Harris County and the city of Houston have five major intake shelters. In 2005, a city task force reported that annual intake at the five shelters was about 120,000 animals, of whom over 80,000 were killed. Things have improved in Houston since 2005, and the BARC shelter, for example, is doing much better today and is reporting far higher live release rates. But the problem in Houston has always gone beyond the shelters. The city has a large permanent population of stray dogs that do not come into the shelters.
It is unusual for cities to have a permanent population of stray dogs the size of Houston’s. In fact, there seem to be only a few such cities in the U.S., including Dallas and San Antonio, and possibly El Paso and Detroit. In most cities, the large numbers of homeless and feral dogs that were seen in the 1970s disappeared by the year 2000. Most dogs found outdoors today in the great majority of cities are owned dogs who are allowed to roam.
Current intake at Houston and Harris County shelters is at a level where it could be managed with best practices, but current intake does not include the permanent stray dog population. Houston will never be No Kill unless its stray dog problem is dealt with. No Kill means taking care of all the animals in a city, not just the ones who come into the shelters.
South Dallas has the same stray-dog problem as Houston. In a major consultant’s report one year ago, the number of stray dogs in South Dallas was estimated to be almost 9,000. Private donors in Dallas responded to the consultant’s recommendation for a massive spay-neuter effort, and now there are plans to sterilize some 46,000 dogs in South Dallas, owned and unowned, every year for the next three years to get ahead of the problem. Since Dallas has documented its stray dog problem and developed a plan to deal with it, it would make sense to use that plan as a blueprint for Houston too.
Hurricane Harvey has resulted in rescuers scouring flooded parts of Houston and Harris County for stray dogs. This may have reduced the permanent population of stray dogs to a historic low, but the number will rebound quickly if action is not taken. Money will be flowing into the city to rebuild. One of the most cost-effective and sensible ways to rebuild and strengthen Houston’s animal care and control system would be to institute a massive spay-neuter effort, similar to the one taking place in Dallas.
Dallas is roughly half the size of Houston, so a comparable effort at spay-neuter of owned and stray dogs might need to target more dogs in Houston — perhaps as many as 100,000 dogs per year for three years, to match the effort in Dallas. The city might not have the resources to do that many dog sterilizations per year, but if a large sterilization program was combined with a program to catch stray dogs, treat and socialize them as needed, and transport them out of the area, a similar effect could be achieved. That should not be beyond the limits of possibility, given that Houston will be the focus of a gigantic rebuilding and improvement effort in the coming years.
An effort to permanently deal with the stray dog population in Houston and Harris County would require an organization to take the lead. It could be one of the national animal-welfare organizations, or it could be a group of local citizens. Houston already has local organizations that do transport (notably the Rescued Pets Movement) and spay-neuter (Emancipet has a Houston office), so there is existing infrastructure for the effort.
Such an initiative could be paired with transitioning all of the county’s animal care and control facilities to a community cat program. The decreased intake and length-of-stay that a county-wide community cat paradigm would produce would allow the shelters to spend more time and resources on owner-surrendered, sick, and injured cats.
This blog post presents only a rough idea of what a permanent fix in Houston could look like. An effort to transport stray dogs and sterilize up to 100,000 dogs in Houston every year for the next three years would be a heavy lift. Letting this opportunity slip by, though, would allow Houston to continue to be what it has always been — one of the worst places in the United States to be a homeless dog. Change for stray dogs is being accomplished in Dallas, so why not Houston?