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?"
"You do this because you love it," Muñoz adds.
"If I wanted to make money, I'd go back to bartending," Ehrenfeld says. He's been with Animal Services three years, despite being allergic to dogs and needing medication just to come to work. "All I've ever gotten are pay decreases. I make less than when I was hired on."
The woes of their department are well known. The Humane Society of the United States published a blistering 120-page review of Animal Services last year. It highlighted "alienation" between staff and management; junior staff members who didn't seem to know very much about animals or basic hygienic protocol, like hand-washing before moving from handling a stool sample of a dog suspected of having a deadly virus to dispensing medications for other animals; and dissent between the City Council, the council-appointed Animal Shelter Commission, and other local animal-welfare groups.
In August of 2010, then shelter manager Tyrone McGill was indicted on animal cruelty charges for allegedly letting a cat die behind a wall in the shelter's break room. He was acquitted after a three-day trial last November, but testimony revealed that communication at the shelter during that time was dysfunctional at best. And in August of last year, 53 employees were laid off and replaced with temporary workers. The city claims that using temps allows the shelter to take on more staff when they're needed and let them go when they're not. But the temps appear to receive minimal training, and city council members and welfare groups alike have voiced concerns about the arrangement.
Through it all, the shelter's euthanasia rate has remained staggeringly high: Some 75 percent of animals who pass through its doors are killed, either because of health or behavior issues or space restraints. Yet despite so many dogs being put down, the shelter releases more and more dogs every year — and not because people are adopting them. Instead, they are being pulled from the shelter by independent rescue or wildlife rehabilitation groups. More than 4,500 animals were rescued from the shelter last year, up from 2,900 two years before. More than half of the animals that leave the shelter go to rescue groups.
Rescuers are a key part of the safety net for animals in every city; they often take sick or injured animals the shelter doesn't have the time or space for and nurture them back to health. Ideally, they then find loving "forever" homes for the adoptable ones. Dallas works with 75 rescue organizations, each approved by the department vet. But there are also an unknown number of "independent" rescuers, people without non-profit status who pull animals from the shelters or take them in off the street.
Rescues, in other words, are a crucial part of the solution. But in the eyes of frustrated neighbors like the one 58-year-old Steel went after last year — and others who are part of what keeps Muñoz and Ehrenfeld running from house to house all year — they're also a big part of the problem.
"This has been going on for ages," Steel says one morning in November. She has black glasses perched on top of her short, strawberry-blonde hair, and she looks tired and sad. She's not given much to jewelry or frills; she wears black slacks and a worn green plaid shirt. In a nearly two-hour visit, her dogs, around 10 out in the yard and six more in the house, bark only once or twice.
The house is dim and tidy, with dozens of cinnamon-scented candles lining every surface. The dog smell is still here, though, a heavy, insistent odor that reaches out as soon as you open the front door.
Steel moved into this house in August of 2000 with her boyfriend. She immediately became horrified by the problems with dogs in the neighborhood. "In Pleasant Grove, people just dump dogs everywhere," she says.
Though she's taught high school and currently works as an independent textbook seller, rescue soon became her passion. Steel and her boyfriend broke up not long after moving in, and she remained in the house alone. She began volunteering at the Humane Society and taking in injured and abandoned dogs. Friends started bringing her strays, and ones she found on the street also found refuge in her home.
At times, Steel says, she had as many as 27 dogs on her property. The city passed a law limiting dogs to six per household in 2008, but Steel says she was able to have hers "grandfathered" in.
Soon she decided she wanted to start an official rescue. "The city gave me permission, and I went to the state" for non-profit status, she says. "I was trying to do things legitimately." But there was "a problem" with some of the paperwork, she says, and she never quite managed to fix it.
She started volunteering at an emergency vet clinic and going to Cedar Valley College to become a vet tech. Meanwhile, Steel says, the Thompsons, her neighbors, began to make it known that they weren't impressed with her rescue efforts.
"They didn't like that. They just didn't like that at all," she says. "They started calling the city, calling and calling. The city said they wouldn't do anything unless other neighbors called, so they started going door to door." Muñoz, Ehrenfeld and other animal services officers kept coming to her house, to check out reports of "deplorable stench," fleas, piles of feces and incessant barking.
In all, according to Steel and a stack of incident reports she keeps in a battered, bulging white binder, they've visited at least 160 times. Each time, she was required by law to let them in the house. Each time, she and investigators say, they wouldn't find anything amiss. "[The claims] were always unfounded," Ehrenfeld would later testify. "The dogs were always well cared for."
"We told them what our findings were," Muñoz says of the neighbors. "That wasn't to their satisfaction, so they kept calling."
One neighbor, Jose Mejia, seemingly became her biggest adversary. He called Code Compliance hundreds of times, Steel says, and one day in 2009, she found him standing in her yard, trying to get the dogs to bark while filming them. Neighbors claim Mejia was standing in the street, not in the yard. (Mejia declined to discuss the incident.)
Steel marched outside to confront Mejia, wielding a dowel that was supposed to hold curtains she'd been making. "He baited me," she says. "I was so sick and tired of the whole thing. ... I'm not some kind of crazy woman who just goes berserk." She screamed at him to get off her property.
Mejia didn't budge, she says. He just stood there laughing at her. "So I lost it, totally lost it. I took the curtain rod and knocked the camera out of his hand and tried to break it. I picked up camera and audio recorder, gave him a filthy look and marched off to the house." (Her indictment claims the weapon was actually a pipe, which Steel denies.)
When the cops showed up, they asked for Steel to return the camera. She said no.
"I wanted to give it to an attorney," to prove she was being harassed, she says. Instead, she was arrested.
"They took me to the southeast division of Lew Sterrett. I sat there for five days. I lost my job and a bunch of other shit happened." She was charged with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony. "It's the same as going into 7-Eleven with a gun," she says, bitterly. It would take a full two and a half years before the case finally went before a judge and she was offered a plea bargain, which included probation instead of jail. For Steel, the monthly probation fees and visits almost sounded worse than being locked up.
Testifying at the first of two sentencing hearings, she could barely hide her anger. "Maybe if I went to prison, I'd get some peace," she told the judge. "I'm in ruins."
"You still don't believe you did anything wrong, do you?" the prosecutor asked her.
Steel smiled tearily. "No, I don't," she said finally.
Although Steel's case, in the eyes of the law, was about a swinging dowel and a stolen camera, for the city's animal-obsessed it was about more: the role of rescuers, the rights of neighbors and the specter of the dreaded H-word. "We were always sent out on the pretext that she was a hoarder," Ehrenfeld would testify. And although Muñoz agrees that wasn't the case, Steel's neighbors disagree.
"Do you realize she doesn't adopt dogs out?" Nancy Thompson says. "She just hoards them. People on the street have tried to adopt them, but she won't."
"She fits the profile," Brent Thompson adds. "She said to me, 'God gave me those dogs.' I told her, 'Nell, you went out and found those dogs.'"
Hoarding has long been rescue's dark shadow. Everyone involved with animal welfare knows that in rare but troubling instances, rescuers can wind up with dozens or even hundreds of animals they can't care for. One prominent local animal-welfare advocate, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating other rescuers, says that's the case with a number of Dallas' independent rescuers.
"Many are essentially hoarders," the advocate writes in an email. "They are all well-intentioned — or start off that way. But they get in over their heads, get overwhelmed and lose touch with reality."
Rescuing often becomes hoarding for financial reasons, Muñoz says. An animal gets sick, the rescuer can't afford to care for it, the sickness starts to spread to other animals, and soon there's an expensive, highly contagious problem. The rescuer becomes afraid to alert anyone, for fear their animals will be taken away, which some believe is the worst possible fate. Meanwhile, they continue to bring more and more animals home.
"Quite often the owner will say, 'I got overextended, I was trying to do a good thing, and I couldn't say no,'" says James Bias, president of SPCA of Texas. The unfortunate truth, he adds, is that "a good person could go bad any time."
In November of last year, Colleen Ogden, a Duncanville woman, became the latest cautionary tale. Police and the SPCA seized 102 dogs and six cats from her property, where she'd been running a rescue group called Elliot's Friends. SPCA investigators said that when they inspected the house, they found animals in "urine-soaked" cages without adequate food or water. (The District Attorney's office confirmed there are 10 cases of animal cruelty filed against Ogden.)
"When the SPCA of Texas arrived, we saw a horrific situation where these animals were living in filth," says Maura Davies, an SPCA spokeswoman. In parts of the houses, she adds, "there was over a foot of feces" on the floors. SPCA of Texas says she was pulling dogs from several local municipal shelters, as well as from outside the state, and that no one knew how many animals she had.
"The shelters who were transferring to her didn't have any idea that she was getting all these animals from all these other groups," Bias says. "In their minds, they thought she was only getting from them."
Don Feare, an animal-law attorney who represents Ogden, rejects the notion that she's a hoarder. "This lady is highly thought of in the community," he says. "Did she have too many animals? Absolutely. But every one of those dogs was OK."
Feare argues that rescuers need better legal protection, especially in Dallas. He works with rescuers in several North Texas cities, and he's alarmed by the way the city handles animal-related complaints. People with concerns call 311, and Animal Services officers are dispatched to look into the matter. But they're required to go every single time there's a call, and calls can be placed anonymously.
Neighbors can "use the city as a weapon," Domanick Muñoz says.
Judy Griggs was briefly a rescuer herself, before starting a food bank for the rescue community, R-PAL. She's "from a family of lawyers," as she puts it, and has become a de facto advocate for many other rescuers. She points to another Dallas couple, Mark and Lynn Gideon, as a prime example of how Code Compliance needs to deal differently with animal complaints.
The couple weren't formal rescuers, but they had over the years acquired 17 dogs, which were by all accounts settling into elderly canine-hood healthy and well cared for. But one dissatisfied neighbor kept calling the city, leading to a protracted court battle. The Gideons were eventually allowed to keep their pets. One condition of the settlement, according to their lawyer, was that the city would ignore future calls from the cranky neighbor.
"As long as people can continue to call [Code Compliance] anonymously," Griggs says, "there's no accountability. ... Think how much money it costs the city, and how much time."
Neighbors who call the city persistently, even after their complaints have been invalidated, simply need to be told to stop, Feare says.
"I don't think the government has to go out every time some lunatic calls," he says. "The city needs to quit worrying about politics and the public view and start being a governmental entity."
The issue of rescuer rights and responsibilities may soon run headlong into an evolving Dallas Animal Services, where there's finally cause for some optimism. In June, the city appointed a new shelter manager, Jody Jones, and animal welfare advocates speak warmly of her. At a recent meeting, Jones told city council members that things are improving: adoption rates are up, euthanasia rates are slightly down and measures are being taken to respond to last year's drubbing by the Humane Society. Animals are also being examined and vaccinated upon intake for the first time.
The shelter is also focusing on something called the Dallas Companion Animal Project (DCAP), a new task force working to reduce the number of "healthy, adoptable animals" that are euthanized. Rebecca Poling, who is serving as DCAP's chair, calls the project "a blueprint to foster a more humane community in Dallas."
It's a laudable goal — no one can argue with fewer dead animals — but it comes with consequences. Cities that have successfully gone "no-kill," including Austin and Kansas City, have reported overcrowding at their shelters. And with no room at shelters and no euthanasia, rescuers' roles will increase dramatically. According to Poling, many rescuers are already operating "at or near capacity," meaning either existing rescues will have to expand or new ones will have to be created.
With rescuers in line to inherit even more responsibility, the SPCA's Bias says it's time for rescues to be better regulated, either by the city or through an internal watchdog group. "Shelters fall under [state supervision] through an annual inspection and licensing process," he says. "But the rescue community falls through the cracks. ... I've encouraged the rescuers I've talked with to come up with a system to police yourselves, so you can go in and create a rescue stamp of approval."
Houston rescuers tried that out a few years ago, forming the Texas Animal Release and Placement Association. But that organization is now defunct, says Rich Hoffman, a Dallas rescuer familiar with the group, due to "philosophical differences." (TARPA's former website, tarpa.org, is filled with ads for real estate. In Japanese.)
"We all agree that we know what good is and we know what bad is, but we can't agree on how we're gonna get there," he says of the rescue community. "TARPA couldn't agree on how to tell somebody how to do it. One group would sit there and say, 'I spay and neuter all my puppies before I put them out.' Another group says 'Put them in homes first. It's more comfortable. Then do a contract, the way the city does, that says the owner has to spay and neuter.' They couldn't get anybody to agree."
Another risk with accreditation, says shelter manager Jones, is that it could make it harder for rescuers to pull animals from the shelter. And shelters depend on rescuers to reduce overcrowding.
"They have such minimal resources available to them," Jones says of rescuers. "Most have full-time jobs and do this as a part-time activity. Their life is already consumed by this. To encumber them with additional responsibilities and processes that would slow down the placement ... that concerns me."
Still, everyone involved admits that hoarding remains a legitimate concern, and Muñoz says he'd rather people "call and be wrong" than miss a potentially bad situation. Jones, who's managed shelters in three cities, says it's something she primarily sees with newer, smaller rescues.
"Sometimes it's an embarrassing situation and they get afraid to ask for help," she says. "That results in a tragedy not just for them and their care, but for the community. It sheds a bad light on rescuers, who provide such a valuable service."
Jones adds the risk of a bad rescuer is really a rare and manageable one. "The best way to try and stay on top of this is through the vetting process," she says, "finding people who are well-established and understand resources they need to have in place to do this type of work." Monitoring those people to make sure they're actually sending out roughly the number of animals they receive is also key. "If you're putting out 20 animals a month to a rescue group and they're not adopting out 20 and they just keep taking, that would be an indicator that there may be a problem."
As for neighbor disputes, Jones says they're regrettably common.
"We all want to get along. We all want to enjoy our home. When that becomes frustrating for a citizen, whether it's yourself or your neighbor, nobody wants to see that. We all want to have quality of life, for neighbors and for the animals."
After Steel refused to apologize at her first sentencing hearing — she even suggested that prison might be better than parole — there was a moment in which the judge and attorneys didn't seem to know quite what to do. Court was adjourned rather abruptly, with the judge referencing some "evaluations" he'd need to see before he could reach a sentence. What he wanted to see, it turned out, were the results of Steel's court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.
The actual sentencing finally happens nearly a month later, just before Christmas. Steel's cousin and her friend Becky join her in the hallway of the courthouse. When all this is over, Becky says, she wants to help Steel move away to New Mexico, where they can start a dog crematorium together.
"We'll go, and y'all can keep Dallas to your damn selves," she says darkly to Clifford Duke, Steel's public defender, who none of them seem to like. Duke smiles weakly and excuses himself.
When he returns, he gives Steel a copy of the psych evaluation to read and sign; she pages through it with disbelief. According to the evaluation, Steel suffers from "maladaptive personality disorder" and treats her dogs like children, putting them above everything else. It also says she suffers from "inflexibility, rigidity and stubbornness" and "refuses to let control go."
Steel starts to cry.
"I've done anything and everything they've asked me to do," she says. "How is that stubborn?"
"They're gettin' these things right out of a book," Becky says with disgust. "That's a lot of conclusions to draw."
Steel finally, reluctantly, hands the document back to the lawyer, after conceding it has no "factual inaccuracies." Subdued, she and her friends file quietly into the courtroom and watch as a woman in a green-striped prison uniform and a messy ponytail gets sentenced to 30 days for theft. Steel is up next.
"This isn't an easy case to deal with," Duke tells the judge. "Ms. Steel isn't a criminal in her nature. But this long-standing, ongoing dispute between neighbors culminated in a bad decision." The prosecutor asks she "comply with all city codes and city ordinances."
The judge looks Steel over.
"This is a real tough case," he tells her. "I know you're not a criminal. But what you did do ... I don't really have much choice. I'm very sympathetic. But I can't imagine what it'd be like to live next door to 16 dogs. You have a right to do what you can to help animals, but your neighbor has a right to peace and quiet in his own home. It's just not an appropriate setting for that many dogs."
"You have to look at the entire picture," Steel protests. She starts talking about the cruelty officers' many visits. "My other neighbors have never once called," she tells the judge. He holds up his hand.
"You're repeating your testimony a little bit," he tells her, not unkindly.
After a moment, Mitchell sentences her to two years probation, no fines. It's not immediately clear whether she'll be required to get rid of her dogs. Two weeks after her sentencing, Ehrenfeld will show up at her house and tell her that she has to get rid of all but six.
"You've got a tough situation out there," the judge says to her before moving on to his next case. "But you're gonna have to find some way to deal with it."