Dog Days

Activists say too many animals get sick and die at Fort Worth’s shelter. The city says it’s doing the best it can.
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Posted May 29, 2013 by By Peter Gorman | Photos by Lee Chastain in News
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Fort Worth’s Chuck Silcox Animal Care and Control shelter is a drab white cinder-block building in an industrial part of southeast Fort Worth. You wouldn’t guess it by the scant traffic in the area, but over the course of a year it’s a temporary home to roughly 20,000 animals, from bats and lizards to feral hogs and hamsters. About 12,000 of those animals are dogs, and for about a quarter of them it will also be their final home.

To some, the ACC is a heaven-sent refuge for the animal population in and around the city — a place where sick, unwanted, abandoned, lost, and feral animals get a second chance: the chance to be cleaned up, fed well, vaccinated, and offered for adoption.

In the eyes of many animal activists, however, the conditions in which the animals, and particularly the dogs, live is nothing short of a horror movie. They describe those conditions with terms like “absolutely disgusting” and say it’s a hotbed for the spread of infectious diseases, particularly distemper.

“Dogs come in healthy, get sick, and wind up being euthanized,” said one former ACC staffer, who asked that her name not be used. “Cages are caked with feces, dogs are forced to sit on cold, damp concrete floors in the winter and steaming-hot, damp, concrete floors in the summer.”

Watkins, with Ernie: “It doesn’t take much to make a place conducive to adoption instead of killing.”

Watkins, with Ernie: “It doesn’t take much to make a place conducive to adoption instead of killing.”

Several local animal rescue groups say sick dogs are not isolated properly at the center and frequently spread diseases to the healthy population. And there’s no dog run, so most of the 700 to1,200 dogs brought to the center monthly never get outside, sitting in dark cages in a dim room where they defecate, urinate, eat, and sleep.

Worse, because of an alleged small but significant rash of distemper cases, several rescue groups around the city said they no longer take dogs from the center: How can they, they ask, when there is a chance that a dog they rescue might wind up infecting all the other dogs they are caring for?

Shelter spokespersons and city officials deny that there has been even a small outbreak of distemper and say they are doing the very best they can with the resources they have.

“All over the country, the incidence of distemper is up the last few years,” said Scott Hanlan, assistant code compliance director for Fort Worth, whose job includes monitoring the Silcox shelter. “But we’re not seeing an increase in the number of incidents of distemper at Fort Worth’s shelter that you would expect.

“We intake 20,000 animals a year,” he said. “We don’t know their medical history or what they were exposed to when they were running stray. And every shelter in the country knows that when you house hundreds of stray animals daily, disease control is a huge issue.”

Still, the problem could be considerably reduced by the application of a little common sense, said Suzette Watkins, owner of Riverside Kennels and a dog rescuer.

“Distemper is just one issue,” she said. “Most shelters have intake areas with separate air-circulation systems where they can segregate the intake dogs for 72 hours to see if they’re sick. But the Fort Worth shelter has no such segregation area: [Dogs are] effectively put directly into the general population because there is no separate ventilation system for them. Which means there is simply more illness coming out of Fort Worth than there is coming out of Dallas or Denton. It’s the worst shelter in this part of the country.”

Watkins is also angry at the number of dogs put down at the shelter. She is a founder of No Kill Fort Worth, a group that advocates for a minimum of 90 percent of all shelter animals being released through adoptions, foster care, and rescue groups. It’s a difficult mark to hit, but some cities, including Austin, have managed it, though that city is dealing with just under half the number of dogs in the Silcox shelter.

“It doesn’t take much to make a place bright and cheerful and conducive to adoption instead of killing,” Watkins said. “But the shelter is dark and damp, and the dogs are defecating in their kennels.

“It wouldn’t take much to change that: Get those dogs outside every day, two times a day to see the sun, breathe fresh air, and take care of their business. Dogs hate to do their business where they eat. It just stresses them out enormously. And then they go crazy when people come to the shelter, and the whole thing becomes a scary experience for people rather than a fun time looking for a new pet.”

