In the great majority of cities and counties in the United States stray dogs are not a major problem. In the last 40 years there have been big changes in how dogs are treated, and today most people get their dogs spayed or neutered and would never think of letting them roam the neighborhood by themselves. In most places today, when a dog is out by itself it is usually lost or has escaped from its yard. It is less often a situation where the dog is truly homeless or where its owners are deliberately allowing it to roam.
But there are a few places in the United States where stray dogs are apparently still a problem. I have heard repeatedly and from credible sources that there is a stray dog problem in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and parts of the desert southwest, as well as on a few Native American reservations. In those places there are reportedly large numbers of free-roaming dogs. Some of them are probably truly homeless; others may have homes but they are only loosely attached to those homes and they spend most of their time roaming.
You may have noticed that I said “apparently” and “reportedly.” I can’t be any more definite about the existence and extent of the stray dog problem because, as far as I can tell, no one has ever made a count of the free-roaming dog population in any of those places. We have to rely on anecdotal evidence and imprecise methods such as trying to estimate the number of free-roaming dogs from the number of dead dogs picked up by animal control or sanitation departments. Nevertheless, the anecdotal evidence indicates that the problem itself is real, even if we don’t know the extent of the problem.
In Dallas people have complained for years about stray dogs in the southern neighborhoods of the city. In the past year, reporting on the stray dog issue has increased. The gist of the media stories is that people who live in the affected neighborhoods in the southern part of the city are fed up with Dallas animal control for what they see as failing to do its job, and they want the stray dog problem solved. People who live in the affected neighborhoods describe themselves as being intimidated by packs of dogs, and there have been reports of bites by strays.
The City Council appears to have been listening, as it had a meeting September 2nd where it heard complaints about the issue and tasked a committee with finding answers. On September 14th, the City Manager, the Assistant City Manager, and the director of Dallas Animal Services (DAS), Jody Jones, filed a report with the committee. Jones has been trying to deal with the situation by having employees go to neighborhoods where the problem is the worst and counsel residents about keeping their dogs under control and getting them sterilized.
Increasingly, the city government is becoming impatient with DAS for what it sees as a failure to deal with the stray dog problem. This story quotes one council member as calling Jone’s program “fluff and talk.” Another story quotes a council member as suggesting that feral dogs should be shot from helicopters (yes, really). And this story describes the increased pressure on the shelter to act on the problem. One of the people who has been writing about the issue and urging action recently said that if the shelter does what the city is demanding and starts impounding the strays en masse, a lot of dogs are going to be killed by the shelter.
I suspect that some No Kill advocates will say that the shelter director should pick up all the strays and find new homes for them. It seems unlikely that the shelter director would be able to do that. In the first place, Dallas is notorious in the animal-shelter world for failing to adequately fund its shelter. The city has increased its funding for the shelter in recent years, but shelter officials report that they have a hard time keeping animal control officers because of low pay and high stress. In the second place, even the best No Kill shelters in the United States would have a very difficult time withstanding an onslaught of truly homeless dogs, with their problems such as heartworm infection, lack of socialization, behavior issues, need for sterilization, etc. We do not know the extent of the stray dog problem in Dallas, but if the reports are anywhere close to accurate, a thorough sweep could temporarily double the shelter’s intake – or more. And if the problem is not solved at the street level, then the increase in shelter killing will not be temporary. A frequent reaction by No Kill advocates when a city is in trouble like Dallas is to ask for a change in shelter leadership. Perhaps another director could do better, although it seems likely that any director, no matter how talented, would struggle with the situation in Dallas today.
When Katrina happened, animal welfare organizations all over the United States rallied to save animals who otherwise would have died. Katrina changed how disaster-relief services look at pets, with the result that the response for pets in the recent flooding in South Carolina will be very different from what it would have been 10 years ago. The stray problem in certain places across south-central and southwestern states is not the result of a natural disaster, but it is similar in that officials in some of the affected cities do not have the capability to deal with the issue in a humane way. It certainly looks as though stray dogs in Dallas are about to face their own Katrina.
But the situation is not hopeless. The animal-welfare community in the United States proved during the Katrina disaster that it was capable of mobilizing quickly and providing targeted help that saved thousands of pets. There is no reason that a similar effort couldn’t save the stray dogs of Dallas. We are watching a possible slow-motion disaster getting ready to unfold in Dallas as the city moves to force DAS to start mass street-sweeps and killing. The animal-welfare community has the proven capacity to ward off that catastrophe.
Some of the programs that large national organizations and charities could implement in Dallas include: (1) holding areas where rounded-up stray dogs could be temporarily housed and evaluated, (2) transport (after the expiration of the stray-hold period) of dogs who are healthy and socialized to other cities for adoption, (3) treatment in situ or transport to treatment facilities for dogs who need more help, and (4) intensive neighborhood programs along the lines of HSUS’s Pets For Life to help keep the problem from recurring. If an intervention like this could be done, the first three programs would probably be needed for only about 3 months – maybe even less if it turns out that the problem is not as bad as it sounds. The 4th program would need to be done on an ongoing basis.
The alternative is to continue to allow Jody Jones and DAS to struggle on in isolation with a problem that they very likely cannot solve on their own. No Kill is often criticized as unrealistic. We’ve all heard variations on the theme of “my city can’t go No Kill because we have too many homeless animals” or “not enough money” or “pet owners who are irresponsible and just don’t care.” Sometimes those complaints have a grain or more of truth. But No Kill is strong enough now as a proven national force to start reaching out to places like Dallas that have real problems, and help them set things right. Once that is done, hopefully those places will be able to continue on their own. We have the power to stave off the impending tragedy in Dallas – it’s just a question of whether we have the will.