Puppy Ciao

As part of the May 1998 bond election, Dallas voters overwhelmingly decided the city should spend $3.5 million to replace the outdated animal shelter in Oak Cliff--a killing camp where roughly 80 percent of the animals brought there wind up in the city dump.

Local animal activists, who used grim video footage of the overcrowded shelter to force the item onto the ballot, had reason to celebrate: After years of begging, the city was finally going to build a bigger shelter that would foster adoptions and, in the process, decrease the city's embarrassing euthanasia rate, one of the highest in the nation. Or so they thought.

"When we voted," says Tawana Jurek, a member of the city's animal shelter commission, "we all thought we were voting for a great shelter."

At the time, $3.5 million seemed like plenty to pay for the land, design and construction for the shelter, which was expected to cost $2.9 million. To some, such as Dallas City Council member Alan Walne, the figure even seemed pricey. That's why Walne and his colleagues looked like cats coughing up fur balls when the shelter came up for debate during the October 10 council meeting: To build the type of shelter the city needs, they learned, it could cost $11 million.

How much money the city needs for the shelter is still open to debate, but chances are good that the council members will have to go back to voters and ask them to approve more money for the project during the bond election scheduled this spring. In other words, Walne says, "We're going to have to go back to the voters and tell 'em why it is we didn't know what we were talking about before."

Despite appearances, the dilemma facing the council is actually the result of city staff trying to do the right thing. Specifically, they used a portion of the bond money to hire Larry Gates, an architect whose Denver-based firm is recognized as one of the nation's best at designing animal shelters. The trouble is, the type of shelter Gates has in mind incorporates modern design elements that might be too advanced for Dallas, a city that has historically kept animal control at the bottom of its priority list.

When Gates arrived in Dallas, he did what the city neglected to do before the 1998 bond election: He sat down with city staff and members of the animal shelter commission, among others, and figured what type of shelter the city needs to effectively combat its animal overpopulation problem. It didn't take long to determine that the $2.9 million slated for construction would, at today's construction prices, pay for a building that would house fewer animals than the present facility.

"If all we're going to do is house the same number of animals in the new facility as we are now, we're not accomplishing anything," says Skip Trimble, chairman of the animal shelter commission. "I believe the council understands we have to take a proactive approach towards animal control, or otherwise we'll never solve the problem. We're not at the point now where we're even containing the problem."

Trimble and other animal advocates have found themselves back at the beginning, arguing that the city needs to adopt an animal control approach that does more than house and kill animals. Gates' preliminary plans would do just that. Based on the "underlying objective" to transform the city's animal control image from that of a "dog catcher" to "animal advocate," the proposals incorporate a multipronged approach to decrease the city's euthanasia rate by 50 percent.

Every year, some 35,000 to 45,000 animals (including wildlife) are impounded in Dallas, which has two animal shelters. Of those, 3,600 are returned to their owners or rescued by animal groups. Only 1,800 are adopted.

The first and most expensive prong involves increasing the size of the shelter from the 14,000 square feet initially conceived by city staff before the 1998 bond election to 57,000 square feet. The bigger space would more than triple the combined number of dog and cat kennels, allowing staff to keep animals longer and increase their chances of adoption. The other facets--building a spay/neuter clinic and an education center--are intended to attack animal overpopulation at its roots.

Animal activists insist these measures are essential to ending animal overpopulation, but they are most likely to come under attack by council members. Although he hasn't reviewed the proposals yet, Walne says the situation reminds him of the old children's tale about giving a mouse a cookie. Pretty soon, he'll want a glass of milk.

"The scope of the clinic actually changed. We went from just being an animal shelter to incorporating a spay/neuter clinic. That wasn't in the original facility," Walne notes. "To expand our role when we can't already handle what's on our plate, we have to be very cautious."

Indeed, there are certain accessories included in the preliminary designs that may be a little too California for Dallas. They include a children's "exploritorium," complete with Internet access, three "get-acquainted rooms" where adoptive owners could meet their new pets, the use of heated floors and background music to reduce animal stress and the construction of a "columbarium," where people could pay a fee to have the remains of their departed pets permanently stored.

Lois Finkelman, chairwoman of the council committee overseeing the project, says finding another $8 million for that type of shelter is going to be tricky given that the city is freezing the wages of some employees and laying off others. "It's like anything else; you can go shopping and buy a Mercedes, or you can go shopping and buy a Ford," Finkelman says. "Reality at some point has to set in, in terms of how many dollars can get allocated to the project and how much money it is going to cost to run the facility after it's built."

Code Compliance Director James Mongaras, the man who hired Gates, says he's well aware of the financial constraints on the city. That's why he asked Gates to come up with a $7.5 million compromise proposal that would reduce the overall size of the shelter to 38,000 square feet but still retain most of its preventive elements. Those elements may seem exorbitant, but Mongaras says people have to consider that the concept of animal shelters has advanced since the 1960s when the Oak Cliff facility was built.

"There's a welcoming atmosphere. It's not like going into a jail, which is what that '60s mentality was," Mongaras says. "As a society we've come a long way, I think, in terms of the designs for shelters. That's another reason we hired Mr. Gates; he shares that philosophical ideal that we have."

As part of his new job overseeing animal control, Mongaras is working to improve the department beyond the shelter issue. Earlier this year, he implemented a pilot program, the first of its kind in the nation, which set aside $123,000 in city funds to pay for spay/neuter operations for low-income Dallas residents. Mongaras also set up two funds to which Dallas residents can contribute. One would pay for the spay/neuter pilot program after the $123,000 runs out, while the other would help finance the new shelter.

More important, Mongaras hired the Human Society of the United States to conduct an assessment of animal control--a department that has historically suffered from high turnover, in part because of the conditions at the city's shelters. As part of the $25,000 contract, Mongaras asked the HSUS to give opinions on the proposed shelter.

At the October 10 council meeting, council members voted to issue the remaining $2.9 million approved in the 1998 bond election. Although they can use that money to build a smaller shelter, which the city could theoretically expand later, the council members agreed to keep construction plans on hold until the HSUS submits its assessment to the city. The report is due in November.

In the meantime, Mongaras, who is careful to note that he was not in charge of animal control at the time of the 1998 bond election, says he's aware his approach may be venturing into uncharted territory.

"We're beginning. You take this one step at a time. Between city staff and members of the animal shelter advisory commission, we'll have a plan, and we'll get one implemented," Mongaras says. "Do I leave myself open? Yeah. In the long run we're going to be better off for this."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley