund-raising costs.

While the agency receives much media coverage when sensational cases of abuse are uncovered, cruelty investigations represent just 4 percent, or $99,060, of the SPCA's $2.5 million program-services budget -- the lowest amount of all its services.

By far, the lion's share of the agency's program-services budget -- some 62 percent -- is spent on its shelter. It is there, amid the dozens of kennels and cat cages, that the SPCA carries out its central mission of sheltering and finding homes for unwanted pets. The SPCA places more unwanted animals than any other adoption agency in North Texas.

Still, an animal brought to the SPCA stands an even chance of winding up dead. In 1998, the SPCA placed 9,123 animals in homes, including 368 lost pets reunited with their owners. In publicizing its work, the agency reports that the numbers represent a 93 percent adoption rate, but that figure is deceiving because it includes only the animals that the SPCA deemed "adoptable." Fewer than half of the 18,922 animals the SPCA admitted last year were adopted.

The SPCA kills more animals than it saves because the agency will not turn away any animal that doesn't have a home. While many of those animals are ultimately killed, Cox says, at least the SPCA gives them a second chance they otherwise wouldn't get.

"We live in a throwaway society," Cox says. "But when it comes to life, where do you draw the line?"

But Cox himself isn't sure where his agency draws the line between adoptable animals and others. He was unable to articulate any policy the SPCA uses in determining which animals are killed. Instead, he says, "there's got to be an unwritten thing where when [medical costs] get into the thousands of dollars" the animal is put down. Debbie Younts, the manager of the SPCA's downtown shelter, was similarly unable to define a concise euthanasia policy.

"We don't like to euthanize unless it's a necessity," Younts says. "We try not to give ourselves any limitations."

But with its policy of taking in animals slated to die at municipal shelters throughout North Texas in the hopes of selling them at its own adoption shelter, the agency is clearly pushing itself beyond its limits. The SPCA reported that it killed 199 healthy animals in 1998 because of a lack of space.

In recent weeks, several SPCA volunteers have said they and others left the SPCA because of what they believed was the unnecessary deaths of healthy animals.

Susan Knoll, a volunteer in the SPCA's foster program, says she resigned as a volunteer on August 2 because SPCA employees hastily euthanized a cat she had fostered this summer after incorrectly concluding it had feline AIDS. Knoll says she quit after trying to no avail to get an explanation for why the cat was put down. The lack of response, she says, is typical of the way the SPCA treats its volunteers.

"All I am trying to do is help animals out, but this situation for me was the last straw," says Knoll, who in 1997 was given an excellence award for her volunteer efforts. "They have told me it was a mistake, and nobody will step up to the plate and give me answers. Not getting any answers is unacceptable, and it's disappointing coming from an agency that is supposed to prevent cruelty to animals."

As employees and volunteers battle the never-ending flow of animals into the downtown shelter, the SPCA is faced with more problems than just deciding which animals are fit for adoption.

Within the last year, Younts has taken over the day-to-day operations of the downtown shelter, and the last six months have been a challenge. On this Friday afternoon, Younts apologizes for the mess. At the moment, they are redesigning the cat rooms, so cages filled with sleeping felines and rambunctious kittens clutter the shelter's hallways.

"We have cats everywhere," says Younts, who slips past a row of cages en route to the dog kennels. The rows of back-to-back kennels are located inside a large, windowless room bathed with the yellow glow of fluorescent light. A heavy door marks the entrance to the room, where no employees are assigned to monitor the dogs.

This is room where Ellie, a 90-pound purebred Saint Bernard, was last seen on February 17. Sometime during business hours, SPCA officials believe, someone took Ellie from her kennel and led her through the shelter and out the back door.

How the person made it out of the shelter without being detected is still a mystery to SPCA employees, who brought the news of Ellie's theft to the media, hoping that publicity about a reward would give them a break in the case. At the time, SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Casey told The Dallas Morning News that other animal thefts had occurred at the shelter in the past, but that they were usually of small dogs or puppies that could easily be concealed under a coat or sweater.

The agency didn't take the same approach two weeks later, when another bizarre event occurred during peak business hours inside the kennels. Sometime around 6 p.m. on March 2, an SPCA customer caught a 40-year-old man sexually abusing a golden retriever named Ginger.

The man had "placed a golden retriever's paws up on a 3-foot brick wall and was hunched over the rear of the dog. [He] was moving his hips in an in and out motion," states a police report detailing the incident. No SPCA employee was around.

Younts says the man had a habit of coming in to look at the dogs. In fact, Younts herself had noticed him with the dogs earlier that day.

"He was coming in here quite a bit. Some of the employees recognized him. Obviously he was somebody who had been in this facility a lot," says Younts, who adds that she's not sure when the man typically showed up. "Hopefully it was at five o'clock, when we're all really busy."

Despite the security breaches, Younts says the agency has not increased staff supervision of the animals or required customers to be escorted through the shelter -- a practice at other adoption agencies.

"We don't have the staff for that," Younts says. "We are personnel-limited."

But the agency could provide better security if it would only improve the way it coordinates its volunteers, says Mary, an SPCA volunteer who recently quit and, like other former volunteers, asked that her last name not be used. The problem, she says, is that volunteers are not formally assigned to work in specific areas of the shelter or designated to work at particular times. A little supervision, she says, wouldn't cost the SPCA a dime, and it would go a long way to bringing order to the shelter.

Younts says she tries to "make sure people are back here at all times," but her argument isn't convincing: Customers were walking through the kennels without an employee or volunteer in sight on this Friday afternoon. In fact, Younts was forced to interrupt her explanation when she spied a child in the hallway opening up a cage filled with kittens.

"I wouldn't open that without Mom," she tells the girl. "Not without Mom."

But Mom wasn't paying attention. Instead, she's busy reaching into her own unsupervised cat cage a few feet away.

Additional donations would no doubt allow the SPCA to increase the size of its staff, but other agencies with less money manage to police their shelters just fine. Since 1989, Operation Kindness has operated its tiny shelter in an industrial strip near the intersection of Belt Line and Webb Chapel roads in Carrollton. Today, the nonprofit organization is positioning itself to become the area's premier shelter for unwanted cats and dogs.

Unlike the SPCA, Operation Kindness doesn't kill any of the animals it takes in. The animals remain until they are adopted, which sometimes can take years. Tirade the cat, for instance, came to the shelter on May 8, 1993. The downside is that Operation Kindness is forced to turn many animals away so it can keep its population at a manageable average of 130 animals a day. Every year, the shelter places some 2,400 animals with owners, and it is known for the strict rules employees must follow before anyone is approved for adoption.

Those who want to view the shelter's animals must first fill out a form that asks for basic personal information and pet-owning history. No one is allowed into the animal rooms unescorted. Before any animal is adopted, employees attempt to verify the information contained on the screening form. If any of it is suspect, they will turn the customer away, says Jonnie England, the agency's executive director.

"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.

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.

Overall, Suhm says, the chief goal in animal control is to staff the department so its employees can "get the animals that are on the street off the street." But finding out exactly how much the city plans to spend on that job proved difficult. Officials did not respond to repeated questions about how much Dallas budgets for animal control.

In other words, the city's newly revamped animal control unit will, for now, simply become more effective at collecting and killing unwanted animals. The department's recent improvements are certainly good news for Dallas residents, who have long complained that the city is unresponsive to their requests to corral the stray dogs roaming their neighborhoods, but Trimble says this "catch and kill" policy isn't going to solve the problem in the long run.

"You can bring the National Guard in here if you want to and try to capture cats and dogs, and you can't capture them as fast as they can reproduce. It's impossible," Trimble says. "When you get 'em, you've got to spay and neuter them."

In the meantime, nonprofit organizations will be left with the task of battling animal overpopulation, a problem animal advocates agree is solved only through sterilization programs, especially those geared at low-income residents who are the least likely to take their animals to a private veterinarian.

In its public relations material, the SPCA prides itself on being a leading provider of low-cost spay and neuter services and affordable veterinary care. There is no question that the SPCA's spay/neuter program -- which sterilized just fewer than 10,000 animals in 1998 -- has tremendous value, but the program represents less than a quarter of the agency's program-services spending, according to the SPCA's 1997 IRS records. Last year, the agency reported that it had performed 116,600 low-cost spay and neuter surgeries since it opened its first clinic in 1976.

Some SPCA critics say this is not good enough, given the SPCA's name recognition among the public and its comparatively vast resources. These critics also say the SPCA isn't as committed to serving the indigent as it claims to be.

"They get you in the door, and it's like, yeah, we'll give you this discount, and the next thing you know, they're charging you for everything," says Tawana Jurek, who with Trimble serves as a member of the city's animal-shelter advisory committee. "They make enough money and they do a lot, but they could do a lot more. For as many years as we've been here, I haven't seen a curb in our overpopulation problem [and] our overpopulation is a crisis."

