One of the most important issues the shelter is dealing with is distemper, a neurological disease that can take weeks to show itself and once it does is nearly impossible to cure. Animals that contract it — dogs, coyotes, and raccoons, among others — lose the ability to walk, then go blind and die. And it’s very contagious.

The city admits that several dogs — as many as eight — that were adopted or rescued through the Silcox center in the past several months subsequently died from distemper. Another 10 dogs are presumed to have died from the disease although the cause of death was not proved. Some animal rescuers put the numbers substantially higher, which has led to several groups refusing to rescue animals from the Fort Worth shelter.

Animal activists say that because the city shelter has no separate intake area, it is a breeding ground for illnesses.
Animal activists say that because the city shelter has no separate intake area, it is a breeding ground for illnesses.

Carissa Daniel said she rescued a dog from the ACC on Feb. 21. “He didn’t appear sick, but he did have injuries that had not been treated — part of one of his feet had been ripped off, presumably by a car, and that’s why I rescued him, to get him treatment.”

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But the dog began coughing the next day. Daniel thought he had a treatable respiratory problem, but he started going downhill quickly. “He started twitching and showing neurological problems and finally died of distemper and pneumonia, secondary to the distemper, on April 8.

To city staff, stories like Daniel’s are just anecdotes unless the pet owner can provide the name and contact of the veterinarian who diagnosed the distemper or provide the city with an autopsy of the animal.

“We’re not seeing what these people are talking about concerning distemper,” said Diane Covey, public information officer for Fort Worth code compliance. “We ask for medical records. We ask for autopsies. The more we have the veterinarian records, the better we can know whether there really is a problem, and if there is, work to solve it.”

But autopsies are expensive, and most vets and pet owners who’ve seen end-stage distemper even once know what they’re looking at.

“You don’t forget it,” said Watkins, who recently had an autopsy done on Buddy, a dog she and a fellow animal activist rescued from the Silcox ACC at the end of March.

“Buddy was a dachshund that we pulled on March 25. We had no idea there was a distemper issue. We had him in foster care — someone was keeping him for us until we could get him adopted — when he came down sick,” she said. Watkins said she spent nearly $2,000, mostly of her own money, taking him to four different vets in an effort to save him. When he died, she sent his remains to Texas A&M University diagnostic lab for an autopsy, at a cost of $189. The autopsy showed the dog had died of distemper.

“The city will dance around the issue of distemper because there are no autopsies, or not many,” she said. “But autopsies are expensive. And once you’ve seen the dogs with that herky-jerky motion, unable to walk, vomiting, diarrhea, going blind — you darned well know if it’s distemper or not. The city is simply in denial on the issue.”

Not so, said Hanlan, who told Weekly that the shelter has repeatedly reached out to those who say they’ve had ACC dogs die of distemper, asking them to provide their vet contacts — not necessarily autopsies — so that the shelter can get a real idea of what the vet thinks killed the dog.

“Here’s the thing: A lot of people, when they hear of something like distemper, simply claim that’s what their dog died from,” Hanlan said. “And sometimes we discover they never took their dog to a vet or, if they did, the vet will tell us that he or she never said the cause of death was distemper. They often say that it might have been one of several things the dog died from — but if that list includes distemper as a possibility, well, that’s what a lot of people repeat — when that was only one of several possible things.”

Hanlan said protocols in place at the shelter for several years make it highly unlikely that distemper could spread there. In September 2008, the city instituted a policy of vaccinating all dogs against a series of ailments, including distemper, as soon as they are off-loaded from the animal-control trucks, a program that’s since been expanded to include more vaccinations and worm medication. “That’s before they ever enter the shelter. And if they wind up staying at the shelter 14 days, they get a booster shot.”

Unfortunately, he noted, distemper can have an incubation period of as long as six weeks before there is any noticeable sign of the disease. And the initial signs often are just a runny nose or what’s known as a “kennel cough” that can easily slip past shelter workers.

Once the dogs have had their shots, they’re put in a roped-off area of kennels for a mandatory three-day period, during which time they are assessed daily by vet technicians for signs of illness or temperament issues, said Hanlan. “After that period, well, if they’re healthy and show no signs of temperament problems, they go into the adoption program.”

Which doesn’t mean they’re not “harboring something that’s not evident yet,” he added, though with all the dogs vaccinated against serious diseases, it’s unlikely they would infect other animals.

But if some dogs are carrying respiratory or other airborne viruses, the activists say, being kept in a room full of other adoptable dogs could allow the illness to spread.

Melinda Rhodes from Canine Soulmates Rescue, a group that takes dogs in danger and maintains foster homes for them until permanent homes for them can be found, said she doesn’t blame the Fort Worth shelter for falling short now and then.

“I have nothing bad to say about the shelter,” she said. “I mean, they have to take every animal thrown at them. They don’t get to pick and choose, so they’re in a very difficult situation, no doubt about that.”

Nonetheless, she no longer pulls dogs from the shelter because of the illnesses they often come with. “We have not been able to pull animals from there for months. I know they’re working on it, but I’m not confident in taking their animals at the moment. If you wind up with a sick dog, it can make or break you.”

In an ideal world, every dog that came in would be tested for distemper before being allowed anywhere near other animals. But at a presentation on May 21, Brandon Bennett, director of code compliance, along with two veterinarians, told the Fort Worth City Council that more than 7,000 dogs came in during 2012 showing some sign of illness. If all had been tested, with tests required to be administered by a veterinarian, the cost would have topped $405,000.

The animals would also need to be held in isolation somewhere for two to three days while awaiting test results. The shelter has no such space, and with a total annual budget of about $5 million, including staff, electricity, water, medicines, food, and animal-control trucks, there isn’t enough money to pay for the tests or provision of isolation space.



  1. 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. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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. 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. 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. 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.

    • 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. 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. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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?

      • 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. 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. 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.