Dallas Fights to Solve Stray Dog Problem

Dallas Animal Services workers catch more than 20,000 dogs every year. That doesn’t begin to solve the problem of a city still overrun by strays.

SAD TALE: This puppy was from a litter of seven that an Oak Cliff homeowner called Animal Services to come collect. The homeowner had given up the dogs and their mother.

The broad-shouldered white pit bull in the parking lot at Trammell Crow Lake, on the Trinity floodplain, in West Dallas, is so covered with mange that the caller to Animal Services had said it looked burned. The red eyes probably didn’t help. Peter Garcia drops down in a crouch next to the van he drives from South Oak Cliff to Far North Dallas every day trying to catch at least a few of the 20,000 or so dogs (now 75 percent pit bull and pit bull mixes) impounded by the city every year. The veteran Animal Services lead officer holds a short rope that he has learned to fashion into a leash or muzzle as the need dictates. He clicks his tongue to try to get the dog’s attention and advances a few steps, not wanting to scare it off. “A pit’s either gonna be mean or gonna be friendly,” he explains, figuring this one for the latter.

The pit—an unneutered male, the most aggressive type—stares a few moments, then lopes away to the far side of the empty parking lot. Garcia rises, walks back to the van—its 12 cages so far still empty of catches. On a normal day, the eight officers on the day shift, four at night, and two overnight haul in about 60 dogs. “He’s skittish,” Garcia says. “More than likely somebody dumped him off and called us. You can tell the dog is trying to figure out his surroundings.”

Settling back into the driver’s seat, Garcia calls in his report. “We can only give ’em about five minutes,” he says. “There are too many other calls.” Already 10 are queued on the computer screen mounted on the console. Just before coming here, he’d been at Royal Lane and Harry Hines to pick up a dog that had been injured in the street. By the time he arrived, the animal was dead and he had to call waste disposal. It was lucky that the pit bull on this call hadn’t already vanished.

Garcia drives off, stopping one more time near the levee at Sylvan Avenue to try to lure the dog, then gives up, his next call off West Jefferson Boulevard in northwestern Oak Cliff to pick up what turns out to be two dogs—a mixed breed hound and a pit bull—in one of the humane cage-traps the city lends out. Across the street, a white pit bull tied to a porch behind an iron fence plays with two young children. A big dog of undetermined breed is tied by a very loose-looking rope under a small trailer next door. Garcia tries to catch another stray dog in the same yard as the traps, but the animal runs away.

Next stop is Sunset High School, where a pit bull was sighted more than two hours earlier in a parking lot. It’s long gone, but Garcia has to perform due diligence and log in the response. Then it’s off again to a neighborhood west of Cockrell Hill so dilapidated that it has the feel of an especially bad colonia on the border. We pass two pits and another stray en route, but Garcia is not allowed to stop to try to catch every animal he sees. There’s no time. With 17 officers split on a 24-7 canvass of the city, there’s no time for anything but endless movement. Garcia arrives at the call-in location and parks in front of a gate with a “Dangerous Dog” sign and a pit bull behind it. Inside the unfinished house, on a dirt-floored back patio or room, he finds six small puppies that he takes from a woman who speaks to him in Spanish. Then he comes back for the puppies’ mother. He puts them in the truck cages and returns to the animal shelter next to the Dallas Zoo, one of two run by the city in its almost quixotic battle against strays. A third, largest of them all, is scheduled to open in August at I-30 and Westmoreland in the Dallas Animal District, which also includes the new SPCA of Texas headquarters two blocks to the east. Once the city’s new shelter opens, the two existent shelters will close.

Chain-link and wooden fences often seem to hold the dogs, but a pit can clear a 6-foot fence without much trouble; so can many other large breeds. Or dig out.

Garcia parks amid the wire kennels behind the shelter and unloads the morning’s catch, pausing to find a blanket and small bin for the puppies, another for mom. All likely will be dead within 72 hours—the limit for strays that have no owners and cannot be adopted. Sometimes the city shelters get so full that it’s necessary to euthanize the hopeless cases, animals that are dying, sick, or injured, the night before their time would be up so that the new arrivals can have a last chance at being saved, which almost never happens. There are only about 1,000 or so dog adoptions and 1,300 “redemptions” (those reclaimed by the dog’s owner) a year. Adding in cats, some 27,000 animals that come into the city shelters don’t make it out. The vast majority are not feral, but loose or stray because of negligent owners.

Bad as it is for the animals, it’s the impact on the other residents of the urban wild kingdom—humans—that has produced a citywide feeling that something is out of balance. At any given moment, about 500,000 unregistered animals, mostly dogs, dwell alongside us in the city limits—many multiples of that in the entire metro area. Not all dogs are strays, and not all are vicious, but the number indicates another aspect of the problem. For every unregistered dog, there is quite possibly an owner who will disregard spaying and neutering, vaccinations, leash laws, and fences—not to mention rudimentary ideas about how to handle creatures that are capable of using their powerful muscles, claws, fangs, and jaws to rip the life out of anything that gets in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just before 7 pm Halloween eve last year, a block from Reinhardt Elementary School in Northeast Dallas, my 3-year-old granddaughter Hailey and her older sister Moriah waited with candy bags open at the entry of a small bungalow on a street filled with children doing the same thing. Hailey didn’t even have time to say “trick or treat” before a pit bull rushed out the door, past its owner, and wrapped its jaws around her abdomen. In a fortunate split-second, given the propensity of pits to sink in and gut their victims, the owner pulled the dog off and hurled it back into the house. The velvet cloth of Hailey’s princess costume offered just enough protection to take most of the bite. But at the hospital emergency room, it was easy to detect red pinprick marks and punctures in a perfect oval imprint of upper and lower teeth. Hailey recovered with only two lingering scars, plus a fear of large dogs that hasn’t gone away. The dog, a female, was quarantined for a few days, then returned to its owner, who has yet to pay a medical bill. Under current state and city law, he wasn’t even charged with a misdemeanor.

Hailey was lucky. In Combine, at the Dallas-Kaufman county line, 2-year-old Carolina Sotello was killed March 22 by one of her own family’s pit bulls—on a chain. The girl had gotten too close on her tricycle. A few days earlier, in Mesquite, 3-year-old Breanna Webster was attacked and disfigured by a neighbor’s golden retriever when she stepped on his paw. In San Antonio, 10-year-old Amber Jones was killed in January by a pit bull she was trying to free from a fence. In Conroe, 41-year-old David McCurry was attacked and killed by a pit bull he had come to buy from its owner. In Fort Worth, animal control agent Jennifer Phillips was attacked by two pit bull mixes—whose owners had let them run loose—that were headed directly for an elderly woman and some children.

This doesn’t count the daily encounters with stray and loose dogs endured by Dallas residents in almost every part of the city. A pack of strays in East Dallas was thought responsible for killing at least 17 pets. A former employee of this company was mauled by a trio of strays in a park last year, and forced to undergo painful surgery and rehab. A long list of residents around the city report frequent encounters with pits and other loose dogs while walking or jogging. Many carry sticks or spray, which may or may not be effective. James Bias, president of the SPCA of Texas, favors an umbrella, which, when opened, “gives you a few seconds” to get away or scare the dog off.

This is a country of dog lovers. We live with an estimated 53 million canines, purebred and Heinz 57, Chihuahuas to mastiffs—most of them a variation on the family tree of dogs depicted on the classic Purina poster like the one tacked to the wall inside the reception room at the city shelter next to the zoo. Of course, not all dogs, human companions for about 12,000 years, are loved equally. One morning as I scan the poster, waiting to go out with officer Garcia, a young construction worker comes in asking for help with the pit bull tied in the bed of his pickup. “I just can’t handle him anymore,” he says. That morning, the dog, which the owner had rescued from the streets about six months earlier, bit a co-worker. Now, says the young man, he is worried about his son. He wants to leave the animal. “You know he’ll be euthanized,” says one of the officers. They go out and pick up the white pit mix with a catch-pole and noose.

About the same time, two women and a boy of about 9 come in, their unleashed brindle pit bull panting beside them. They say they wanted to look in the adoption room for another dog. The Animal Services officers quickly put a red leash around the animal’s neck. The woman who owns the dog seems to have no awareness that a leash, or even a collar, is needed. It goes on like that day in and day out.

So do the attacks. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control, which are several years old, about 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten annually. About 800,000 seek medical care, and about half of those require doctor or emergency room treatment. In 2005, according to one report, there were 28 reported fatal dog attacks (compared to four from shark bites). Almost half the attacks requiring medical care involved children, the highest number of which were aged 5 to 9, especially boys, and most of the bites were to the head and neck. It’s estimated that dog bites produce 44,000 facial injuries a year, or up to 1.5 percent of emergency room visits. The elderly comprise 10 percent of bite victims and 20 percent of fatalities. “Lillian’s law,” the basis for a bill approved by the Texas Legislature increasing penalties for dog attacks, gets its name from the 2005 mauling death of 76-year-old Lillian Stiles, killed by a pack of loose dogs at her home in Milam County. Though watered down after opposition from dog owner activist groups, the measure changes existing law to make first-time attacks an offense with potential felony sentences of up to 20 years for severe or fatal maulings.

In Texas, more than 40 percent of severe bite victims are children under the age of 11, according to the Department of State Health Services, which says Texas racks up an estimated 400,000 bites a year (not all requiring medical care). In the last reported year, 2002, 546 severe animal bites were reported—88.8 percent involved dogs. The state estimates that these bites cost about $102.4 million in emergency room services annually. The impact on workmen’s compensation, lost wages, and medical insurance hasn’t yet been calculated. But there is an estimate on homeowner insurance claims, about one-third of which come from dog bites: $1 billion annually. Some insurance companies will not issue policies to owners of certain types of dogs, such as pit bulls.

Any dog has the potential to snap, to revert to primal behavior, but some breeds have earned the reputation, and generated the statistics, to stand out. In Dallas, most of the nearly 2,000 bites reported in the city in the past year (about the same as the year before) come from chow chows, but pit bulls (American pit bull terrier), the overwhelming source of impounds, are next. According to a study of the most recent data from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the most attack fatalities nationally come from rottweilers, with 33 killings between 1991 and 1998. That edged out the previous champion, pit bulls, with 21 victims during that period, down from their peak of 66 mauling deaths from 1979 to 1998. Other dogs making the attack list are huskies, German shepherds, and Doberman pinschers.

You can get into a considerable argument with owners of these breeds as to whether they are inherently dangerous or if the attacks have too many external variants to warrant a breed indictment. For example, there is no reliable data indicating what percentage of each breed is involved in the fatalities. And for each tale of a mauling, breed owners can produce 10 stories of how wonderful and gentle their pit bull or rottweiler really is.

Alice Toliver and her family have lived at the modest white frame house catty-corner from the Cedar Crest golf course since 1982. Over time, it has taken on an Outsider-style décor, with various yard art, including an inscribed white cross that reads “Don’t Throw Your Life Away—Please.” But only recently has a pack of pit bulls taken up residence in the ravine under some transmission lines in an adjacent vacant lot. With its cover and concealment of tall weeds, trees, and shrubs, the land is nothing more than a jungle ruled by the mightiest. The dogs who claim it roam the southern Oak Cliff neighborhood.

“I see them every day and night,” Toliver says. “They’ll be looking right at you. They’ve run right up at me.” Animal Services has put traps up and has caught one dog. When one of the males chased her recently, Toliver says, “I chunked a brick at him, and he just looked back, like, ‘You can’t scare me.’”

This is one of the parts of town, almost all of which are in Oak Cliff or East Dallas, with the heaviest population of loose dogs. Because so much of the terrain in these areas is either underdeveloped or virtually bereft of basic city services such as alley mowing or code enforcement, they are ideal for one of the more despicable kinds of animal cruelty: dumping. Owners who decide they can’t or won’t take care of their pets, and who are too gutless or cheap or inhumane to take them to the city shelters, SPCA, or other facilities, just push them out of their cars or trucks. Dumped dogs are doomed to death by starvation or disease, or if they survive, can become roaming land mines with teeth.

Dwaine Caraway, newly elected member of the City Council’s sprawling District 4, has been trying to draw attention to the loose dog problem in this part of Dallas for years, and was the only candidate in the election to make it a part of his platform. He wants not only enhanced enforcement but an ordinance forcing owners of dangerous dogs to buy insurance.

Dallas, to date, has no new proposals before the City Council to stem its loose dog problem. But there are existent regulations, such as the leash law, registration, and various misdemeanors for second attacks or property destruction. They are barely enforced, and, according to some, loose dog citations are commonly dismissed in municipal courts. The city will expand its capacity for taking in strays in August with its new 52,000-square-foot shelter at I-30 and Westmoreland, more than triple current capacity (now about 300 kennels). That’s really about disposal, not prevention.

But in loose-dog plagued Garland and DeSoto, city councils have been looking hard at how to keep the dogs off the streets in the first place. In Garland, where there has been a three-year rise in “severe dog bites and attacks attributed to pit bull terriers,” the council unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution March 6 urging the Texas legislature to approve bills that would allow regulation of specific breeds, such as pit bulls, but not imposing an outright ban, which is prohibited by current state law.

In DeSoto, 99 dog attacks were reported in 2006, at least one on a policeman. Eight out of 10 attacks were from loose dogs and almost half of those from pit bulls. The council responded last November with a proposed ban on the breed. Pressure from dog owners and organizations—plus state law—forced the council to pull back, but there is still support for some kinds of restrictions.

I join Caraway in his Dodge pickup for a recon of these mean streets. All afternoon, we spot dozens of loose dogs in yards, on streets, on porches—all within areas frequented by children and old people. Not far from Toliver’s house, a large hound sleeps untethered in a driveway near two German shepherds, one chained (easily breakable) on a porch and the other in the unfenced front yard. Many yards have pit bulls and play toys in the back. The boarded-up houses favored by addicts and drug dealers almost always have a pit bull. At one dilapidated, shingle-sided house, a miserable-looking brown pit chained to a truck tire glares from a trash-filled carport.

“It’s like that,” Caraway says. “It’s drugs and dogs. Dogs and drugs. No sidewalks, you name it,” his voice trailing away. “The thing is that they’re terrorizing the neighborhood and are very dangerous to little kids. Little kids should have the right to come up and play in the streets and the yards without the fear of being chased or being bitten by a pit bull.”

Chain-link and wooden fences often seem to hold the dogs, but a pit can clear a 6-foot fence without much trouble; so can many other large breeds. Or dig out. We pass a yard near Bushman Elementary School. Caraway points to a half-dozen trees in the backyard, bounded by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Not long ago, he says, each tree had a pit chained to it. The owner was busted for running dog fights. “This is an area that has been plagued with pit bulls,” Caraway says, pointing to one behind a wooden fence. Within two blocks, we spot several more.

South of Illinois Avenue is Britton Street, a neglected stretch of palpable latent danger where yards are strung with concertina wire and even front porches are caged with iron bars. Graffiti on the side of an abandoned house says: “South Oak Cliff F— Bitch All Bloods.” Loose dogs of mixed breed hurry around a corner. At one house, a young man sits on a porch with three small kids and a pit bull puppy. “The mama’s in there somewhere,” says Caraway, who won’t even campaign here because of all the dogs.

Back on the north side of Illinois, I am asking Caraway whether he thinks loose dogs are an indicator of a neighborhood in decay when we stop to talk to a letter carrier walking up one of the “state” streets. The postal service and postal unions are strong supporters of strict dog ordinances. With good reason.

“I get bit all the time, man,” says the carrier, who has had the route for two years and doesn’t want to use his name. “Over here they seem to love their dogs. They don’t tie them up and they don’t believe in the leash law. It’s really rough, man. I been bit five times. We just had a guy come back, his arm’s been bit, face swollen. He was out for about six months. His arm got as big as his leg.”

The carrier says he’s taken the rabies shots series and has learned to “carry rocks and things because the spray won’t hold a big one.” He has called Animal Services but knows that they are “short staffed.” He worries about the old people “who say they can’t come out because the dogs are there.” He worries about the kids even more.

“I get bit all the time,” he says again, adjusting the bulging leather bag on one shoulder. “Some of ’em are so small and I know the people so, hey, you know. And they have ’em where you gotta come through their dog to deliver the mail. You know. Drop the mail in the box, dogs jump up on the fence, jump all over the fence—you know it’s constant, man. If you can’t handle a dog, you really can’t deliver mail over here.”

It’s worth saying again that not all loose, vicious dogs in Dallas are pit bulls, nor that all pit bulls are vicious and loose. But the numbers here and in the surrounding suburbs certainly indicate a correlation worth more study. Many in the dog trade doubt a correlation exists at all, attributing the notoriety of a breed to changing times. “In the ’70s it was Dobermans. In the ’80s it was rottweilers. It’s pit bulls right now,” says James Bias, president of the SPCA of Texas, which favors regulations targeting pet owners and not specific breeds.

On a sunny Sunday in April, the Lone Star State Pit Bull Club of Dallas-Fort Worth hosts “Pit Bull Whisperer” day at Veterans Park in Arlington. A new event, it’s a free, family-oriented gathering designed to educate the public and help owners learn how to better handle one of the major six of the so-called bully breeds, ranging from the miniature bull terrier to the American bulldog.

I’m here with an open mind, although finding myself in the presence of 40 or more of the dogs, many in choke collars, certainly makes me feel wary. I try to think just of the fun of having a dog.

To one side of the pavilion, tables are covered with pit bull literature. Out in the adjacent field, volunteers are running an event in which pit bulls are harnessed to a small sled topped with weights. Some owners stand around the perimeter with their own leashed dogs, watching. A photographer snapping some pictures suddenly draws back a few steps as one of the pits snarls at him. I ask later if he had been worried. He looks at me as though I had asked something offensive. The owner of the dog says that his pit is just “scared of cameras.”

After the sled-pulling, veteran dog handler Deryl Wingate of the Mark-9 Rescue Team, which saw duty after Katrina, brings out one of the team’s star rescue dogs, a pit named Ali. “You have to know dog behavior in order to have one,” he says. “You have to be the alpha. The dog is part of the pack.” He leads Ali through some commands. “A dog is not a child,” the trainer says. “The only thing he understands is dog behavior.”

Wingate explains that the pit can kick into “prey drive” almost instantly, and that when that happens, you’ve got trouble. “He is not gonna back down,” he says. Then Wingate invites the owners to come up and learn how to get their pets to obey. One of the pits doesn’t like it and starts to growl. Instead of reprimanding the animal, Wingate patiently works to soothe its fears until it is docile. “You cannot back off from these dogs,” he says. “You cannot be afraid of them.”

As he’s talking, a growling match erupts from a table in the pavilion as two pits strain on their leashes toward each other. The owner of the intruder takes his dog away, while the other guy, a tattooed young man wearing a sleeveless “Punishment Athletics” shirt, pulls his dog to him and begins to pet him, perhaps to calm him down.

Wingate sees the teaching example and tells the crowd that petting the dog just then was a perfect example of what not to do. “You don’t reward bad behavior,” he says.

The dog’s owner slouches against the table, simmering. “I didn’t pet him,” he suddenly yells out. “I didn’t want everyone here thinking I’m crazy for doing that.” He stops a moment, his face reddening. “I don’t like that.”

Wingate looks at him a long moment and turns away. “Whatever you’re feeling, it goes right down the leash to the dog,” he says to me quietly. A young woman comes up for handling advice, confessing, “I know, I treat my dog like a baby.” Wingate is of the opinion that she should not. Not far away, a 5-year-old boy plays with a pit bull puppy. Its name is Ammo.

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