Volunteers Fill the Gap in Dallas' Broken System for Collecting Stray Animals

“Hi,” the woman says, in a voice that isn't friendly. “What are you doing?” It's a pitch black night in mid-August in Southeast Dallas. Marina Tarashevska wields a camera as she approaches the back of a black pickup. A man wearing a cowboy hat opens the driver's door to get back in.

“What do you think I'm doing?” he responds, without turning to look her in the eye.

“Dumping dogs,” she says.

“Dumping dogs? You're crazy.” He shuts the door and starts the truck.

“Oh yeah, what are you doing here?” her voice calls out to him again, capturing one last shot of his truck as he prepares to drive away. The video is just 10 seconds long, but it's enough time for Tarashevska to get an image of the license plate. Just moments before she started rolling her camera, the man had dumped a plastic bag in the woods off of Dowdy Ferry Road. Inside the bag was a large dead dog, Tarashevska tells her large following on Facebook, where she posted the video.

For years, a Dallas neighborhood at the edge of the Great Trinity Forest has functioned as the city's unofficial, illegal trashcan, where people have tossed weapons, shovels, at least one corpse, bags of dirt, tires, aging cars, mattresses and dogs, both dead and alive.

Facing what they believe is an inadequate response from the city to help unwanted dogs here and elsewhere in southern Dallas, some people have taken matters into their own hands.

In the August heat, the streets of southern Dallas stay empty during the day, but once the sun goes down, the dogs emerge. In Brettonwoods, a picturesque neighborhood in Oak Cliff, also near a wooded area, residents are familiar with occasional bobcats, foxes and other wild animals. But neighbors say they are occasionally plagued by vicious dogs, whom they suspect belong to people who let their pets run loose at night. “It's the owners that are the big problem, and we get no help from the city,” says Wayne Kirkwood, a longtime resident whose cat was recently killed by a pack of dogs. He followed the pack the next evening to get a photograph, but he still doesn't know who they belong to or whether they are feral.

No one has come up with a foolproof, concrete solution to the stray dogs found in neighborhoods in Dallas' poorer half. The Dallas Animal Services shelter and adoption center in West Dallas and the older municipal shelters before it have always operated at full capacity, former workers say. Many of the strays picked up would end up getting euthanized anyway, but sending a rapid response team to quickly collect roving animals was once part of the DAS policy. That all changed in 2011.

“They started telling us to not bring in animals,” says Paul Ellis, an animal control officer for 25 years who retired on bad terms this year, under the two new directors appointed in 2011. "All of us saw a rapid increase in the population of the dogs in Dallas.”

In public, the shelter leadership has acknowledged this somewhat, arguing that picking up strays isn't worth the effort. “It clears the streets temporarily, until those same dog owners go out and get new dogs,” says an online post by the shelter, adding that catching strays is an “astronomical cost to Dallas taxpayers.”

“They started telling us to not bring in animals. All of us saw a rapid increase in the population of the dogs.”

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Instead, rather than regularly bringing in strays, officers working the field are sent on “smart-sweeps” to certain ZIP codes, going door-to-door, checking if homeowners have their pets fixed and offering free spaying and neutering. It may be a good service, but it's not the same as picking up strays. With more public scrutiny on Dallas Animal Services after a recent Dallas Morning News feature on stray dogs, the agency on Monday told City Council that it would better target problem areas and increase officer pay. The City Council was unimpressed. “Even a bad plan is better than no plan,” Councilman Scott Griggs said.

Rescuers say most of the animals held at the shelter now are “owner-surrenders,” animals that people voluntarily drop off for adoption or death. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the shelter reported an intake of 28,326, the lowest number since 2007, when the shelter took in 36,531 animals. The percentage of animals making it out of the shelter alive in 2013-2014 was another success — 45.6 percent, a record, and a vast improvement from 2007, when the live-release rate hovered just below 20 percent.

But to current and former employees, some who spoke to the Observer anonymously, and southern Dallas residents, those numbers have a price. The workers say collecting fewer strays is part of a calculated attempt to lower the euthanasia rate, a move they believe was done more for appearances than public good. “There was a no-win situation where you've got loose dogs up and down the street attacking people, but they don't want us to bring in loose dogs, because if you bring in loose dogs, you raise the euthanasia rates,” says Domanick Munoz, the agency's lead animal cruelty officer until he was fired this year.

In an email through Dallas' public information office, Dallas Animal Services' Director of Operations Catherine McManus responds: “Using guilt and fear [from higher euthanasia rates] to get pets out of the shelter can result in people pulling pets without plans" and to more animal hoarding.

McManus and Dallas Animal Services Director Jody Jones sat down with the Observer in an initial interview. Afterward, we reached three former employees and one current worker, who described the mandate to not bring in strays and several other perceived managerial problems at the shelter. Through an assistant on the phone, Jones and McManus declined to answer additional questions directly, sending all further requests through the city's public information office.

In the initial interview, Jones said people who are afraid of a stray dog need to call the police, not animal services. “It's important if they're in fear for their safety, the only one that's going to get there quick is a police officer," Jones says. Many other city police departments employ licensed peace officers to work under animal control, merging the role of cop and dogcatcher, but Dallas isn't one of them.

In any case, calling the cops about a dog problem isn't always helpful. In Kiest Park, a pack of loose dogs once followed Jeffrey Talley as he was walking his own dog, which had already been bitten on the snout on another occasion. Fearing for his animal's safety again, he called 911. “They told me to call 311. I did that,” he says. “They told me to call 911, so I knew nothing is going to happen at this point, so I'm not making any further calls.”

In Winnetka Heights, Charlie Howell and his wife had written to the city about the neighborhood's stray dog problem a year ago. Then in August, the couple was attacked by a white pit bull. Howell took a bite to the face to protect his own dog and his wife. A witness later told police that he had called animal control the previous day, on August 17, “but animal control did not remove the dog on that date,” the police report says. The same day Howell was bitten, a mail carrier reported being attacked by another set of dogs in Oak Cliff.

The stray dogs that wind up dumped dead and alive alongside Dowdy Ferry Road, where Tarashevska filmed her guerrilla footage, stare at passing drivers, reminding Michael Brinkley of homeless panhandlers. “It's kind of like they got their hands out,” Brinkley says.

To most people who live nearby him, the dogs that come out after sundown are just a nuisance, a sometimes frightening one. "I come back home, they're sitting in my driveway. I'm like, are you serious?" says Terrian Jenkins, who has lived in the nearby Teagarden Estates neighborhood for three years. Jenkins' ex-girlfriend used to regularly call Dallas Animal Services to report the strays, but Jenkins says a city van would just drive a loop around the cul-de-sac and leave. Jenkins looks at the bowls filled with kibble scattered on Brinkley's lawn next door. “He's a dog lover,” Jenkins says.

"I come back home, they're sitting in my driveway. I'm like, are you serious?"

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When Fran Gaconnier can't lure the strays of Winnetka Heights with food or persuasion, she uses her catch-pole. The poles — long, metal instruments that grab dogs by their necks — are meant to protect animal control workers who are trying to capture a loose dog that is too violent or elusive to be safely caught any other way. But Gaconnier isn't an animal control officer; she's just a longtime resident of Winnetka Heights. Her neighbor bought her the catch-pole as a gift.

Gaconnier first became invested in the neighborhood's strays four years ago, as she watched animal control officers occasionally come to the neighborhood, she says, but fail to catch a pack of feral dogs. She persuaded the city to let her borrow traps herself, which she used to trap the members of the pack. The husky she eventually named “Tasha” was too smart, however, and avoided the traps. She finally captured Tasha in November 2012, after the dog had begun to appear ill.

A vet assisting Gaconnier later performed surgery and made a disturbing discovery: The dog had been shot in the shoulder by a tranquilizer dart, and was apparently left to suffer on the streets. Somehow, the dog survived the shooting. "When she pulled it out, she told us it was most likely an animal control tranquilizer dart," Gaconnier says. With Tasha under her care, Gaconnier contacted City Council member Scott Griggs. He arranged a meeting with the Dallas Animal Services directors Jones and McManus and asked them to investigate where the dart came from. The directors' investigation was inconclusive, but they denied the dart was their own.

Griggs remains unconvinced. “I don't know where else the dart would come from, people usually don't have animal darts,” he says.

Jones said the dart could have belonged to any number of private animal control companies. “I don't recall whether we have the same darts or not," Jones said. “Could it have been a rogue issue? I guess, maybe, but there's no evidence that points to it. And the bottom line is, that whoever it was, an animal should not be darted inappropriately, and it was darted inappropriately by somebody, and that somebody could be anybody.”

Tasha remains in Gaconnier's care. “She'll probably stay with me forever,” she says.

