The Thin Line Between Dog Rescuing and Dog Hoarding

Urbandale is a surprise, a tidy, easily missed neighborhood bordering Pleasant Grove in southeast Dallas. There are liquor stores and tattered strip malls not far away, but here it feels lush, secluded. Trees with trailing limbs line a curving road. The houses, brightly colored and neatly fenced, sit on gentle hills, many with newer cars parked in the driveways. You can stand in the middle of the street and hear wind chimes clinking from the porches.

It doesn't take much to stand out in this neighborhood: a rundown minivan, its bumper sagging, parked in front of a house slightly more weathered than the rest. A few months back, a blue tarp was wrapped haphazardly around part of the carport. Neighbors noticed a sour, insistent smell in the summertime. But above all, they say, it's the yard that's the problem. It's filled with dogs, running, barking, digging, fighting.

The woman who lives there, Raanel Steel, started amassing them a decade ago. She started with three dogs of her own. Then she began taking in strays. Her neighbors watched in dismay as the dogs overtook the yard, jumped the fence onto their property and ran through the street. They didn't want to complain at first, they say; they went over with a bottle of wine to talk things out. But it made no difference. Six years later, three dogs had become almost 30, and most of the block was at war.

"It's way out of hand," Nancy Thompson says. She pulls back the white curtains from her bedroom window and points at Steel's back door barely 10 feet away, just across a wooden fence. The Thompsons sleep with two fans and a white-noise machine to drown out the barking. There's nothing they can do about the smell in the warm months, or the fleas and rats they say are everywhere. They say they've seen dogs killed fighting in Steel's yard, and have watched her try to hide new acquisitions by bringing them in under a sheet.

"She thinks the whole neighborhood is conspiring against her," says Nancy, who's in her mid-50s, with a blonde bob and black-framed glasses. Her husband, Brent, a burly guy with a black mustache and a heart tattooed on his arm, scoops up their own dog, a fat Chihuahua named Toby. Toby snorts contentedly.

"This was the house of our dreams," Nancy says. "I know it might look like no big deal to other people, but it's ours. But it's not an enjoyable place to be anymore."

"We just want her to come to her senses and stop," Brent adds. "All we want is peace in our own home."

Mornings in Dallas' Frank Crowley courthouse are a mad throng of people, crammed in the elevators, lining the hallways, tapping their toes on the dingy floors, leaning into the uncomfortable wooden benches outside the courtrooms. On this morning, a foggy one in early December, Domanick Muñoz and Josh Ehrenfeld are standing, arms crossed, near Judge Larry Mitchell's courtroom. They're both Dallas animal cruelty officers, and they've come to testify on behalf of Steel, the Thompsons' dog-rescuing neighbor, who's scheduled to be sentenced in her recent aggravated robbery case. Steel is sitting on a bench nearby, in a neat red sweater, black slacks and some light eye makeup.

Muñoz, whose black hair is giving way to gray, is the city's senior animal-cruelty investigator. He's Ehrenfeld's boss, but they don't act like it — more like joker and straight man. Ehrenfeld is brown-haired and bespectacled, forever chatting and joking, sharing and over-sharing. At one point, he starts talking about the locket he wears, which contains the ashes of his dog.

"She died on Mother's Day," he says somberly.

"Of cirrhosis, right?" Muñoz says, straight-faced. "From drinking? From having to deal with [you]?"

"Of cancer," Ehrenfeld replies, as if Muñoz doesn't know, hasn't heard the story before, during the hours a day they spend together. He pretends to pout a little.

Black humor is a key component of how the men cope with the job. "You've got to deal," Ehrenfeld says: with the emotional toll of the work, with its physical stresses, with the sheer volume of work.

Dallas Animal Services received an average of 145 phone calls a day in the last fiscal year, roughly 50,000 calls, to deal with loose, injured or sick animals. Around 300 calls every month were for allegations of animal cruelty, ranging from physical abuse to, more commonly, neglect.

It's a lot of calls even for a full department. But due to recent budget cuts, Muñoz and Ehrenfeld are the city's only two cruelty investigators. They have more work than they can possibly handle. But they say they wouldn't dream of leaving.

"Who's gonna do it?" Ehrenfeld says. "If I quit, who's gonna do this job?"

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan