DALLAS — Anecdotes about pitiful dogs and cats in need melt hearts, but this cold, hard fact is even more troubling: 12,000 pets are surrendered annually by their owners to Dallas Animal Services.
That awful “dumping ground” number — and how to reduce it — was just one of the tough issues tackled recently in a no-frills hotel meeting room near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport during a rare gathering of large urban animal operations leaders.
The very fact that these shelter leaders came together for a specific task — the development of unified metrics that can be expanded nationwide — is unusual in the animal services world.
Just three years ago, the shelter was a joke. Management essentially ignored a loose-dog crisis in southern Dallas, ran off would-be rescue partners and stonewalled anyone who dared say a critical word about DAS.
Not until the deadly mauling of South Dallas resident Antoinette Brown by a pack of dogs in May 2016 did City Hall take notice. The changes city leaders made eventually led to the hiring of DAS Director Ed Jamison, Assistant Director Ryan Rogers, and in turn, a top-notch team of shelter and field experts.
These days, the DAS approach to both public safety and animal welfare is a numbers-driven never-say-die strategy that’s caught national attention. That’s why the national Best Friends Animal Society came to Dallas to host directors of 10 large shelters from across the Southwest to talk metrics and field operations and what works and what doesn’t.
“My head hurts because we talked about so many things,” Jamison told The Dallas Morning News . “But we made important progress.”
The owner surrender statistic, which includes a small number of stray dogs and cats that residents brought to the shelter, stood out to me as the one in most need of improvement. The problem illustrates the animal-services work that summit participants cite as their toughest: Figuring out how shelters and their partners can help owners long before the day they give up on their pet and decide to surrender it.
Everyone at the meeting said those answers start with ensuring that the public understands that “dog catcher” doesn’t come close to describing what field and shelter staffers are equipped to do and what resources animal services operations can provide to help both pets and people. Whether it’s getting support to better train a dog, helping owners keep fences secure or finding low-cost vet services, the shelters want to start conversations at the first signs of trouble.
But getting the right messages out — or even knowing what the right messages should be — remains a challenge.
For instance, despite a hefty outreach campaign, Dallas Animal Services often sees social media posts of residents who fear taking a lost dog or cat to the shelter because they believe it will be euthanized immediately. Yet the shelter is the clearinghouse that is most likely to have info on hand to get the animal back to its home.
That’s where better data comes in. Jamison and Tim Morton, director of Fort Worth Animal Care and Control, said the emphasis on numbers related to intake and live release or euthanasia needs to shift to include other information collected in the field.
“Most of the problems aren’t about an animal but about a human somewhere along the way,” Jamison said. “What data might we be able to link together — and would it tell a different or more revealing story?” he asked, pointing to items such as volume and types of calls, response times and bite incidents.
The summit participants noted that even agreeing on what constitutes a dog bite is not easy. “Are scratches a part of that? What must the severity be?” Jamison said. “Do we just focus on bites by truly loose dogs or by loose owned dogs too?”
Scott Giacoppo, director of national shelter outreach with Best Friends Animal Society, also believes strongly that better data is the answer to many unresolved animal-services challenges.
“Success isn’t just how many animals we pull off the street, but how many we actually don’t have to pull off the street — but instead improve their lives in their homes and communities,” he said. “Those are the things we need to measure for.”
Another of the day’s big topics was Dallas’ decision to replace the licensing of pets with mandatory microchipping — and the drastically improved return-to-owner rates that have followed.
The summit participants told me that getting smart people into the same room for brainstorming helps them spot trends from information that can otherwise seems anecdotal and random. Aaron Johnson, who runs the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, north of Houston, said it’s “a dream to bring together directors like this to get out of our own silos and better tackle problems.”
The leaders said they’ll continue talking about a system of unified metrics. While their work hardly sounds warm and fuzzy — especially when compared to individual dog tales, Dallas Animal Services has proven that success is best hitched to telling a story with data.
Just last week, in its quarterly report to the Animal Advisory Commission, DAS presented detailed numbers showing a 22% increase in field dog intake over the same period last year, a 10% increase in its live release rate, and a 16% decrease in dog bites involving both loose dogs and loose owned dogs.