City Hall

Instead of Rounding Up Stray Dogs, Let's Round up the People Who Let Them Run

The Dallas Morning News ran a big editorial yesterday  vowing to hold the city’s feet to the fire on a new campaign to curb stray dogs. Yeah, I get all that, but the problem isn’t the stray dogs. It’s the damn stray people.

Not homeless people. Not talking about that. I’m talking about human beings who are so stray and so lame in their personal sense of responsibility that they adopt dogs and then let them run loose. I wish the city could show up in a big van with long catch-poles and snag a few of the human beings around the neck for a change.

It’s not the damn dogs’ fault. In a City Council debate about it last September, council member Ricky Callahan took the Ted Cruz carpet-bombing approach, wondering why we don’t go after dogs the same way we do other problem animals: “They bring in guys with helicopters and all that to go after wild hogs. We ought to be doing thusly with feral animals.”

I think this is the doctrine of the radicalized dog: We invited it into our country, fed it, got shots for it and now, what the hell, all it wants to do is bark at us and make a mess in our yard. Somewhere in here there is a very messed up idea of our role as human beings and responsible citizens. In fact dog ownership is an area rife with bad thinking.

Last year the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a survey in which they found that 10 percent of Americans believe dog ownership is a constitutional right. Uh … no. There is no basic right to keep a dog, not in our own fair land, not in the rest of the civilized world.

In fact in recent years people who care about animals have worked hard to dissuade the public from the very wrong idea that dog ownership is your right, your business and a matter to be settled solely in the cluttered confines of your own dilapidated conscience.

It’s not. It’s an important social question, not a fundamentally private one. If you stake your dog in the sun without water or leave it cooking in the car, then I have a right and an obligation to do something about it.

Three years ago, James Yeates, then head veterinarian for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the U.K., proposed that people be required to pass a basic competency test before they could be granted a license to keep a dog. He said licensing the owners as well as the dogs would “make it clear” that owning a pet is “a privilege and a responsibility,” as opposed to a right.

I look at something like this big supposed crackdown on stray dogs that the Morning News editorialized about — the one where the paper is going to hold the city’s feet to the fire — and I have to admit my heart sort of bleeds for the city employees. As far as I can tell, they have been pushing the law enforcement approach to its limits.

According a City Council committee briefing Monday, animal control officers are now writing 12 times the tickets they did 14 years ago, with a goal of increasing citations by another 500 percent. Not surprisingly, the city’s budget for animal control has doubled in roughly the same period, from about $5 million to more like $10 million.

Only problem is none of that really works. Whenever I have heard her speak or read her remarks, Dallas Animal Services director Jody Jones always seems to me like she has been pretty plainspoken concerning the effectiveness of rounding up stray dogs or even taking dogs away from bad owners. The bad owners just go get more dogs.

In fact that principle — "Dang, Ethylene, let’s go get us some more dogs" — is so central and so ingrained in the whole problem, I have to think it would defeat even the Ricky Callahan solution of snipers in choppers with assault scopes. If the Callahan air patrol were able to slaughter thousands of dogs a day, then the kind of people we’re talking about would just say, “Let’s go get us a whole mess’a more dogs.”

Plus, they’d be up and down the roads drinking 40-ouncers in folding chairs so they could watch the daily dog-shoot and make bets. We’re talking about assholes, slobs, people who keep dogs deliberately so they can abuse and neglect them. What do you want the city to do about that?

One of the more pathetic efforts I saw depicted in the recent briefing was the use of colorfully decorated city vans — wrapped in that plastic film they use on vehicles to carry advertising — carrying messages extolling the virtues of responsible pet ownership. I try to imagine that van pulling into the yard at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leathershortshorts, carefully negotiating a minefield of motorcycle parts and flesh-bearing pet skeletons, so that the Leathershortshorts can come out and be edified. I don’t think that’s how it works.

Let me give you an example of how pet ownership does work in the private sector among people who truly care about dogs. My neighbor Janel, a recent widow of impeccable character and solid credentials, has been trying to adopt a purebred from a rescue society for some six months that I know of. I think she’s finally in line to get an 8-year-old orphan, and she couldn’t be more excited.

But that’s after a months-long process in which the rescue outfit carried out some pretty invasive inspection of Janel, all of which she submitted to willingly and happily because it assured her the rescue group was dead-serious about the welfare of its wards.

And why shouldn’t they be serious? Being responsible for pets isn’t “like” parenting. It is parenting. It’s the same thing — taking responsibility for a short person who doesn’t speak English and can’t take care of himself. Loving the pet is the easy part — the payoff. You earn the privilege of loving and being loved by the pet by taking responsibility.

And I already know, because I have this conversation lots of times with people, this is the point where someone says, “Well, if you’re going to require people to get a license to own a dog, why wouldn’t you make them have a license to bear children?”

I don’t know. Why would you? What does that have to do with anything? That’s some kind of dodge, like saying if people have to be licensed to drive a car they should have to have a license to walk. Those are totally different realms. Bearing children or adopting children really is a fundamental human right. Having a dog is not.

So, wait. How would this work? How would we license pet owners? I don’t really know. I’m not really into how things would work, more just what’s wrong. I mean, I could try, but I think you could figure this out better than I can.
You can’t have a dog unless you are a licensed dog keeper. You can’t get a license unless you pass a course. I don’t think it has to be rocket science. Show Mr. and Mrs. Leathershortshorts a photograph of a dog skeleton chained to a tree and then have them check one of two boxes: 1) Bad? or 2) Cool? Things like that.

The cost of a license should not be stacked so that poor people can’t have dogs. There are plenty of great dog owners who are poor, I am sure, and lots of bad ones who are rich (anybody remember Best in Show?  

By the way, one of the great services Dallas Animal Services is providing to pet owners is counseling on low-cost spay-and-neuter and veterinary care. We already go to some lengths in Dallas to help regular people keep their pets healthy without bankruptcy.

On the other hand, why should we create the idea in anybody’s mind that having a dog in this day and age is free? Tell me what’s free about it. My own devotion to my little four-pawed friends is at its weakest point when I begin to get an inkling what the vet is about to charge me for the latest visit.

Owning a dog the right way costs somebody a lot of money sooner or later, and I’m not sure we should give the impression it does not. Isn’t that a sort of the heart of the problem — the whole idea of the free dog?

Pet-owner licensing also should pay for itself. Even if you get a license for free, you should pay a pretty painful fine if the city can prove you let that dog get away from you.

Now somebody is going to ask me, “What if it was stolen?” OK, don’t call it a fine. Make it more like a bond or a lien on your house. If you don’t manage one way or another to hold on to that little devil, you’re going to compensate the city for the trouble you’ve caused. There’s got to be a way to do it.

If it’s not worth the trouble, then you should take that as a sign: It’s not worth the trouble. That’s kind of what we’re going for here, a system that will make the Leathershortshorts family decide against doghood.

For me, of course, it’s worth it, because I speak their language. Mine have a certain cock of the ear, wag of the tail and short panting of the breath that means, ‘You don’t look a day over 40, Boss.”

I tell 'em, “Liars!” But they swear no. Hell, I’ll pay for that. 
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze