Has the City of San Antonio turned an important corner and started to get serious about the dangerous dog crisis that for years has received far too little attention at City Hall? Sustained media coverage and public outrage over recent attacks — one deadly, another nearly so — is finally getting City Hall to take action.
For too long, an understaffed Animal Care Services (ACS) has failed to address this long-standing problem of negligent owners allowing their dangerous dogs to roam freely and terrorize neighbors and passersby. Most complaint calls have gone unanswered, and too many incidents of dog attacks have resulted in warnings or citations with the dogs returned to their negligent owners and no criminal charges being filed.
Inner-city neighborhoods beset with packs of roaming dogs have seldom been a priority for past mayors and city councils. That, too, appears to be changing. So the optimist in me hopes we have reached an inflection point. The pessimist in me fears city staff still does not appreciate the full dimension of this long-running problem.
Before we get to the points that give me hope and others that feed my doubts, let me note that I speak from personal experience.
For multiple years I served as captain of the Third Street Grackles, a cycling team formed by employees of the San Antonio Express-News and our neighbors at Lake Flato Architects. It fell to me to call ACS to report attack dogs roaming outside their yards and charging passing cyclists. We had many close calls armed only with water bottles.
I quickly learned that speaking with the dog owners was futile. They typically were hostile, put the blame on cyclists, and refused to restrain their animals on their properties. The dogs seemed generally mistreated, left outdoors at all hours to serve as aggressive guard dogs. I wouldn’t call them pets.
There wasn’t a single incident of ACS impounding the dangerous dogs we reported. We tried to vary our routes, but there were only so many roads heading south, and inevitably we encountered the same charging dogs again and again.
I recount this experience as the public learned this year about ACS’ dismal record of responding to dangerous dog complaints. By its own count, ACS staff only responds to 44% of the nearly 55,000 critical calls it receives annually. In other words, most calls get ignored. Something is wrong with city government when it continues to receive an average of 150 calls of critical dog attacks every day of the year, yet the call count never goes down.
Repeat offenders are often let off with verbal or written warnings. Very, very few dog owners have faced criminal neglect charges after their dogs attacked people, and too few dangerous dogs have been euthanized. Even those impounded are often returned to their owners.
As I’ve noted in past columns and commentaries on the bigcitysmalltown podcast, San Antonio does not have a dog problem. This is a people problem. Most of the dogs involved in attacks have identifiable owners. Aggressive attack dogs become that way because of the way they are bred, trained and mistreated by uncaring, antisocial owners who seem to feel little or no remorse when their animals threaten law-abiding neighbors.
So why the optimism tempered by pessimism?
One, ACS is the recipient of the city’s largest budget increase in the 2024 budget approved by the City Council on Thursday. Yet even a 33% increase in funding will be insufficient to meet the city’s immediate needs to protect people from attack dogs and their owners. The city’s 2024 budget includes funds for multiple new ACS positions to handle critical calls, which the department says will improve its response rate to 64% in the coming fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1. It plans to add more staff in the following years in order to reach a 100% response rate by 2026. The ACS budget is $28.5 million for 2024.
An organizational chart of ACS’ staff showed dozens of open positions at the department last month, including 15 field officers. At best, it will be at least three more years before ACS responds to all critical calls. Even then, it remains to be seen how vigorously ACS staff will enforce existing ordinances and crack down on repeat offenders with more confiscated and euthanized animals and more criminal prosecutions.
As part of the city’s budget amendment process last week, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) asked city staff to fund an additional positions at ACS to address all critical calls in 2024, at a cost of $2.28 million for the next two years.
An unexpected $20 million windfall from CPS Energy made possible an accelerated timetable for ACS to hire staff and respond to all critical calls.
City Manager Erik Walsh and ACS Director Shannon Sims turned down the request, saying the department could not expand by 35 to 40 officers in a single year. Too bad they didn’t offer to give it their best effort rather than say no at the outset.
Sims and other city staffers are understandably reluctant to make the city’s rate of euthanization even higher than it already is, but in the case of dangerous dogs, I would argue it has no choice. Returning the animals to their indifferent owners only guarantees more attacks. The animals are too far gone to be retrained and adopted out as rescue animals. Who wants a pitbull mix that wants to attack every passing stranger?
The decision to criminally charge a couple and euthanize their dog after it fatally attacked 81-year-old Ramon Najera, injured his wife Juanita and then bit a first responder is a step in the right direction, although the attack occurred in February and indictments were not handed down until August. Last week, Municipal Court Judge Lisa Gonzales ruled that a vicious dog owned by Gregory Leon Palmer will be euthanized after it got loose and savagely mauled Paul Anthony Striegl Jr. on Sept. 5, an attack that required his arm to be amputated at the elbow and left him with flesh ripped from his abdomen. Palmer, acting as his own attorney at the hearing, seemed to try and shift the blame on to the victim.
Let’s hope this case also results in criminal indictments and prosecution.
I know of no other major U.S. city that has a dangerous dog problem of the scale or scope found in San Antonio. New staff at ACS will not be enough. A change in the department’s culture, supported by senior city staff, will be necessary. Many of the irresponsible owners and their dangerous dogs are well known inside ACS. There should be an all-out effort to address the problem, a campaign that proves to be every bit as aggressive as the neglectful owners and their dangerous dogs.