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.
DAS itself has been trapped between two opposing attitudes toward its work: The old dog catcher mentality of "catch, cage, kill," which focuses on rounding up strays, keeping them a short time and euthanizing them quickly, and a more animal welfare-influenced philosophy that focuses on humane treatment, adoption and live release. Animal rights activists blame city managers and city council members for sending out conflicting messages about what it wants the shelter to be. But when city leadership is predominantly concerned with street sweeps and numbers, viewing animals as they would high weeds or graffiti, compassion gets lost in the mix.
"This has come full circle a couple of times," says Andy Allen, a former chairwoman of the Animal Shelter Commission, a city council-appointed citizens advisory panel that oversees the shelter. She recalls the shelter suffering from the same problems a decade ago. "We have to stop this circle."
The interim shelter division manager, Lieutenant Scott Walton—a Dallas police fix-it guy who was assigned to restructure the DPD property room in the wake of the fake drugs scandal nearly a decade ago—is preaching a gospel of "compassion" to employees, but is that really all that's missing at the shelter?
Critics, including current and former members of the Animal Services Commission, say Assistant City Manager Forest Turner, who oversees the Department of Code Compliance under whose purview the shelter falls, has mismanaged his position, putting golf buddy Tyrone McGill in a job he was unqualified to fill; also, Turner has refused to provide the commission with straight answers about city shelter operations. For the past three years, under Turner's leadership and that of City Manager Mary Suhm, relationships between shelter workers, the commission and management have become, according to one former ASC member, "very adversarial."
Turner says the city "strives for continual improvement" and has placed the best employees in positions for which they are well suited. But critics wonder why Suhm, who declined to be interviewed for this story, hasn't gutted the department. They believe City Hall has forgotten that even though the animal shelter is under the Department of Code Compliance, dogs and cats can't simply be dealt with like bulk trash and unmended fences.
Most of all, some past and present commission members wonder why it has been ignored when they have been calling for reform and offering concrete solutions for years. The only answer they can come up with: Bad politics trumps good policy in code compliance.
With its $16.3 million price tag, courtesy of a late-'90s bond election, the new municipal animal shelter that opened in 2007 at the corner of Westmoreland Road and Interstate 30 in West Dallas was supposed to solve many of the problems that stalked previous shelters.
A decade ago, when Dallas Animal Services was called Dallas Animal Control, it didn't fall under the purview of the Department of Code Compliance but under Streets and Sanitation Services. Former commission chairwoman Andy Allen calls that organization structure "a terrible idea."
"That sent the wrong message to the public," she says, "that the job of animal control is to pick up dead animals off the streets." At the time, Dallas actually had two shelters, one in Oak Cliff near the zoo and another on Forney Road in Far East Dallas. Both shelters were aging dank, dark places with leaky roofs and serious rodent infestation problems.
Workers at the time seemed to have little knowledge of progressive animal control philosophy and procedures. At the adoption desk, for example, Allen says "there was no screening all around," neither for the animals chosen to be put up for adoption nor for the citizens who came into the shelter looking for a pet. Quality of life for the animals housed at the shelter was poor at best.
In fairness, workers at animal shelters can develop a hardened attitude toward their work just to survive it. Daily, they must deal with aggressive dogs, clawing cats, emotional owners who have lost their pets or can no longer control them and irate owners who have been cited for anything from dog-tethering complaints to animal cruelty. Some staffers suffer from "compassion fatigue," which sets in when people are asked to deal with trauma—like the euthanization of dozens of animals a day, for example—on a consistent basis.
"The people in this business are some of the most compassionate that I have ever met," Allen says, "but they can be beaten down." In order to deal with the reality of an 80 to 90 percent euthanasia rate, one current kennel worker, Eddie Hopper, says he reads the Bible every morning. "You've got to get your mind right or it can get real bad."
The call for the first Humane Society of the United States audit came in 2000, not as the result of any isolated incident, but from a general sense that the department was in terrible shape.