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Numbers obtained by Fort Worth Weekly from the city via an open-records request indicate that the shelter is nowhere near meeting that 90 percent standard. Through April 22 this year, 4,484 animals had been brought in. Of those, 2,788 were dogs and 701 of them — just over 25 percent — were euthanized.

An autopsy showed that Buddy died of distemper. Courtesy Paige Carlton

An autopsy showed that Buddy died of distemper. Courtesy Paige Carlton

“Those are not acceptable numbers,” said Watkins.

Joseph Riney, the senior animal control officer at the shelter, prefers to concentrate on the 1,128 dogs that were adopted during that period and the 959 dogs that were either reunited with their owners or taken in by rescue groups. “Those are pretty good numbers, and they’re well above what they used to be,” he said. “Are they good enough? You’re always trying to do better.”

Many of the dogs that are euthanized have been hit by cars or are very ill when they are brought in.

“We’d rather not euthanize any dogs,” said Hanlan, “but when you’ve got a dog that’s nearly dead already, well, you can spend an enormous amount of money trying to make that one dog well or put it out of its pain and use those resources on several other animals.”

Watkins also points to the fact that since the kennels don’t have raised floors, the animals are mostly sitting on the concrete — though there is a small plastic platform  in a section of each kennel. But in an effort to maintain some level of cleanliness and keep bacteria from feces and urine spreading, the kennels are spray-washed with water and disinfectant daily, leaving the concrete floor perpetually damp — which is also conducive to illness.

City staffers reluctantly agree.  “We’re aware of the issues of not having a dog run, not having a place for them to do their business, [the] damp concrete,” Hanlan said. “We’d love to get the dogs outside. But we’d need an army of volunteers to make that happen. And our job is to get these animals off the street and out of there alive and healthy as soon as possible. We’re a shelter, not a doggie heaven.”

In terms of keeping the place clean and reducing the spread of illness, Hanlan said that the shelter protocols are above standard, and noted that in March the state health agency, after its annual unannounced inspection, gave the Silcox ACC its highest rating, with no concerns noted.

The ACC might have fooled the health services people said the former staffer, but it’s baloney. “You can have the best cleaning solutions in the world, but if you don’t have a staff trained in how to use them, what good are they?” she asked. “And when they’re cleaning kennels in the morning, they’re putting several animals into a single kennel where they’re sharing drinking bowls for periods of time — that spreads disease.”

Staff turnover contributes to the problem, she said, but turnover is endemic among shelter workers. “It’s the only job in the world where you treat animals with care and then euthanize them. That makes it very emotional and leads to people leaving, a revolving door. And who wants to really train someone who’s going to leave in a short period of time?”

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18 Comments


  1.  
    Danna Quintana

    First, thank you FW Weekly for giving this topic the attention it deserves; it means a lot to many, many people regardless of which argument is supported. There are thousands of people in and around this city that want only the best care for our unwanted animal population and I’m sure that most of us would save every single one of them if we could. That being said, let’s talk reality.
    While the article was fairly reported, relying solely on the shelter’s records was naïve. Having reached out to those that rescued or adopted sick animals likely would have resulted in the proof the city claims to be asking for. Nevertheless, the sheer numbers of those offered for rescue only because they have upper respiratory illness is astonishing. When a vast majority of those came in the back door seemingly healthy, by the shelter’s own admission, how is it that exactly 3-5 days later they are sick? And I’m not talking of distemper since that does seem difficult to catch even under the best circumstances.
    The shelter and board can argue money all they wish; but when will someone ask why there isn’t enough money to fix the ventilation? That answer lies in the shower stalls that Mayor Betsy Price thought more important for the handful of city employees that ride a bike to work. That money was initially earmarked for a ventilation overhaul; until of course, the Mayor thought better of it. So the argument that “there is no money” just doesn’t cut the muster. More to the point is how the money is being spent.
    And while I’m on a rant about the Mayor and her misguided priorities; how much did those designated bike lanes throughout the city cost? I have yet to see anyone use them so it seems as though those dollars could have been used to benefit some group in need as opposed to her cronies. An animal’s life, any animal, should be more valued than a bike ride among friends.
    But I digress. I wholeheartedly give credit to the city for the partnership with PetSmart. That was forward, outside of the box thinking and it has paid in spades as far as lives being saved. However, did you catch the part about the city making money off of deal? Should shelter administrators be so willing to pat themselves on the back for figuring out how to make a buck off of the situation they created? I think not. By the way, I have frequented both facilities and there is a vast difference between those that work at Chuck Silcox and those that work at PetSmart. Why do you think that is?
    The picture you painted about the contrasting facilities could not be more accurate. The smell alone at Chuck Silcox is enough to make any would-be adopter turn fast around and head for the door. The PetSmart adoption center is just that; an adoption center inside of a store. The materials are not so different, but the presentation of the shelter animal could not be more different. This is true for the employees as well.
    Brenda Silcox, bless her heart, clearly has not taken the time to educate herself on exactly what the no-kill movement is. If she spent half of that energy being objective about the problems in her husband’s name sake shelter, she would understand that the movement in no way advocates for prolonging pain, illness, or misery; to the contrary. But it’s hard to be objective when you are part of the problem and yes, the advisory board is part of the problem. Not unlike how countless volunteers have been treated, if a board member dares to buck the board, do not count on being re-appointed. The board, nor shelter administration, wants someone that isn’t just going to do as they are told.
    So let’s talk about this volunteer situation for a minute. Why would any organization, especially a government entity that is supposed to be transparent, not want their volunteers or employees to discuss what really goes on behind closed doors? Volunteers, in essence, are told that what happens in the shelter stays in the shelter or else their services are no longer needed. Does that sound transparent to you? Mark my words, this commentary will get me black-listed from the shelter for rescue or adoption pulls; I guarantee it.
    With respect to some of the local rescue organizations refusing to pull from Chuck Silcox, I totally understand and agree. I pulled a Chow mix from the shelter last winter for a local rescue (who shall go unnamed so that they are not black listed as well). When Ginger dragged the poor guy out by the lead, it was obvious that the pup was ill and should never have been offered for rescue. However, Ginger assured me that he was just scared so we set out. Sidebar: when shelter staff won’t pick the dog up or touch them unnecessarily, that’s a red flag. Short of two hours later, I was begging the vet in Alvarado to check the dog because he had an explosive bout of diarrhea and could not lift his head. Soon thereafter, he was dead and I felt responsible. Now that, Brenda Silcox, was clearly a case for humane euthanasia if ever there was one. Yet, your shelter failed him as it has so many countless others.
    It is true; the shelter does not get to pick and choose who comes in their front door or who their animal control officers bring in. But it’s interesting to me that Melinda Rhodes can find no fault with the shelter; yet she won’t save from it. Clearly her refusal is absolute indication that she finds fault but I can’t blame her for not expressing it. After all, she’d risk being black-listed as well.
    In all fairness, let’s give credit where credit is due. The shelter has made improvement over the past few years and the new policy on TNR is incredible as it shows a willingness to cooperate with outside forces to make the changes we all want, to save more lives. The volunteers that can hack it must be awesome folks because I couldn’t work there and keep my mouth shut. The rescue organizations that pull daily and volunteers that transport, foster, post, and even adopt leave me breathless with their undying commitment to life.
    It is understood that improvement takes time and only time will tell if the city is committed to turning this situation around. But a reduction to 1/3 dead is still 1/3 dead. Let us find a way to work together, with a true goal and commitment, without excuses or blame. Let us start, brand new, today to turn this city’s shelter around. I don’t have all of the answers, nor does anyone else. But it does take a village so this is all hands on deck!




  2.  
    Marsha Rahn

    Very well said Danna! I was also sad that the money earmarked for the ventilation system went to build shower stalls for the few who ride bikes to work. Mrs. Silcox does need to do more research on the No Kill Movement. I couldn’t have said it any better than Danna.




