Animal Welfare

How Did Dallas Animal Services Get So Broken?

On Monday afternoon, The Dallas Morning News' editorial board reached a conclusion its been building to for months. In the wake of the unspeakably horrific death of Antoinette Brown, who was fatally mauled by a pack of dogs in South Dallas, Dallas Animal Services director Jody Jones has to go.

The piece raises several solid points. For instance, “I hate to say it, but people die in traffic accidents every day,” is not a sentence that should make it past anyone’s lips under any circumstances, especially not the lips of the city's chief animal control officer responding to someone being gnawed to death by a rogue pack of animals. 

More generally, City Hall’s response to the problem of loose dogs roaming freely through parts of southern Dallas has been less than overwhelming. And any discussion of animals in Dallas is, at the moment, inflected by the disconcerting knowledge that large swaths of the city are teetering on the cusp of Third World status. Why not have a good ol' bureaucratic bloodletting?

But before anyone gets their knives too sharp, it's worth taking a breath.

Rewind a few years, and Dallas Animal Services was an unmitigated disaster. In May 2010, a cat became trapped in the walls of the city shelter. It remained there for a week. Shelter workers cringed at the animal’s incessant yowls as it slowly starved to death. This was an extreme case, but it was characteristic of the organization's rather toxic culture and callous attitude toward animals.

Jones fixed that. She professionalized the shelter. She forged partnerships with rescue groups and community organizations. Adoptions nearly quadrupled, from 2,816 in 2010 to 8,438 last year, while the number of animals killed plummeted from 21,763 in 2010 to 11,354 last year. What had been a prototypical "catch 'em, cage 'em, kill 'em" operation was inching closer towards becoming a no-kill shelter.

Jones and her team have made missteps, some small (e.g. the shameless fundraising off Bentley the Ebola dog), some a bit larger (e.g. accidentally killing four rescued Australian shepherd mixes). But there was little doubt among those who had been observing the shelter since the cat-in-wall days that things had vastly improved.

Where reasonable people can — and very vociferously do — disagree is how effectively Dallas Animal Services has addressed the loose dog problem under Jones.

There's long been a tension at City Hall between southern Dallas leaders calling for dogs to be rounded up, their fate once they reach the shelter be damned, and animal welfare advocates who push for fewer animals to be euthanized. Under Jones, Dallas Animal Services has tilted towards the animal-welfare crowd, eschewing a never-ending campaign of loose-dog sweeps for an aggressive program of outreach and education under the theory that the only sustainable solution to the loose-dog problem is to change human behavior.

You can see the change in the guts of the city budget, where Dallas Animal Services' self-described mission shifted from "increase number of animals impounded" to "reduce loose animal service requests through increased community engagement, expanded education and community partnerships."

For several years, the department's efforts won consistent praise. The narrative began to shift a couple of years ago as a new breed of animal welfare advocates, led by Maria Tarashevka, began drawing attention to the grisly piles of dead dogs routinely dumped along Dowdy Ferry Road. This, in turn, intensified focus on the loose-dog problem.

Jonnie England, a longtime Dallas dog rescuer, says she was voicing similar concerns by the time she left the city's Animal Shelter Commission in 2013. "The concern is that there's too much focus on the number the live release percentage rate and not enough concern about quality of life for the animals," she says. England didn't think the department was aggressive enough in going after problem owners who tethered their dogs or didn't have them spayed or neutered in violation of city ordinances passed in 2008. And she attributed the lack of aggressiveness to Dallas Animal Service's single-minded focus on increasing its live-release rate.  "The fewer animals that you're going to take in the fewer that you're going to euthanize."

And Dallas Animal Services has been taken in a lot fewer animals. In 2008, the city impounded 34,522 dogs and cats. In 2015, the shelter's intake ("impoundment" has fallen out of fashion) was 26,407, a drop of 25 percent. The number of calls for service the department responds to every year has also been dropping, but it's hard to tell how much of the decrease can be attributed to actual improvement.

The on-the-ground reality in South Dallas and elsewhere seems to suggest that the drop is probably driven mostly by Dallas Animal Service's move away from its dog-catcher role, a move that has continued even as the department's mandate over the past 18 months has shifted from lowering kill rates to doing something meaningful about loose dogs. Jones has done a lousy job of adjusting to the new reality.

Jones' supporters — and there are plenty in the animal welfare community — maintain that this approach is the right one. "The problem is, it's a self-replenishing supply," says J.P. Bonnelly, a veteran dog rescuer and member of the Aminal Shelter Commission. "What happens is, irresponsible owners let unaltered pets out. Those unaltered pets get on the street [and meet another unaltered pet]. You get a little Barry White playing, and you've got 10 more puppies on the street."

Her supporters also dispute the notion that Jones has ignored the loose-dog problem. Mary Spencer, former chair of the Animal Shelter Commission, pointed to a substantial increase in the number of citations written by animal control officers since Jones came on board, jumping from 1,389 the year before she came to 2,102 last year. This year, the number is on pace to double. "Loose dogs has always been a big focus of Jody's," Spencer says. "She just hoped that through the big spay/neuter surgeries ... [she] would get it under control a little faster than it did."

As for Brown's death, there were many breakdowns on the part of the city — everything from poor communication between Dallas Animal Services and the Dallas Police Department to the persistence of huge pockets of desperate poverty — but it's hard to pin her death on under-enforcement by Dallas Animal Services. According to the official narrative, the department repeatedly cited the owner of the dogs suspected of attacking Brown and ultimately got him to surrender 10 dogs.

In other words, it did its job. But Dallas Animal Services couldn't stop the owner from turning around and getting more dogs, which, legally speaking, are private property and thus protected from undue government interference.

Bigger picture, though, England thinks Dallas Animal Services response to loose dogs has been a failure and needs to change. "What we've been doing has not worked for Dallas," she says. Whether Jones should keep her job, England says, depends on whether she is willing to acknowledge failure and help formulate a plan to  approach to seriously and immediately address the loose-dog issue.

Supporters worry that if Jones leaves, Dallas Animal Services will degenerate back into the wreck it was before she arrived. "If we lose Jody we'll lose [Dallas Animal Services operations manager] Cate [McManus]," Bonnelly says. "If that happens the animal welfare situation is going to be awful. Awful."
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson