Before it starved to death last May, the cat could be heard by shelter workers, crying and clawing, trying to escape the confines of the break room wall behind which it had become trapped at Dallas Animal Services. Cats do especially badly in animal shelters, naturally preferring dark, quite repose to loud, boisterous interaction. This cat, terrified, had jumped away from staffers who were trying to clean cages, going straight for a loose ceiling tile and bolting into darkness.
But somewhere in its search for safety, the cat fell between shelter walls and landed between the walls of the employee break room and the ladies' restroom. It couldn't move. It could only yowl and scratch. For more than a week.
On May 3, according to court records, at least two shelter workers, after hearing the animal's cries, notified animal cruelty investigator Domanick Munoz about the cat's attempts to free itself. He e-mailed his bosses, including Tyrone McGill, a shelter manager. He explained that a cat was trapped in the wall, and where. Shelter workers could hear it clearly. And they had to get it out. Fast.
But the cat's cries continued throughout the next day. Another worker, Kimberly Killebrew, told McGill about the trapped cat. McGill told her he'd "handle it," according to an affidavit in the case. But the crying wore on. McGill just kept telling employees he'd take care of it.
Munoz was torn. He loved animals, and his job as a cruelty investigator allowed him to be on the front lines, saving them from horrible situations. But he also loved his family and couldn't risk his job by going over his bosses' heads and cutting the cat out of the wall. That just wasn't the way things were done at Animal Services.
"If he had kicked that wall in, he'd have been fired," says Arlington animal rights attorney Don Feare, whom Munoz retained. "[Munoz] had three small children to feed. He just had to deal with it."
As the days went on, and the cat continued to claw at the wall, the shelter workers wondered when their supervisors were going to take action. According to the affidavit, the workers reported pleading with McGill: Couldn't he do something?
Court records claim that McGill lifted a few ceiling tiles up, but did nothing more to save the cat. Calls were made to McGill's supervisor, Kent Robertson, the shelter division manager and a former SPCA director who had been lauded by animal rights activists in the city for his dedication. But he was out of town, dealing with a family emergency.
More days elapsed and the cat stopped crying. That's when the stink began. Not the stink made by shelter workers furious with supervisors, but the literal stink from the cat's decomposing body. It was so bad that workers couldn't eat their lunches in the break room.
On May 18—more than two weeks after the cat's cries were first heard, McGill cut a square hole in the wall—about a foot across, in precisely the location Munoz had identified. After the day shift ended, McGill and a few other workers pulled the cat's decomposed body out of the wall.
Animal deaths are nothing unusual at the shelter, which receives $6.6 million annually from the city's general fund. Up to 26,000 dogs, eight or nine thousand cats and several hundred exotic animals, livestock and wildlife come through DAS each year. The smallest percentage of those—for example, 1,510 cats and 5,308 dogs for the last fiscal year—will be adopted, rescued or returned to their owners. The vast majority will be euthanized.
But imagine: animal services workers terrified of getting fired for attempting to save an animal's life. Yet at Dallas Animal Services, that's how things worked, say animal rights activists like Jonnie England and shelter employees such as Domanick Munoz, for whom the culture of intimidation at DAS became so bad he had to hire a lawyer after he blew the whistle on McGill. Even Humane Society of the United States auditors found that toeing the party line and maintaining the favor of supervisors often has taken precedence over animal care and safety.
According to a HSUS report released in November, DAS has been suffering from a "morale crisis." Auditors reported that "staff repeatedly expressed alienation from managers and supervisors who used retaliatory disciplinary actions." This, they surmised, was "reflective of ineffective leadership in the management ranks."
Clock in, obey orders, keep your head down. Don't question the bosses. Clock out. If a cat dies in the wall? Hope the press doesn't get wind of it. And in the end, of course, it's the animals who suffer most.
The past year has been disastrous for DAS: Once-lauded animal shelter division manager Kent Robertson resigned and shelter manager Tyrone McGill was indicted on felony animal cruelty charges, though his attorney, Anthony Lyons, adamantly denies his client did anything wrong. Two other employees were put on paid leave pending internal investigations into mistreatment of animals, and a cop—a cop!—was brought in to manage the department in anticipation of a damning audit by the Humane Society that was strikingly similar to the one it issued a decade earlier. Over the last 10 years, seemingly endless shake-ups in upper management and a new state-of-the-art animal shelter costing taxpayers millions can't seem to set DAS straight.