Cox bristles at the suggestion that the agency isn't pulling its weight in the battle against animal overpopulation.

"If all these little groups were so involved, why should they point a finger at the SPCA?" Cox says. "There's nothing stopping any of these groups from becoming as big as the SPCA. There's nothing to stop them from opening a spay/neuter clinic."

But the SPCA isn't the only agency in Dallas that performs low-cost spay and neuter surgeries. And, contrary to Cox's statements, the SPCA has a history of attempting to ward off its competitors.

In 1994, the city of Dallas and the Animal Foundation, a Nevada-based nonprofit organization, entered into unique arrangement in which the city bought a building in Oak Cliff and rented it for free to the foundation, which in turn agreed to provide low-cost spay and neuter services.

When the proposed contract was presented to the city council, some private veterinarians and -- surprisingly -- the SPCA opposed the deal, arguing that the clinic would cut into their profits and, in the SPCA's case, that taxpayer money should be spent on local groups.

"We told [the city], if they were going to do this, why didn't you approach the SPCA?" Cox recalls. "What I didn't want was a duplication of money spent on the same effort."

But that's not exactly the way it happened, says Trimble, who led the effort to open the clinic. Back then, Trimble says, he spent months trying to persuade the SPCA and local veterinarians to open a new clinic geared exclusively at indigent residents, but received no response. "It's not like [they were] saying, 'I won't marry ya,' but when you don't bring the ring out for about 18 months, you kind of get the hint that maybe this guy ain't gonna marry ya," Trimble says.

Invariably, these types of low-cost clinics are lucky if they break even, so many organizations are reluctant to get involved. Trimble says that in response to the opposition to the clinic, the city took the extra step of granting the vets and the SPCA 90 days to match the Animal Foundation's prices before the contract went into effect. "I would have rather had a local organization do it, but it didn't work out that way," Trimble says. "Things are going fine now."

Last year, financial problems prompted the Animal Foundation to pull out of the clinic, but in October, the New York-based Fund for Animals took its place. With an annual budget of $763,000, the clinic is already making a dent in the area's need for low-cost sterilizations.

Located just off of Interstate 35W on Village Fair drive in Oak Cliff, the clinic performs between 30 and 40 surgeries a day, a figure that is expected to increase to 100 once it is fully staffed. The clinic provides free surgeries to all Dallas residents receiving government assistance. For everyone else, the fund charges $15 for male cats, $25 for female cats and male dogs, and $30 for female dogs. In addition, the clinic runs monthly specials. In July, for example, customers could sterilize two cats for the price of one.

Although the SPCA's spay and neuter fees are similar (though Cox says he is contemplating increasing them because of a lack of donations), the agency can't match the free services the fund offers. Where the SPCA provided reduced-cost surgeries to 1,247 people receiving government services in 1998, the fund nearly doubled that amount in its first nine months of operation. If the fund can overcome its operating losses and expand as it plans to, it could match the number of surgeries the SPCA clinics have performed in their 20-year history within the next five years.

"We're the best-kept secret in Dallas," says Joanne Jackson, the clinic's manager. The fund, which operates successful clinics in Houston and San Antonio, is trying to generate publicity about its new clinic, but Jackson says the task is turning out to be a challenge.

"We've struggled to get any coverage in the newspapers," says Jackson, who in the process has observed that the SPCA is "well established" with the local media. "We find every time we try to do some media stuff, the SPCA is in the picture."

Indeed, the one thing the SPCA does better than any other similar local agency is promote itself. Last year, the SPCA managed to get its name mentioned on 441 television broadcasts and in 279 newspaper articles, helping the SPCA maintain its reputation in the general public as the region's biggest and best-known animal lover.

But even frequent publicity has not allowed the SPCA to make its dream of a Collin County campus a reality.

The would-be campus lies on 29 acres at the intersection of Farm Road 720 and Custer Road in Collin County, just north of a sea of new residential development. There is nothing to indicate the future home of the Russell H. Perry Animal Care & Education Campus, save a tiny sign posted at the northern edge of the increasingly valuable farmland. (Since the SPCA acquired the land, its appraised value has risen from $350,000 in 1997 to just under $1 million today, according to county records.) For now, the SPCA would like its potential donors to believe that work on the campus is continuing at a feverish pace.

