Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Mayor Ivy Taylor take a break from official business to play with rescued puppies. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Mayor Ivy Taylor take a break from official business to play with rescued puppies. Photo by Robert Rivard.

San Antonio and the City’s Animal Care Services department have come a long way since 2004 when the Express-News published its “Death By the Pound” series that chronicled the city’s worst-in-the-nation program of euthanizing stray cats and dogs by the tens of thousands each year.  San Antonio had a 90% kill rate, the highest in the country.  The newspaper’s graphic revelations startled and outraged many in the city and sparked a new campaign that put San Antonio on a path to adopting best practices already in place in other cities.

“No Kill” became an aspiration, perhaps an unattainable goal, but one worth pursuing and supported by many pet owners and animal rights groups. New leadership in the city, Mayor Phil Hardberger and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, put in place new managers at ACS and began to add staff and grow the department’s budget. Free spay, neuter and vaccination campaigns became the norm. Stray animals, once gassed only hours after capture, were now kept alive for weeks as pet adoption programs were expanded. More aggressive neighborhood sweeps by animal control officers and door-to-door education efforts took aim at inner city residents where unvaccinated pets were often allowed to run free and breed indiscriminately. Feral cats, a common sight on the fringes of most inner city neighborhoods, were targeted for capture, neutered or spayed, and then released back into the wild, their numbers steadily dwindling. Partnerships with key animal protection and placement groups, including the San Antonio Humane SocietySNIPSA,  and the Animal Defense League, were a key component of the evolving policies.

ACS headquarters were moved to a new 14-acre care campus adjacent to the San Antonio Food bank on Hwy. 151 in 2007. An ACS Advisory Board meets there in public session on the third Wednesday of every other month

Kathy Davis, the ACS director, led City Council through a progress report Wednesday that began as a presentation of facts and figures, but came to life minutes into the report when staffers arrived in the room with a litter of recently rescued young pups nicknamed the “Seven Dwarfs.” The seven pups looking well fed, shampooed and licensed, seemed content to be the center of attention and, at least for a day, gave Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council members a hands-on opportunity to see the City’s more humane practices at work. Smart phone cameras captured the moments, and after some puppy passing, the litter was gathered back up and order was restored.

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Another photograph defined where the City stands at the start of 2015. Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) took her own photo last week of a roaming pack of eight dogs that appeared in the front yard of her Westside home that was displayed on large screens in Council B Session chambers.

“We took that picture about a week ago,” Gonzales said as her colleagues counted the dogs. “I feel like we’re making a lot of progress on this issue, but we obviously still have a long ways to go.”

"This is my front lawn," said Shirley Gonzales (D5) sharing this photo of eight strays that showed up at her house last week. Photo by Shirley Gonzales.
“This is my front lawn,” said Shirley Gonzales (D5) sharing this photo of eight strays that showed up at her house last week. Photo by Shirley Gonzales.

Davis agreed and pointed out the dogs were probably loose pets rather than abandoned strays.

“As you can see, these dogs are well fed, they haven’t missed a meal, they’re clean and they are running free,” Davis said. “My guess is that there is a female in the group,” probably in heat and attracting male dogs allowed to run free in the neighborhood.

Gonzales and other inner city district officeholders who spoke Wednesday focused as much on the need to change the culture of pet ownership as neighborhood sweeps and other enforcement tactics. Gonzales pressed Davis on how much of the department’s $11.6 million budget goes to education efforts versus enforcement, a figure not immediately available but thought to be small. Mayor Taylor, Gonzales and Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) all called for more in-school programs and public awareness campaigns. All the enforcement in the world will never solve the problem if citizens continue to ignore their own responsibilities to spay or neuter their pets, get vaccinations, and leash them in public.

“I feel like there is not enough being spent on the education side,” Gonzales said.

Sculley put the current situation in perspective.

“I’m thinking back 10 years, when we were picking up 60,000 dogs a year,” she said.

ACS staff now oversees school education programs, targeted neighborhood marketing campaigns, the comprehensive sweeps initiative, and the Pets for Life program. Last year, the City spent $500,000 contracting with local groups to carry out 9,500 free spay and neuter surgeries. Added to the same services provided by the network of community groups and that number rises nearly 59,000 animals last year, about the same number of animals picked up and killed in 2004.

Although City polices and practices began to change in 2004, Wednesday’s briefing focused on a trend line from 2011 through 2014.  Davis said ACS believes it prevented 1.6 million fewer animals being born in 2014 thanks to its control programs, a dramatic increase over the 2011 number of 103,502 dogs that would have been born. The calculation assumes that left uncontrolled, 50% of the stray dog population would have one litter of four puppies a year.

Another measure of progress is the reduced number of dead animals picked up, many struck by vehicles. There were 30,924 dead animal pickups in 2010 and 25,460 last year, which officials believe reflects a reduction in the stray population. A $700,000 Best Friends grant, meanwhile, has funded a city program where stray cats are trapped, brought in to be neutered or spayed, and then returned to the point of capture. Fewer cats are being trapped now as the breeding population is reduced.

The aging kill facility adjacent to Brackenridge Park has been replaced by the new Petco Spay/Neuter Clinic at Brackenridge, and ground will be broken in March on a new facility at Brooks City Base expected to open in 2016.

Davis said San Antonio is slowly approaching the national standard for No Kill of 90% of all captured animals being returned to their owners or placed for adoption with responsible owners. In 2010, less than 40% of the animals were placed while the 2014 numbers exceeded 80%.

Still, even those numbers will not placate critics.

“There are two constituencies out there: the No Kill constituency and the No Strays constituencies,” Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) noted. He recalled the Council setting the “big hairy, audacious goal” in 2012 of achieving No Kill status by 2016.

Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) asked if ACS staff really had such firm goals, and noted one of the factors depressing real estate prices in his district were loose animals.

“We know this issue is different for Districts 2, 5 and 3 than its is for Districts 8, 9, and 10,” he said. “What is the ROI, the return on investment?” he asked Davis.

“The ROI is less animals running loose on the streets,” Davis answered.

Residents who want to report stray or dead animals can call the 311 City Call Center. People are encouraged to take photos of the animals so officers searching for them can more easily identify the animals and their owners.

*Featured/top image: Rebecca Viagran (D3) and  Mayor Ivy Taylor take a break from official business to play with rescued puppies. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Related Stories:

Animal Care Services Report Record No-Kill Numbers

Key to a No-Kill San Antonio: Affordable, Accessible Clinics

Stray Dogs & Cats: Why No-Kill is the Path Forward

Dr. Tom Vice: San Antonio’s Humanitarian Veterinarian

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.