"Overall mismanagement would be an understatement," Allen recalls. When HSUS released its first report in December 2001, it confirmed what many had known for a long time: "The DAC has been a ship adrift for years," HSUS auditors wrote. In the eyes of both city government and community members, the report continues, "DAC is considered little more than a kennel or 'dog pound.'"
The report took then-Dallas Animal Control to task for egregious handling of euthanasia procedures, calling the selection process for euthanized animals "arbitrary and subjective." Workers sometimes poked animals several times in different sites on their bodies, causing unnecessary pain. After the injection, any given animal would be "thrown into a cart on top of other euthanized animals."
Relationships between staff and management were troubled, according to the report. Field and kennel workers told HSUS auditors that "rules are not enforced, that some staff are abusive and are not held accountable."
"[The report] was just as bad as everybody thought it would be," remembers England, then a new member of the Animal Shelter Commission, who says that even to her it was "very clear that relationships were bad between management and staff. There was a lot of contention there."
Dallas Animal Control was in need of a total overhaul, reported the HSUS. That meant a new building—which was already in the works thanks to a bond election—with proper dedicated space for receiving, lost and found, and adoptions. Also needed was a single shelter director, onsite, overseeing both field and shelter operations.
Taking the advice of the HSUS report, in 2003, the city hired a new division manager, Kent Robertson, a former vice president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas, who was respected for his managerial skills and animal know-how. He was hired to work under Kathy Davis, a director of Code Compliance who, former ASC members say, allowed him to make needed changes at the shelter. ASC members describe being "thrilled" at having an animal welfare professional put in the division manager position.
"The ship was about to crash into the iceberg and he got it turned around in time," England says. Robertson uncluttered the euthanasia lab, making it "a more peaceful place." Allen remembers his insistence that shelter workers make responsible adoption decisions rather than giving any animal to the first would-be owner who walked through the door.
Robertson also ushered in the name change from Dallas Animal Control to Dallas Animal Services. Allen says a change in attitude is what matters, but the re-branding signaled Robertson's emphasis on service over control—a change that was "a long, long time coming," she says.
Yet in 2006, just as England, Allen and the ASC thought things were finally turning for the better, Robertson left to take a job in Houston with its animal services department. His resignation came on the heels of Davis being transferred out of Code Compliance and into a new department. Davis and Robertson did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Davis had spent years dealing with the uproar generated by her decision to lay off employees who she accused of improperly ticketing citizens and inconsistently enforcing code law. She had disciplined 40 percent of her workforce and fired 28 people, many of whom got their jobs back after appealing their terminations. Some former commissioners recall Davis telling them that city officials wanted the entire Department of Code Compliance, starting with the animal shelter, revamped. But these commissioners suspect that she was transferred for doing her job too well. "There really was nothing that went wrong under Kathy Davis," Allen says.
The '07 transfer was not a demotion, City Manager Mary Suhm told the The Dallas Morning News at the time, but rather was due to the fact that the new Building Inspections Department needed "more attention." Davis has since moved to Los Angeles where she works in animal services.
Two people, whom ASC members said worked well with each other and the commission, were suddenly gone. With the new city shelter set to open in late 2007, says England, "we were without a director who had been so supportive and been so understanding of the issues."
October 20, 2007, was a beautiful autumn day that brought city council members, Mayor Tom Leppert and the animal welfare community out to celebrate the opening of the new Dallas Animal Services facility. Leppert cut a long green ribbon in front of the environmentally friendly, LEED-certified building's shiny, welcoming glass doors.
Right off the bat, the first animals were adopted at the new shelter. The new $16.3 million building, mostly paid for by two different bond programs, provided more than double the combined capacity of the two old shelters. It was a clean, well-ventilated workplace for the 120 full-time shelter employees, who would perform a range of functions like animal and kennel cleaning and care, investigating animal cruelty, dispatching field officers to calls about stray dogs and coordinating with rescue groups that foster animals about to be euthanized.
Earlier in 2007, a second nationwide search for a shelter division manager brought in California animal shelter professional Willie "Mac" McDaniel. But despite his background in animal welfare services, he was coming into a department that was being increasingly micromanaged by City Hall.
"He was a very caring person," England recalls. But he was not allowed to manage what needed to be done at the animal shelter. He couldn't even get simple things done like ordering office supplies on his own authority. Employees such as veterinarians and shelter managers were instructed to either not report to him or bypass him altogether, England says.
During this same period, July 2007, Forest Turner was appointed to an interim director position at Code Compliance, and that's when England says things began going sour, and hit a peak in late 2008 after Turner became the full-time director of Code Compliance. Communication between city staff and the Animal Shelter Commission became strained, and a previously smooth working relationship turned hostile.
Of the increasing acrimony, says England, "I attribute it to a change in leadership at Code."
While the physical plant of Dallas Animal Services had been transformed dramatically for the better, what went on inside the facility and at City Hall remained unchanged.
In early 2008, complaints surfaced in the press about urine pooling in inoperative drains in the facility and the mistreatment of dogs, including workers dragging them from cages to the euthanization lab. During McDaniel's term as division manager, two temporary workers were fired for mishandling shelter dogs. By the late spring of 2008, after a little more than a year on the job, McDaniels was reassigned to another city department. He could not be reached for comment.
For a second time, and after a third national search since the 2001 HSUS report, former shelter director Kent Robertson was brought back to oversee DAS.
"We were thrilled," says England of the ASC. "He did great before, and we [could] work with him." But with all the shake-ups, relationships had deteriorated among shelter managers, the city and the ASC. In 2008, the commission worked with the city council and enacted stricter, more progressive ordinances regarding the spaying and neutering of pets and the tethering of dogs, and conflicts arose over how to best disseminate this information to the public—shelter workers themselves were poorly educated about these changes.
Things the ASC—and the HSUS, in some cases—had wanted were not implemented, such as improved communications with the public and social networking through Facebook and the shelter website.
Maintenance issues were repeatedly noted by the ASC, especially dealing with the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Current ASC chairman Skip Trimble recalls Robertson assuring the commission that the problems were being dealt with. But when the HSUS report came out, those auditors also saw HVAC problems.
"Our advice was good advice and has been proven to be good," Trimble says, "because it's pretty much the same thing as the HSUS recommended in their  report."
The commission, which meets regularly with DAS representatives, felt it was being ignored, even with Robertson, someone they respected, leading the division. Recommendations and changes were "talked about and thought about and ignored," England says. Nothing seemed to stick over the two years Robertson held the division manager position for a second time.
More than anything, commissioners felt that Suhm and Turner, who would become Assistant City Manager, were trying to impose their will on the ASC as well as the shelter. In October 2008, the commission was told in a mass e-mail from Assistant Director of Code Compliance Lynetta Moore that it was scheduled to participate in an Animal Services Halloween retreat, though no one bothered to ask anyone on the commission for input. "It was like, please report for duty," England recalls. "Many of us found that very offensive."
Commission members contend that Robertson was physically present at the shelter but seemed less hands-on than before. His job as shelter division manager included supervising Tyrone McGill, who much to the dismay of commission members admitted he had never even owned a pet. He was close friends, however, with Robertson's boss, Forest Turner, so managing him was somewhat tricky, says animal rights attorney Feare. "Cronyism doesn't make for good management."
The cat death and resulting criminal prosecution of McGill was not the only instance of animal shelter abuse to get negative play in the press in the last 18 months.
In July 2009, 27 dogs were returned to an owner who had demonstrably neglected them. And that was after the new 2008 ordinances had put a cap on pet ownership at six animals. The city looked as though it was violating its own legislation.
In August 2010, field worker Donnie Jones, who had been disciplined in 2009 after leaving two severely burned dogs to suffer alone in kennels inside DAS without notifying anyone, was accused of handling a cat roughly with a catch pole. Then in September, when a Dallas police officer was called to the scene of an injured dog in East Dallas, according to police reports, he witnessed animal control officer Charles Jackson "dragging the injured dog to the animal control vehicle and picking it up by grabbing the dog's rear fur" as it cried and whimpered. The dog, which was microchipped and identified later as someone's pet, was eventually euthanized.