W hen Jones, who has worked in shelters across the country, and McManus, a veterinarian, took over Dallas Animal Services in 2011, their arrival was widely viewed as an improvement from the previous shelter manager. In 2010, then-shelter manager Tyrone McGill was famously indicted on animal cruelty charges, accused of preventing employees from digging out a live cat that had crawled into the facility's wall. Weeks later, the cat died. The smell became unbearable. An anonymous former officer remembers wanting to rescue the cat, but being told by McGill that it was “destruction of city property,” and that he would be fired if he broke through the wall, an account that was repeated by other employees in court testimony. The worker decided it would be better to keep his job, but he remembers how his decision to obey his boss haunted him when he came home. A jury found McGill not guilty, and he remains employed in the Department of Code Compliance, which Dallas Animal Services falls under.

Under the new shelter directors, Dallas Animal Services quickly reported lower intake rates, lower euthanasia and higher adoption rates. And aside from the shelter and animal control, the agency also offered other programs, like Big Fix for Big D, in which pet-owners in certain ZIP codes can sign their pets up for free spaying and neutering. “We had a much stronger level of transparency across the board ... and we're very open for the opportunities to [make] corrections that we need to make,” Jones says.

A former animal commissioner disagrees. The shelter's policy is discussed in quarterly public meetings by the city's Animal Shelter Commission, an advisory committee of volunteers. Under Jones' leadership, the commission seemed to have a tacit policy to not criticize the management, former commission member Jonnie England says.

Previously, the commission held meetings at which they publicly discussed shelter issues, but after Jones took over and joined the commission herself, she helped develop a new policy in which “operational issues” would not be discussed at the public meetings.

Instead, the commissioners were offered private “pre-meetings” with Jones to discuss “operational concerns which may not be relevant to discuss at the Open to the Public General Commission meeting,” her assistant wrote to the volunteers. Jones and McManus defend this decision. “Things changed when they brought Jody and myself on,” McManus says, "because now they had actual subject matter experts in animal sheltering, in animal welfare and animal control, so I think the role that the commission was playing prior to that, when you didn't have people with that expertise, was much more involved in operations."

Nevertheless, England said she'd had enough, feeling that the commission had become too political. “As commissioner you were sort of expected to be in lockstep [with] management, and I wanted to have some honest, open conversation,” says England. (“That's her opinion,” says Jones.)

Perhaps as a result of the new meeting policy, several perceived mistakes at the shelter have been swept under the rug, the four workers say. Last summer, a Chihuahua that had gotten loose in the shelter parking lot was soon hit by a truck in front of the shelter, according to two officers who responded to the call. The Chihuahua died as it was chased by a group of workers that included shelter manager McManus, the two officers there say. The two former workers say they were instructed not to use catch-poles on the Chihuahua, an order they felt was wrong. “The right thing to do would be to have as many nets out there they could carry,” says Paul Ellis, the retired officer and one of the two witnesses who spoke to the Observer. (“As a practice, we do not comment on incidents, accusations, opinions and hearsay from past employees,” McManus responds in an email through the Dallas public information office.)

“As a practice, we do not comment on incidents, accusations, opinions and hearsay from past employees."

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The shelter's last revenue audit was in 2005, and advocates, workers and politicians point to a number of financial and procedural issues that suggest an audit should come soon. In February 2014, Subaru of America and the ASPCA provided a Subaru XV Crosstrek to the agency, “to be used at adoption and community outreach events," a press release says about the car. "DAS will also receive a $7,500 Subaru grant provided by the ASPCA to be used for vehicle expenses." The news release gives the impression that the car is to be used generally by the agency. “I'm thrilled DAS will be able to use one of our vehicles to help out a cause that is important to both Subaru and to our customers," Subaru's general manager is quoted saying. Instead, Ellis and a current supervisor claim, Jones used the Subaru as her personal vehicle for a year. In an email, McManus responds that the vehicle was meant to be a moving advertisement and cost nothing to taxpayers. “The Subaru was not donated. It was a one year leased vehicle. The lease ended on March 1st, 2015, and the vehicle was returned to Subaru," McManus writes. “The city incurred no costs as the gas, insurance and maintenance were covered by ASPCA and Subaru. The vehicle was a moving billboard.”

At the close of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, a budget review showed Dallas Animal Services employed what amounted to just 83 full-time employees on average during the year, nearly 20 full-time equivalent workers short of the 101 it was budgeted for. Despite that, Animal Services spent slightly over its budget, most of which comes from the city's general fund. After being shown the budget sheet in an interview, Jones and McManus described the number of full-time people they employ as a moving target that is difficult to pinpoint. "At any time you're going to be bringing people into your employment and discharging people from your employment during that fiscal year, and during that time that number moves throughout the year,” Jones says. But Councilman Griggs says the same pattern occurred last year.

At the same time that it was under-employing its workforce, the agency was also asking for $33,000 from the city's general fund to be spent on exactly 54 chairs, according to an October 2014 email provided to the Observer. “Thanks to each one of you who worked hard to educate your Councilmember and to appeal for additional funding. We were a SUCCESS — and the animals and DAS will benefit!," wrote Mary Spencer, the chair of the Animal Commission, in an email that included the $33,000 chair line-item. Spencer declined to answer questions about the expense, responding in an email that she is on vacation. "The chairs were purchased from [furniture store] BKM," Spencer writes in an email. “You should talk to them.”

City public information officer Jeffrey Clapper wrote in response to our questions: “The chairs were 488.11 each. The total was $27,426. Office furniture isn't cheap and since the City has a competitive bidding process for approved vendors, the price we pay is set by the merchant.”

The previous year, Dallas' Department of Code Compliance spent $5,400 on a dog mascot costume. Jones and McManus say the costume was a surprise.

The independent rescuers, the rogues who capture animals in the streets or in the woods, the people like Marina Tarashevska, are often at odds with DAS staff or upper-management. Many of the volunteers like to tell DAS workers how the agency should be run or how people should do their jobs. Ellis remembers a cat rescuer was once escorted out of the shelter by security because she refused to stop cleaning cages when workers wanted to go home. “Because of the negative publicity that was going back and forth," between the rogue rescuers and DAS, “they weren't really thought very highly of at the time when I was there,” Munoz says.

But unlike other workers, Munoz says he developed a good rapport with the activist set. He had grown used to working with passionate rescuers, the kind who weren't afraid to confront abusive pet owners themselves but didn't always understand how difficult cases can be to prosecute. Munoz says he was typically sent to follow up on tips of possible abuse that Tarashevska had reported. “I understand and understood where she was coming from,” Munoz says, “and I knew how to talk to her and say this is what we could and couldn't do."

Munoz is a former salesman who joined Dallas Animal Services five years ago. He remembers his frustration at being called to the same irresponsible pet owners' homes over and over and wanting something more to be done. He asked his then-boss if he could work longer on cases and investigate animal cruelty for his main job. His boss agreed, let him take a training course, and Munoz soon became the agency's lead cruelty investigator, working with the District Attorney's Office and police to bring charges against alleged animal abusers. "Domanick was one of the people neighbors felt like really wanted to help,” says Gaconnier, the catch-pole wielding Oak Cliff rescuer.

On December 30 of last year, Munoz got a call about a complicated hoarding case.

Tarashevska and friends had found a woman who was keeping 28 dogs as pets in a junkyard. They tried to reason with her themselves, but then called Dallas Animal Services when the alleged hoarder grew defensive and refused to give her Aussies up for adoption.

Field officers spent three hours at the woman's home, and she agreed that evening to give 13 to Border Collie Rescue, a nonprofit rescue group. “The next day, Border Collie Rescue returned for more of her dogs,” an affidavit says. Then on December 30, the officers returned and asked her to give up four more to the city. “Domanick proceeded to speak to the citizen and she decided to surrender," writes field manager Adrian Vela in an affidavit. With fosters lined up by Tarashevska's group, Munoz instructed shelter workers to place a "Y hold" on the animals, or notation that was meant to prevent them from being killed. “We asked Domanick in person what kind of hold we should put and he stated just the Y,” Vela said. Munoz did not specify the reason the dogs should not be euthanized, but affidavits from several officers confirm that a “Y hold” was placed.

Yet four days later, in the intake lab, a vet inspected the dogs and found them to be “fearful of me and seem unsocialized.”

“I do not remember, but I am told that the animals did have a Hold Y above the comment box. If this is true then I would have had to remove the Hold in order to sign them for euthanasia. I am not denying that I did do that, I simply don't recall,” vet Brad Rosenquist wrote in an affidavit filed as part of the investigation into the dogs' deaths. The four Aussies were ultimately euthanized on January 1, two days after they were brought to the shelter. A rescuer got the news when she showed up that day to take photographs of the Aussies for adoption. "I am absolutely heartbroken and disgusted to have to share this horrible news with everyone. DAS killed the 4 Aussies," Tarashevska posted.

The public outrage was swift. Jones quickly asked the agency's social media manager, Rebecca Poling, to write a timeline of what was publicly known and to track publicity about the Aussies' deaths.

Later, in an email, Poling asked a large group of rescue nonprofits to sign a petition stating their support for the shelter's management. "We, the undersigned, wish to express our support and sympathy for the staff of Dallas Animal Services,” the petition says, “over the loss and recent media coverage concerning four dogs euthanized after being surrendered by their owners under pressure from independent rescuers ... Jody Jones and Cate McManus have been inspiring leaders in that progress for Dallas. To lose them would mean nothing but a huge step backward for the city and indeed the entire DFW area. Sadly that is exactly what some people seem determined to see happen."

In late February, the city of Dallas publicly released the results of its Aussie death investigation: Two employees “should have exercised more prudence in the documentation and record verification process.” The veterinarian, the one who couldn't remember if the animals had a “Y hold,” would be suspended for two days. Munoz, who was unnamed by city staff, would be fired "as a result of his cumulative performance history."

“I think he was a really good cruelty investigator,” the current, anonymous supervisor says. “I think there was some aspect of the supervisor role he did not do well," mainly that he showed up to the office tardy, “however I think they handled his firing the completely wrong way.”

With Munoz gone, DAS lost its lead and most experienced cruelty investigator. “There's not a lot of investigations going on, because they're not trained properly and there's no follow-up," the current supervisor says.

“He was a badass,” says another former colleague. Munoz's firing, the former colleague says, “was horse shit."

“There's open litigation surrounding Domanick's separation from employment so I'm really not at liberty to talk about it," Jones says of the firing. “Let me say this, the situation with the Aussies and his termination were two separate things,” is all McManus said she could add.

Brinkley, the man who feeds his neighborhood's strays, used to pray for someone to help the abandoned dogs until, driving in his tow truck, he heard a song on the radio. “Because God created you,” he remembers the lyrics went. It persuaded him he should stop waiting for someone else to help the animals.

In 2010, he began bringing food into the woods several times a week; the strays were afraid to get too close to him but seemed to recognize his truck. The bolder animals come to his home, where he keeps more kibble. For years, he searched for a rescue group that cared as much about helping the strays as he did. Brinkley didn't find the help he wanted until a friend introduced him to what the friend called some “crazy dog-rescue ladies." Brinkley says he was warned that “they're never going to leave you alone.” Not long after, Marina Tarashevska showed up at his home. Initially suspicious of him, Brinkley remembers, she soon after offered him dog food.

In return, Brinkley introduced her to the woods near his home where dead dogs are often dumped.

On a hot August afternoon, Brinkley joins Tarashevska on a trip to the forest, where she scans the fresh body with a chip-scanner, looking to see if the dog has an identifying microchip implanted. At Tarashevska's request, DAS has conducted cause-of-death tests on many of the dead animals she has found here, but the results have been unsatisfying. McManus and Jones maintain there's no evidence of dog-fighting, abuse or anything else illegal with the dogs, other than illegal dumping. “There's no commonality between them,” McManus says.

Brinkley finds an abandoned gun and the skull of Blondie, a stray he used to feed that had disappeared lately. For the dogs who are alive and that they can actually catch, Tarashevska relies on a network of fosters and Dallas Dogrrr, the scrappy group she founded. Still, "we've run out of people to help,” she says.

Their work is not appreciated by some of the neighbors. A junkyard owner whom Tarashevska suspected owned some of the strays here once accused her of stealing a dog, she says. Two DPD detectives left a note for her to contact them. When she did, she says, they told her about the man's allegations and asked her to come in for an interview. Tarashevska refused. “I figured that they're not investigating the dead dogs, but here they are chasing me over some random guy alleging, you know, accusing me of stealing some dog where there is no proof whatsoever.”

As they patrol the woods in August, they run into an officer from the Dallas Marshal's Office, who says he was recently told about dumping issues here. He seems sympathetic but surprised by the long list of criticisms the group has for the police department. "Cameras need to be here, cameras need to be installed," Tarashevska tells him. “I'm saying remote surveillance ... and if you want, we can get volunteers to watch them around the clock.” The officer declines the offer. He assures her that new cameras will be running soon.

In their return visits, the group still finds more bags of dumped dogs — nothing has changed yet. In September, Tarashevska and Brinkley, accompanied by an Observer photographer, found a dead dog whose hind legs were tied together with rope. Tarashevska called 311 again, asking for animal services to conduct another cause-of-death test. The operator, she says, told her they won't do it. (McManus says only of this incident: “Marina is not an employee of the city of Dallas, but we value her efforts and continued caring for animals.”)

The group is undeterred. In early September, a filmmaker and rescuer named Jeremy Boss began to patrol the area with a film crew and larger group of volunteers, following in Brinkley's and Tarashevska's footsteps. They organize people to feed the wild dogs, who have a better chance of survival here than in the shelter, and search for fosters for the others. “As long as we've got the crew that stays with us, we're going to clean that place up,” Boss says.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn