The Fido Solution

The ultimate answer to too many strays, cash-strapped budgets, animal shelter abuses and starving people

"It's a frustration for us because there's no apples-and-apples comparison," says Alice Sarmiento of the Houston SPCA. "It's tough to figure out if you're duplicating services or not."

BARC, which has an annual budget of $3.2 million, says it killed 12,859 cats and dogs in fiscal 2004. That number doesn't include 2,620 pets put down at the owner's request, and hundreds of others sent to labs for rabies tests -- and likely death -- after biting incidents.

Of the 16,754 dogs and cats impounded in fiscal 2004, exactly 973 were adopted by folks who came into BARC looking for a pet. Another 1,350 were reclaimed by their owners.

Sure, you're saying, that's fairly efficient -- dogs and cats head in and after a few weeks, nine out of ten are dead. But it's not real efficient. BARC wastes a lot of energy mistreating the animals.

One BARC volunteer has been keeping daily logs of her visits to the facility:

"12/12/04 -- Adoption dogs were in outside pen. They had no water…I noticed 2 water bowls [elsewhere] that had dead roaches floating in them."

"12/18/04 -- Little puppy with a bad case of mange was in the holding cell for the entire 30-45 minutes I was there. Other dogs were being put in with it."

"12/20/04 -- Three small dogs were in filthy, feces-ridden wet cages, but they had no water."

And then there was this, from BARC Advisory Committee member Cindy Shaw: "The lighting is so poor at the facility," she told other board members January 19, "that a person [recently] came in looking for their dog and couldn't see it in the dark, and the dog was euthanized the next day."

Oops.

Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for the city's health department, is well aware of the issues raised by activists. "Animal control is often not a pretty picture," she says. "I know the humane activists complain a lot, but they are not nearly as loud as the complaints we get from citizens asking us to get animals off the streets. Our goal here is to protect humans from diseases caused by animals in the streets."

Deoniece Arnold, a quality control official with the city's health department, investigated the volunteer's complaints and others, such as a useless phone system and the lack of infection control at the BARC facility.

"Most major complaints were found to have some validity," she says.

And so subcommittees have been formed and studies undertaken. Again. "It's clear there was some administrative neglect going on out there and we're trying to correct it," Barton says. "In the short term, we have some money available to whip it into shape, and if it's not whipped into shape, then things will change."

Really?

"This is a huge city agency with 100 employees and it operates 24/7 -- change is going to happen slowly," says Sean Hawkins, an animal activist on the latest advisory committee. "But we are working on it…We are going to get things done."

(Paging Dr. Einstein. Paging Dr. Einstein.)

Let's go out on a real shaky limb here and declare that past is prologue, that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, that some things never change. Let's predict that BARC will put out a lot of paper assessing how to improve things, and those things will remain decidedly unimproved.

In which case we can all come back here in a year or two and do another sad-doggy tale. Or we can nip this thing in the bud and crank up the killing machinery.

BARC isn't the only facility killing pussies and puppies -- Harris County sent almost 20,000 to Pet Heaven during the first 11 months of 2004 (and, with a budget about half that of BARC, did it cheaper and with fewer public complaints).

About half of the 10,000 cats impounded by the county in that time were "owner turn-ins," people dumping cats either because they've grown tired of feline haughtiness or there's a litter they can't get rid of.

"We have a running discussion about whether we should go to homes to pick up unwanted pets or not," says Colleen Hodges of the Harris County pound. "We figure if we didn't go, we'd just be waiting until [the owners] let them loose on the streets and then we'd have to pick them up, so we do it one day a week. It's a very busy day."

Private facilities such as the Houston SPCA and the Houston Humane Society have lower euthanasia rates than the county or city pounds -- they tend to have better adoption operations -- but they deal with large numbers of animals so the death count piles up quickly.

"Most people," says Kappy Muenzer, "are totally blown away when we tell them how many animals are euthanized in this city."

It obviously isn't enough.

Do we propose wholesale slaughter? No. We are not barbarians.

However, it might be worth looking at a redeployment of BARC staff. And what better time than the present, when city officials have decided to address the fact that "there is a lack of written standard operating procedures that fully define all aspects of the operation"?

(You may wonder how a government agency can exist for decades without such written procedures, but things are casual at BARC. Take, for instance, in December when an HPD officer accidentally shot a dog that was then taken to the pound. A staffer called the BARC vet, who decided it wasn't worth coming in to check on the animal at two in the morning. Dr. Bill Folger, an expert on veterinary ethics, told the city such cavalier treatment clearly violated his profession's guidelines. The health department's Arnold, on the other hand, said the incident didn't violate any city policy. "Is the current policy the best practice? Absolutely not," she said. "Are we taking steps to do something about it? Absolutely.")

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