    •  
      Skeptic

      Get rid of Price, if possible next election. The woman is a jacka**. You can’t even walk on the sidewalks in Trinity Park without nearly getting run over by some mindless snobbish jerk on a $1000.00 bike with helmet and tight stretch pants going far too fast for pedestrian safety.




      •  
        Victoria

        Betsey Price ran on the premise that No Kill is important to her. She lied through her teeth. I’d like to see the ROI on the showers that she promised.

        I do believe that Fort Worth tries but I agree in that denying that there is a problem, is a huge problem. Most shelters struggle with disease control and have epidemics at one point or another.

        However, putting several animals in one cage to all drink and eat from the same bowl while cleaning kennels – bad idea. Denying the problem exists lends to credibility issues and a lack of trust.

        Having no separate air system — could have been fixed…if only the mayor cared like she said she did.




  3.  
    Dale Weaver

    Hanlan is a liar! Many dogs are dying from distemper! Many many are dying from kennel cough and pneumonia too! The place is a death camp! If you don’t believe me, look at the faces of the dogs and you’ll see sickness, fear and death. Dogs don’t lie, but Hanlan does!




  4.  
    SMA

    I fostered a mom and eight puppies that were pulled out of this shelter by a rescue group. Guess what five of the puppies ended up dying of? Distemper. Confirmed by a vet no less. These puppies were born at the shelter, so they couldn’t have caught it anywhere else. I spent all day and night with those pups trying to nurse them through this awful disease, and it was terrible to watch them waste away and have to let them go. I’m just grateful that a few survived, one of which lives with me now. I have volunteered with many shelters all over Texas throughout the years, and I have yet to be at one with that kind of problem with distemper. And no-kill doesn’t mean no euthanasia; it’s recognized that about 2% of animals entering shelters have irreversible aggression or medical issues, hence the 90% benchmark. Maybe the shelter has improved, marginally, in the past few years, but they could be doing a lot better. There are shelters all over the country reaching no kill with way more intake and way less resources sooo….I find it telling that instead of talking about more solutions, they are defensive instead. Part of anything is being willing to acknowledge and work through problems, but I guess that’s a bit much to expect of this place.




  5.  
    Mary

    Well said Quintanna! Bicylce Betsy Price is clueless when it comes to the citizens of Ft Worth. I will be waiting patiently for the next Mayoral race and you can bet Bicycle Betsy’s days are numbered!!! We want you out! You are ineffective and ignorant. You have helped like maybe .0001% of the people in this city.




    •  
      Skeptic

      Well said Mary—only the top “.0001%”. Bicycle (former tax collector) Betsy Price is a useless moron who only shows up for a photo-op, The poor and helpless are pretty much ignored.




  6.  
    Chris

    From my experience animal shelters will never be “ideal”. You have to remember the initial purpose was rabies control and TEMPORARY holding of stray animals. I recommend reading Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters found on the Internet. The Fort Worth Shelter is not set up to house animals long term.

    With the numbers of citations issued by officers going down the number of irresponsible owners will go up and therefore the number of unwanted animals will also go up creating a surplus of unwanted animals in the city shelter.

    I’ll admit I’m not fully educated on the no kill plan but I have plenty of experience with animal suffering. Keeping a dog in a dark dreary run where they are forced to defecate in the same location that they eat and sleep for a prolonged period of time is not humane. I have seen the light go out of an animals eyes from a lengthy stay at the shelter. It is my understanding “no kill” supports euthanasia to prevent suffering but as a former employee at Fort Worth this was not my experience. . . No Kill Fort Worth wanted the euthanasia numbers to go down. At what price? Is the shelter still holding sick animals 24-48 hours for rescue to pick up? This may save one but it could cost several others.

    Management believes having a poor employee is better than no employee. This attitude is what causes the loss of good employees because they can only go so long trying to make up for the slackers. Eventually they become like those dogs in the shelter with no light in their eyes. Just this past weekend you had only two employees show up one day to clean the entire shelter. Poor planning? Called in sick? Either way this creates stress for the animals and overwhelms employees.

    When I worked as a cruelty investigator I made three statements frequently 1.Just because something can breed doesn’t mean It should. 2. Life is all about choices. 3. If you don’t have the financial means to care for an animal then you shouldn’t have it.

    We need leaders that will choose to do the right thing at all times. Not just when they think someone is watching. If the City of Fort Worth does not have the financial means to provide proper care of animals then they shouldn’t house them.




  7.  
    drew

    I like reading all of the different opinions of this. Having been in the vet world for 17yrs I can see both sides of the problem. Animal activists always want a no kill solution but never do anything to help achieve that. Instead they complain and say how awful everyone is. This is an animal control shelter that is run by a government agency. It is not the puppy spa down the road.
    The employees there are overworked and underpaid and have to deal with animals that have been thrown away by humans. This a very depressing line of work and if everyone that is complaining took the time to volunteer they would understand.
    The shelter is meant for TEMPORARY housing and was not supposed to house animals for more than a couple of days. Yes, they are going to have sick animals and yes they are going to have to euthanize some. They cannot keep every animal that comes through the doors becasue they do not have room.

    The shelter has come a long way since I started my work in the vet field and they are improving still. The administrators do not sit at their desks and laugh at the thought of killing animals. They love animals like you and me. Their hands get tied with politics sometimes.
    Wether you like it or not, the shelter does take money to run and function and it takes more than people realize. Don’t drink the cool-aide and actually educate yourself on running a shelter.




    •  
      Skeptic

      I am not sure I understand your point, except that there is on going societal degradation, general poverty (of initiative, ambition, as well as materialistic poverty). The commenters for the most part -myself included- seem to have rescued throw away animals and are ponting out that the “government” to use your general terms (in this case –FW city govt.) has had funds earmarked for shelter improvements which seem to have been diverted to the Mayor’s non urgent vanity pet bicycle projects. Why not have a public (not taxpayer related) fundraising project for bicycle lanes, showers for urban bicyclists and see how far that goes. Meanwhile, I am sure that no one wants sick or aggresive animals on the streets. That should be a public committment, kind of like tax payer funded hospital for indigent “throwaway” human beings.




    •  
      Blimbaugh

      I disagree about what you said about rescue people not helping. Are you kidding me? Who do you think are pulling the dogs from the shelters??




  8.  
    Carol Eicher

    The biggest problem is not the City, the Mayor, rescue groups, or Animal Control. It is irresponsible pet owners. Until they get it, nothing else is going to work 100% of the time.




    •  
      Danna Quintana

      Carol, I beg to differ. First, nothing will work %100 of the time because humans are involved. Secondly, it is extremely short sighted to put all of the blame on irresponsible pet owners. I believe the true fault lies with all of the parties and the system that wholey refusing to take responsibility for their part. I am a rescuer, I’ll take whatever blame you think I should. Now what?




      •  
        Victoria

        Carol, I disagree as well. No Kill Communities still have irresponsible people, which is why they have to work hard to stay No-Kill. If it was easy, we probably would have done it a long time ago. The irresponsible part of the public didn’t change, the shelter and rescue system did.




  9.  
    stephanie

    My dogs got out of the backyard one afternoon, they were picked up and taken to this shelter. We saw them on the website the next morning and I had them home by that evening. They were there less than 24 hrs and in that time my 3 mth old puppy got sick. First vet we took him to thought it was kennel cough so we started an antibiotic. Before he was done with the two weeks of the antibiotic it was obvious that the medicine wasn’t working so we took him to a different vet. Without even testing him it was very clear that he had distemper. (He had started twitching the night before we took him to see the second vet.) That night the tremors were severe and he was in a lot of pain. We had to take him back to the vet the next day, we had to put him down. It was a few days shy of 1 month from the time he had been in the shelter.




  10.  
    Danna Quintana

    So sorry for your loss Stephanie.




  11.  
    Paula

    Could everyone start doing a fundraiser to bring in the money needed to make the improvements? There are obviously lots of animal lovers here on both sides of the issue. If money can improve the situation, both sides working together to raise some might bring in the resources for solutions and improve the relationships between the shelter people and the rescuers.





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