Local animal rescue leaders are screaming bloody murder about the number of animals being put down each year by the city of El Paso’s Animal Services, and about the lack of progress on a no-kill goal set by City Council 14 years ago.
Instead of bringing euthanizations down, the 24,301 animals that El Paso Animal Services put down in fiscal 2012 appears to be the highest number in a 10-year period going back to 2002.
The city took in 33,135 animals during fiscal 2012 and euthanized 73 percent of them at its location on Fred Wilson in Northeast El Paso.
They were put down because they weren’t reunited with their owners, adopted or pulled out in time by the city’s adoption partner, the El Paso Humane Society, which is next door to the city facility, or one of five active community rescue organizations.
Totals for fiscal 2011 were not available, but the euthanizations from 2002 to 2010 plus those in 2012 total 193,539.
It reportedly costs about $65 to catch, care for, kill and dispose of each animal. At that rate the city would have spent $12.7 million on the animals it put down during those 10 years.
In the first 10 months of this fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31, Animal Services euthanized 19,109 animals, which is just 304 fewer than during the same period in 2012.
“What it means is El Paso is not implementing the no-kill practices that other cities have,” said Barbara Valencia, a controversial activist who volunteers with a number of animal rescue organizations, including Great Dane Rescue.
“Then, because of the high kill rate, the city doesn’t qualify for any federal grants or programs to move ahead,” Valencia said. “I call it the hamster wheel, and they just keep spinning.”
Last year, the city’s Environmental Services Department received a $1.6 million budget increase – or 3 percent – part of which was intended to help Animal Services get moving.
“The additional funding is for increased staffing in Animal Services to allow for much more active enforcement program, to implement a No Kill program, and to expand hours of operation,” the city manager’s budget notations state.
“They have a no-kill goal, but they don’t do anything to get there,” said Loretta Hyde, who runs the sprawling and always-busy Animal Rescue League operation in Canutillo.
She has a long list of complaints about the Animal Shelter’s operation, lack of cooperation with other organizations like hers and the general loss of life there.
The city did apply for and receive a $50,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to capture, neuter and release 1,000 feral cats in the 79907 Zip code, which takes in the Mission Valley.
That grant, a bright spot at Animal Services, is coming to an end, but the city plans to apply for a follow-up grant to set up the same program in another Zip code.
El Paso might be killing more dogs and cats than any other Texas city except Houston, which is putting down more than 85,000 a year, according to that city’s website.
Euthanization is a touchy issue, and obtaining hard numbers from cities isn’t easy. On their websites and in reports, they tend to tout percentages of live releases without reporting actual numbers.
Dallas reported a live release rate of 54 percent and that euthanizations were down to 34 percent last year. But no hard numbers were available.
San Antonio impounded 34,932 last year and boasted about its 62-percent live release rate. That city brought its euthanizations down from 18,460 in 2010, to 13,558 in fiscal 2012, a 26-percent drop.
In contrast with El Paso’s record of no demonstrable progress toward the no-kill goal it set in 1999 and again in 2006, the city of Austin in 2010 aimed at becoming a no-kill city by the end of this year.
It took less than two years.
“We’ve been achieving 90 percent or better since 2011, which is effectively no-kill because 90 percent is the magic number,” said Patricia Fraga, a spokeswoman for Austin’s Animal Services Department.
To speed things up, she said, the city council added $700,000 a year to the department’s budget, which totals $8.3 million this year, and followed a 34-point plan that a consultant helped lay out.
That compares to a $5.5-million budget in El Paso, and anyone at City Hall would agree that $3 million more would go a long way.
But it took more than money in Austin, Fraga said.
“The Animal Services Advisory Commission worked closely with the city staff in implementing the no-kill plan,” Fraga said. “We couldn’t have done it without the rescue community because they take hundreds of animals out of the shelter every week.”
Austin’s Animal Care Services is responsible for all of Travis County, including other municipalities and a population of more than a million. But it takes in only about 23,000 animals a year – about 10,000 fewer than El Paso Animal Services.
Fraga said Austin has worked hard to bring the number down by providing discounted spay and neuter services and waging an aggressive public education campaign to encourage people to get their pets vaccinated, microchipped and fixed.
In addition, she said, the city moved animal services away from the city health department and made it a department of its own under the supervision of the city manager.
In 2011, El Paso Animal Services was moved out of the city’s Health Department to Environmental Services, which handles trash collection and code enforcement. Its status is that of a division in a busy department.
Some attribute the problems and lack of progress at Animal Services to the fact that the director of Environmental Services, Ellen Smyth, has been working as office administrator for El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar for nine months under a shared services arrangement.
Smyth is due back the first week of September. When she left, the interim head of Animal Services, Kirt Fenstermacher, became interim director of Smyth’s department.
Smyth had nothing good to say about the way the city’s Health Department treated Animal Services before it was handed off to her department after a series of embarrassing controversies.
“It was just awful when we took over,” she said. “The first year was stop the bleeding.”
The city found a veterinarian, Dr. Nina Cloud, whose husband was at Fort Bliss, to take over Animal Services. But last month, she left because her husband was transferred.
Three weeks ago, Luis Rios, a former code enforcement officer with no experience in Animal Services, became the new manager.
Smyth concedes things have moved slowly and said she intends to focus on Animal Services when she returns to City Hall.
But, she noted, the city just hired a volunteer coordinator whose job will be to boost the number of foster volunteers willing to take care of very young animals and litters until they can be moved to the Humane Society or a rescue organization for adoption.
“We’re also trying to get a stand-alone spay and neuter clinic, but the vets have heartburn with the idea of us competing with them,” Smyth said.
Fenstermacher, Environmental Services’ interim director, said the latest numbers indicate that things are looking up.
“I can tell you that euthanasias seem to be coming down,” he said. “From last July to this, they went from 77 percent to 67 percent.”
His department has had Animal Services for two years and he doesn’t know the history of the operation before that.
“We have taken steps towards no kill solution,” he said. “We do not have a formal plan.
“I’m looking to secure a contractor to help with a five-year plan with no-kill elements. We’re looking to put this out (for proposals) late this month or in September.”
The budget for a contractor’s work is about $30,000, he said.
He said the new volunteer coordinator will manage a Virtually Irresistible Pet Program to care not only for very young animals but also for others that are not adopted quickly and would otherwise be euthanized.
There were no foster volunteers a year ago and now there are 22, he added.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.