"To date the land has been cleared, nature trails are being designed, appropriate fencing has been installed, and 75...trees have been planted," states one update published in the SPCA's 1998 annual report. "A paddock area is finished and a barn is under construction."

The report, which asked readers for donations to the project, also promised that the Dealey Life Care Cottage for surviving pets would open in the spring of '99. The SPCA's calculations were off by months.

On a recent July afternoon, two workers were painting the cottage's exterior brick walls white. The "cottage" is an old, one-story brick house, and its interior was still in need of basic improvements, including plumbing. Contrary to the information published in the annual report, the house is the only building on the property. Several large piles of wood chips suggest that some trees were cleared, and a fence ran along the back of the property, but no barn was under construction, and the land appeared to be otherwise untouched.

During an interview last month, Cox quietly conceded that he had recently decided to temporarily halt the campus fund-raising campaign because his two-year effort netted less than half of $4 million originally estimated for the project's completion. Cox's comments evidently mark the first time he has publicly admitted that the project has come to a standstill.

"We put the campaign on hold. We've made a lot of progress, but it's not exactly what we wanted," Cox says with a sigh. Clearly the decision wasn't easy, and it is one he would rather the public didn't know much about -- except to the extent that he believes their lack of charity is the biggest explanation for the project's failure.

"The only thing that has hindered us is monetary support," he says. "We overestimated what we thought we could bring in in contributions, and it just didn't come in. I'm kind of glad we didn't raise all of the money for the barn, because if we had the barn up there, I'm not sure we would have had the money to maintain it."

Lisa Jones, the SPCA's director of development and marketing, says a number of factors have contributed to the project's indefinite delay; chief among them is the targeted donors' inability to grasp the concept behind the campus. Besides reinventing the skid-row image of its downtown shelter, Jones says, the SPCA wanted to build so far north because it was hoping to head off the human and, therefore, animal growth occurring there.

Before embarking on the ambitious capital campaign, Jones says, the SPCA hired a financial consultant to help the agency predict how much money it could raise and where that money was most likely to come from. Not surprisingly, the consultants advised the SPCA to go to the Park Cities, where the act of charity is often carried out at black-tie galas. Unfortunately, Jones says, the donors didn't share the SPCA's vision of the future.

"The people that got involved were from University Park," she says. "To them, the land up north seemed like it was in Oklahoma. They were much more interested in Dallas, [asking] 'How can we help you renovate the shelter there?'"

In addition, the SPCA miscalculated the cost of the project. Because the ongoing construction boom has created a shortage of labor and supplies, the price has escalated well beyond its original $4 million estimate. The costs are increasing so quickly that Jones says she can't begin to guess how much money it would take to finish. If the SPCA is to renew interest in the project, she says, it'll have to change its fund-raising strategy to target a more receptive audience.

"The dream isn't dead. The dream is very real," Jones says, "but we feel we have to do a better job connecting with the people up there."

The project's largest benefactor, Phoebe Perry, the widow of Russell Perry, after whom the campus is named, says that she is not overly concerned by the project's delay, and that she has more confidence than ever in Cox's management of her "favorite charity." Like Cox, Perry says she is disappointed by the lack of interest in the project -- a scenario she says speaks volumes about the social limitations of Dallas philanthropists.

"You take the opera, you take the symphony, they're always crying for money, and they get money by the carload. We're crying too, but we're not getting the money," Perry says. "I honestly don't know why it is so hard raising funds for animals."

While geography and philosophy may be conspiring to keep donors away, the SPCA's fund-raising strategy itself raises questions about what the agency is trying to accomplish.

When Cox kicked off the campus fund-raising campaign in March 1997, he told the Morning News that if the donations came in slower than expected, the agency would "probably" build the proposed care center first, then construct the new clinic and education center as money came in. At the time, the priorities made sense: Build a sorely needed shelter and expanded clinic, then add on the amenities as the money came in. But that's not what happened.

After two years of hat-passing, all the SPCA has to show for the effort is the Lynn T. and Russell E. Dealey Life Care Cottage, named because of a $270,000 grant the Dealeys gave to the SPCA. (Russell Dealey is the great-grandson of Belo founder George Dealey.) Pet retirement homes are an increasingly popular idea, but the apparent shift in priorities may have more to do with the cottage's role in the SPCA's new fund-raising strategies.

Melanie Lambert is the program director for the Summerlee Foundation, a nonprofit organization that distributes money to animal groups throughout North America. Four years ago, Lambert says, the Summerlee Foundation decided to give the SPCA a grant so it could hire a person who would specialize in planned giving.

"We felt the SPCA wasn't bringing in enough money for an area this big with this many problems," Lambert explains. "We felt they weren't planning for the long term."

As part of the new strategy, the SPCA solicits money from the elderly, offering to take care of their animals after their deaths in exchange for gifts of real estate, life insurance, securities, or cash. The program is attractive to potential donors because they can write the SPCA into their wills, meaning they buy peace of mind now and pay for it later.

In its fund-raising literature, for example, the SPCA tells potential donors that a minimum gift of $10,000 will get their cat or dog placed in a foster home, where it will be given free health care and monitored by the SPCA "Quality Control Department" for life. But a minimum gift of $25,000 will get the animal a lifetime spot inside the Dealey Life Care Cottage, where "all of its needs are met."

While Lambert says she is pleased with the strategy, she concedes that she hasn't been monitoring the program very closely. "They send me reports," Lambert says, "but Warren and I haven't sat down and gone over them in any detail."

Perhaps she should. Cox was at a loss to explain how exactly this pet survivor program works. For example, when asked how the SPCA's "quality control department" monitors animals after they are placed in a foster home in exchange for a $10,000 contribution, Cox said he was unaware that the SPCA was making such promises.

"We don't have a program like that as far as I know," he said. When given a copy of the SPCA's promotional literature, downloaded from its Internet site, Cox's memory returned. He quickly explained that while the SPCA may have taken some contributions as part of the program, none of the pet owners has died yet, so the monitoring program isn't in place.

Jones later confirmed there are more than 78 animals enrolled in the pet survivor program and, as Cox said, the owners are still alive. When they die, Jones she says, the animals will be housed either at the life care cottage, which she hopes will be completed sometime this summer, or on one of several ranches willed to the SPCA.

Jones won't say where those properties are located, but she says they are part of a statewide effort to get Texans to donate their property to the SPCA. Jones concedes that the program may seem a bit disorganized now, but she assures donors they have nothing to worry about.

"We've been very honest and up-front with people," Jones says. "If you leave us the home, we're gonna sell it. And the people understand that we're gonna sell the home, take the money, and care for the animal."

For now, Jones says the SPCA is confident that it will have the employees in place to manage the cottage and the donated properties before any of its donors die.

Being the biggest dog on the block comes with its own set of problems, especially in the tiny world of animal-rights advocates in Dallas. In this arena, which consists of dozens of fractured groups all competing for limited dollars, the SPCA's size makes it an easy target for criticism.

In July, Cox acknowledged that the SPCA has recently experienced a high rate of turnover, and he suspects that the former employees and volunteers are squawking to reporters in the hopes of generating negative publicity about the SPCA.

"Why aren't they doing more to find homes for these animals instead of pointing a finger at the SPCA?" says Cox, whose face flushes when the subject of his critics is raised. "We need to stop this infighting. We're splitting the limited amount of resources."

Contrary to Cox's belief, the former SPCA faithful are extremely reluctant to criticize the SPCA publicly (in fact, none of the people interviewed for this story, including former volunteers, approached the newspaper with any complaints). While these critics are more than eager to lambaste Cox and the SPCA privately, they say they do not want to speak publicly for fear that their complaints will sour potential donors on all animal causes, including the SPCA.

"A lot of people are afraid if they speak out against the SPCA, the public wouldn't support it. They're afraid the money will dry up even worse and it would hurt the animals," Mary, the former volunteer, says.

Although some of the quietly expressed complaints have merit, the critics' unwillingness to step into the open diminishes their chances of effecting any real change at the SPCA. In the meantime, the Summerlee Foundation's Lambert says this festering dispute is itself the best explanation for why animal causes remain confined in the city's social doghouse.

"I have seen more backbiting and fighting in this community than I have in any other community across the United States," Lambert says. "It's very difficult to get these coalitions to work together because of the hatred they have for each other."

Especially galling to Lambert are complaints that the SPCA is too focused on fund-raising. It's true that charitable dollars are limited for animal causes, but Lambert says that very few of the local groups that are so desperate for money bother to apply for Summerlee Foundation grants they may be eligible to receive. While the SPCA's $4 million budget may look big to some, it's not very much in the bigger world of nonprofits.

For her part, Lambert can't help but see irony in the simmering feud. "The animals don't seem to have a problem," she says, "but the humans certainly do."


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