Attorney Feare says that the work environment at DAS had grown so hostile that some staffers engaged in a campaign to discredit his client Domanick Munoz after he testified against McGill before the grand jury.
In a letter to City Attorney Tom Perkins written before the grand jury considered the case, Feare wrote that there was a "concerted effort on the part of several supervisors and employees" to elicit written statements against Munoz. People also began spreading rumors about Munoz's family, Feare says: "They said his wife was a lesbian." The city said it hired an independent investigator to examine Munoz's complaints and the entire McGill incident, but so far, his client, who still works for DAS, has not been contacted for a statement, Feare says.
McGill's attorney Anthony Lyons maintains that his client "has done nothing to harm animals" and contends he is a victim of "a lot of political wrangling" from those who want his job.
In the aftermath of these mistreatment allegations, Robertson resigned, a decision which Turner says was made entirely by Robertson. Meanwhile McGill and Jones have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigations. Jackson was reinstated to an administrative position in Code Compliance earlier this month. Turner says none of them is getting special treatment. But a paragraph from the 2001 Humane Society report condemns just such actions:
"HSUS team members were informed through public comment that at least two employees of DAC had been placed on administrative leave, but not terminated, for mistreatment of animals. If this is true, such behavior cannot and should not be tolerated."
Not only is administrative leave for animal cruelty tolerated at DAS, but according to Turner, it's policy. And from 2001 to 2010, critics of DAS both inside and outside the department say bad policy has been the standard.
"Too often they have employed people who just never gave a damn about animals. They hire just to fill a position," Feare says. The results have been animal cruelty allegations, department mismanagement and public relations nightmares. "Dallas Animal Services sets itself up to fail again and again."
Had 2010 not brought highly publicized incidents of animal mistreatment by shelter employees, the Humane Society report released on November 2010 would have been damning enough. Despite the opening of a state-of-the-art facility, the report made it seem as though little had been done to implement its 2001 findings and many of the same problems persisted in 2010.
Humane Society auditors again found that relations between supervisors and staff remained poor because of fear of retaliation; training continued to be shoddy, and cat keepers "were barely able to provide the essentials of care." The report also called for taking dogs into the exercise yard for 30 minutes a day, in addition to assuaging "feelings of alienation among staff." Many of the fixes were not particularly expensive or time-consuming, such as discontinuing the use of string collars and refraining from the use of catch poles except when absolutely necessary.
Jonnie England has spent days poring over the newest report, highlighting things that the HSUS wanted fixed nearly 10 years ago. "It [shows] a lack of compassion," she says, "and to a large extent, I think a lot of it's a lack of focus."
Despite all that has happened, Assistant City Manager Turner doesn't see the past year as being a particularly bad one. "I wouldn't call it a lost year or a failure," he says before acknowledging that "it's been a tough year."
Turner says he doesn't want to look back, reluctant to talk about anything that happened before he arrived on the scene in 2007. He has little to say about the McGill matter, calling it "something for the courts to decide." According to Turner, DAS is swiftly moving forward, and interim shelter director Scott Walton is a big piece of that.
When Lieutenant Walton first heard DAS needed a fix-it guy, he didn't even wait until the end of a CompStat meeting to e-mail Dallas Police Chief David Brown about his desire for the job.
Walton recalls sending the message from his Blackberry. "It went something to the effect of: Chance for public failure, little to no support, employees divided against each other? I'll take the job."
When Walton took over shelter operations last September, he began preaching a kind of tough love, combining protocol and procedure with his most important charge, he says: "Compassion."
As former ASC chairwoman Andy Allen puts it: "It will take someone going in there with a badge and a gun."
With the HSUS report under review and a professional search agency retained by the city to find a permanent shelter director, Walton has identified three priorities for DAS under his authority: to increase live releases by getting pets out to good, loving homes or rescue groups; to improve the use of resources in the field for loose and aggressive animals; and, most important, Walton says, to facilitate responsible pet ownership. And that means enforcement of Dallas' strict spaying and neutering ordinances that require pet owners to "fix" their animals unless they can prove they're responsible breeders. Compassion can only go so far when owners allow their animals to breed freely and overpopulate the streets and, by extension, the city shelter.
To that end, the lieutenant has hit the ground running. He's cranked up the DAS Facebook page advertising pets for adoption. He requires shelter workers to report to an 8 a.m. detail each morning. He has a policy of greater transparency compared to previous administrations, allowing reporters to roam freely in the shelter hallways.
"When we don't do our best job here at DAS, [the public is] going to take notice," Walton says. "We really are working with lives, and each one of them is important."
On a Wednesday morning in mid-December, Walton is power-walking through the shelter, passing out to employees Christmas tree ornaments—paid for out of his own pocket—decorated with cat and dog stickers and with "DAS 2010" printed on them.
In a city with such a sizable animal population, the task before him is as enormous as it is frustrating. "I never got blamed because a burglar broke into somebody's house," Walton says. "But here at Animal Services, we're responsible for all the loose dogs...that society didn't take care of."
Eddie Hooper, a muscled, Bible-quoting kennel attendant, arrives at 6:45 a.m. to begin cleaning two rooms of cages that house 40 or so of the shelter's "Lost and Found" dogs. He'll barely finish the job by 4 p.m. when his workday ends. The job is physically demanding and repetitive, but it is also essential to ensuring animals stay healthy and therefore adoptable.
Supervisors rarely come in to check up on Hooper's work, which is done on an "honor system," he says. Of course, with pods full of defecating dogs, "If this process is not done, you'll know it."
Some of his coworkers come by to visit a puppy, a Chihuahua they've nicknamed Hope. Janet Henderson, who has a sweet voice made for soothing animals, does a lot of rescues from the shelter, as does Tina Mayfield, who works in dispatch. Mayfield has five rescue dogs at home, and Henderson has a passel, too. Mostly, the women say, they end up with the misfits—old, disabled, injured—animals that are often bypassed by those looking to adopt healthy, energetic puppies.
Gesturing to the brown pile of fur and ears in her arms, Henderson says, "basically my entire paycheck goes to this."
Things get started just before 10 a.m. at the Lost and Found desk, which today is being run by Kathryne Kimball. She makes calls to owners whose dogs have been picked up—one man has put off retrieving his dog for weeks, and she's giving him his final notice that the animal will be put down if he doesn't come this morning.
Pet owners can get combative, she says, but they can't keep lost and found animals indefinitely, and the city charges owners—$220 in fees in this man's case—to take their pets back home. "What are you gonna do?" Kimball asks aloud as she hangs up the phone. "People walk in and see a puppy and say how cute it is, but they don't understand it takes food, veterinary care, time." The lobby becomes backed up with families picking up found animals and hoping to find lost ones in the depths of the shelter. Volunteers from rescue organizations file in, dropping off snacks and hoping to take home animals at risk of being euthanized.
In the kerfuffle, a man brings in a wailing, bleeding pit bull. He says it's been hit by a car, but before anyone can get more details, he's disappeared. Turns out the dog has been shot in two places and is slowly bleeding to death.
Another man drops off a 10-year-old black cat. He's surrendering the family pet. "Why?" asks Kimball. The answer: The cat has stopped using its litter box. "You know this cat could be euthanized as early as today?" she tells the man. The shelter cannot afford to house all the animals that owners give up voluntarily. He says he understands, and he leaves.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
An elderly gentleman who cannot afford to treat his aging terrier comes in to ask a veterinarian if his dog can be euthanized quickly once he surrenders her.
"I won't make her wait," the vet tells the man.
The compassion is here, says Eddie Hooper, if you hire the right people. What the shelter needs, he says, is consistent leadership.
"I think if we can get somebody in place, it'll be better," he says, and employees will be held to a higher standard. "We've got to get rid of this BS and get down to business."