A Letter From Dogpatch

The underfunded Pima Animal Care Center struggles to deal with societal ignorance and accusations that it's cruelly killing too many pets

The animal cops call it Dogpatch.

This is not said with malevolence, nor to demean the humans who reside in this stretch of unincorporated Pima County for a variety of reasons, ranging from poverty to streaks of ramshackle independence. Rather, it is said simply because Dogpatch is filled with free-roaming canines.

The corrective ways of government hold little sway in Dogpatch, a place where property lines are a mishmash of desperate intentions and midnight deal-making, where dwellings are as likely to be two stitched-together mobile homes as a traditional house.

There's a spot in Dogpatch, I'm told, where feral dogs feast on the corpses of other dead animals in a routine, grisly orgy.

You can look down your nose at Dogpatch—but you might not want to look too far down, because in enough ways to make you squirm, the folks of Dogpatch are just like the rest of us. They just don't have the money to hide it.

There are few formal roadways in Dogpatch—officially called the Old Nogales Highway Colonia—and those that do exist are subject to obliteration when monsoon floods rip down the huge wash trailing Old Vail Connection Road. This means that cops and ambulances are habitually slow to arrive, if they arrive at all.

Not surprisingly, the most common enforcement presence out here is the dogcatcher—or in modern parlance, the animal-control officer. And there is very little that is not modern about Officer Ray Velez of the Pima Animal Care Center, or PACC: Velez bounces along these kidney-busting roads with a laptop mounted on his dash, and a cell phone pressed to his ear.

Dogpatch is part of his beat, which sprawls from mid-Tucson south to the Pima County line. Today, someone in Dogpatch has suffered a dog bite. In response, we've traveled down nameless lanes, each with its own rangy crop of dogs, until we reach a brown manufactured home where a teenager and his kid brother are waiting by the door.

Upon request, 15-year-old Yardley Coronado bares a leg dotted with wicked little puncture marks, compliments of a neighbor's dog that harasses the boys whenever they pass by.

"Three, four, five, six ... there are at least nine punctures," Velez says. "Were you running or anything when the dog bit you? Or did it just jump on you?"

Yardley explains how the dog wormed out through a hole in the fence and then went nuts. Velez hands him a quarter to hold next to the bites for scale. The officer starts snapping photos.

Back in the truck, Velez tries tapping the details into his computer, to be read in real-time back at headquarters—but we're in a dead zone, with no signal. It's October and still hot, so he cranks up the air conditioning, and we go looking for the dog-perp. On the way, three tawny pit bulls and a chow trot along the makeshift fence. Velez, a compact, 48-year-old man with friendly but precise manners, clicks his tongue and shakes his head. "That's why we call it Dogpatch," he says.

He's retired from the Air Force, where he guided missiles by computer. "But when I retired, I said, 'Now I'm going to do what I want to do,'" he tells me.

He loves animals. It appalls him to see them hurt. He'd rather see them put down than left with a cruel owner.

And every day, Velez comes back with stories of creatures being beaten or sodomized or abandoned or burned with cigarettes. A particularly common theme involves dogs on tie-outs either dying in the sun, or jumping over fences and strangling in the wind.

"Tie-outs are illegal in Pima County," he says. "But they still sell them at PetSmart." (A PetSmart spokeswoman responds that dogs can be temporarily tied out when someone moves into a home that lacks secure fencing. That's why the Tucson stores stock 15 varieties of the metal stakes.)

Then come the hoarders. A few days earlier, an old woman on South Grande Avenue was found with 45 cats in her filthy home. The sickly cats were all euthanized; the woman was cited for unsanitary conditions and for failing to take them to the vet.

"My wife at times doesn't believe me," Velez says. "I'll show her a house with somebody who has 80 cats. The house is just completely trashed. There's crap knee-deep everywhere. She'll go, 'No way. That's abandoned, right?' And I say, 'No, people live there.'"

Animals live there, too.

In fact, we all live here together, in a modern jungle where the word "animal" is relative, where Dogpatch is perhaps its worst but hardly singular representative. In turn, this chaos is overseen by PACC, a remarkably underfunded stepchild of the Pima County Health Department, hunkered in its 40-year-old headquarters on a dreary scrap of land off Silverbell Road.

Each year, up to 22,000 animals arrive at the facility. In fiscal year 2007-2008 alone, more than 13,000 animals died there.

To PACC's credit, the number of euthanizations are decreasing slightly, down 6 percent from 2005-2006. But neither PACC nor the citizens of Pima County can consider the deaths of thousands of animals, however reduced, to be any kind of success.

Behind those numbers lurks a complicated miasma of societal failure mixed with an evolving view of our fellow creatures. And while Pima Animal Care itself may or may not be dysfunctional, it's no more so than the community it serves, a place where ignorance and apathy block effective animal-sterilization programs, and where rescue groups are often at loggerheads with PACC or one another.

You could say that PACC animals are just proxies for our own personal failures. They mark the failure of families, in which a brother will sometimes take the pet of a sister to the pound out of spite. It is a failure of neighborly accommodation, in which one neighbor traps a cat of another, taking it to PACC where it is killed before the owner can claim it.

Meanwhile, even in good times, PACC copes with all of this on a miserly annual budget of just more than $5 million. Consider that our county is slated to spend six times that amount just on currently planned road projects.

At the same time, there are serious questions about how PACC carries out its grim task. One former animal-enforcement officer describes a gruesome regimen in which animals suffer while dying at the hands of inadequately trained staffers, and in which fatally ill or injured animals are left to suffer.

Until this fall, animals killed at PACC were trucked to a county landfill and bulldozed into the earth with all of the other trash.

It is an October morning, and PACC spokeswoman Jayne Cundy is leading me through the bowels of the bustling shelter, back into the kennels where row after row of dogs gaze out at people passing by. Some display a newcomer's enthusiasm, while others are long past trying.

In the best of circumstances, this is not a cheery place—but there have been improvements. Cundy explains that the shelter recently installed a state-of-the-art HVAC system, which six times each hour replaces the air throughout the building with fresh, outside air. This is expected to greatly cut down on infectious diseases such as kennel cough, which raise clinical costs and euthanization rates while reducing adoptions.

The system is part of more than $3 million in ongoing upgrades at PACC. Other projects include 30 new indoor-outdoor kennels, and a remodeling of the adoption room. The shelter will soon have new quarters for cats. The intake area is also slated for renovation.

But even with all of those new accouterments, animals fill space as soon as it opens. That has led to bitter speculation about the factors that lead PACC to euthanize animals. Cundy tries to neutralize those suspicions. "No," she says, "we don't euthanize just because we're overcrowded. We just manage."

However, a former PACC enforcement officer has a different story.

"If Jayne Cundy tells you that they don't kill for space, that's a lie," says Trissy Coppens, who left her job about a year ago. "They do (kill) because they have too many animals."

According to Coppens, there are also numerous discrepancies in how PACC handles animals. Take cats: "If the person doing the evaluation doesn't like cats, they'll just kill them," she says. "Or when the cats come in, if staff can't lift up the cage and pet the cat, that's how they decide (to euthanize it). But with cats, they're already freaked out from being in a little cage. And maybe they've been trapped before they came in, so (staffers) are not able to pet them. Some of these cats, you could tell they were pets just by looking at them. But they kill them anyway, because people bring them in and say they're strays."

Such an incident occurred last year, when a neighbor trapped semi-feral cats belonging to downtown-area resident Nadine Rund. Both animals were apparently euthanized by PACC before Rund had a chance to claim them. (See "Trap Trip," May 8, 2008.)

According to the Coppens, staffers who euthanize the animals "become desensitized to killing, because they kill so many animals every day."

Meanwhile, she says, other animals that may be sick or injured are often are left to suffer, instead of being immediately euthanized. "One officer brought in a puppy that had distemper. It was already dying. But they left it sitting underneath the table for hours.

"I saw one dog brought in that had no face. His face had been cut off. He had no jaw. They just let him sit back there for hours. They didn't give him water. Animals are supposed to have water at all times. When we're out in public, that's the law. But when we're in the shelter, there are times when the dogs have no water at all."

Coppens says that cats especially suffered in the euthanasia room, at the hands of staff who were not well-trained in euthanasia. Typically, she says, staffers would poke the animals through the cage with a hypodermic needle, with no sedative, and it could take up to 20 minutes for an animal to die a painful death. For a mortality check, they'd then jab a needle into the heart; there was no more heartbeat when the needle stopped ticking back and forth.

A phone call seeking comment from Dr. Bonnie Lilley, the veterinarian who oversees PACC's clinic and euthanizations, was not returned.

As far as the public is concerned, what goes on in PACC's euthanasia room remains secret. In fact, the ferocity with which county officials keep this process from outside scrutiny is disturbing.

I made numerous requests to view euthanizations. Several times, those requests were denied by Health Department director Sherry Daniels. When I asked why, Daniels replied, through a spokeswoman, "Because I said so." Daniels also refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

At one point, Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll intervened on my behalf, making arrangements with PACC manager Kim Janes to accompany me on a viewing. But when I called Janes to confirm, he informed me that Carroll's request had been nixed by higher-ups.

Given that it's unusual for county staff to refuse such requests by a supervisor, I hoped to clear things up with Health Department spokeswoman Patti Woodcock. "We don't dictate to elected officials what they can or cannot do," Woodcock told me. "We have expressed our concern to the deputy county administrator, who has carried forward the 'whys' of declining the request. So it really comes down to Mr. Carroll's decision."

Of course, it wasn't Carroll's decision at all, since his request had been denied. But who denied it? Next, I called Dennis Douglas, the deputy administrator Woodcock had referred to. Since he oversees the Health Department, I hoped he could clear things up.

No such luck. "I actually haven't seen a request from Mr. Carroll to allow you to view a euthanasia," Douglas told me. "From my perspective, no one has countermanded Mr. Carroll's request."

Except for the fact that someone had indeed "countermanded" Mr. Carroll's request, although no one—including Mr. Douglas—dared admit it.

So we'll have to rely on the official version of what goes on behind those closed doors, where some 13,000 animals perish each year.

It should be noted that Douglas and others said my presence during the euthanizations would cause stress to the condemned animals and the staff. But former officer Coppens calls that baloney, saying the animals can't be much more stressed than they already are.

By most accounts, Justin Gallick is a bright light at PACC. A longtime staffer at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, he moved over to the county about a year ago and now manages the shelter. He's seen as a reformer, one of the folks who can help turn this battered institution around. ("I'd trust Justin with my life," one animal rescuer told me.)

Gallick says that he, along with Dr. Lilley, "are making the final decisions" about which animals live or die. "But it's not always that an animal is vicious. It's an overall (assessment) based on the health and the temperament and what we're seeing—basically, the past history. If we get it in there, and it's a completely friendly dog, except for a situational bite ... maybe it's a dog that we'd be able to put out for a special-needs adoption.

"But there are some dogs that come in here for a bite case, and you walk up the kennel, and you can't vaccinate or do anything to it," Gallick says. "My assumption is that would not be a dog you'd want living next door to your toddler."

He also says the grim picture of the euthanasia process painted by Coppens and others isn't the case today, if it ever was. "Of course, I'm always looking for ways to improve it," he says. "It's a nonstop conversation to make things better. There's always room for improvement in any shelter that I've been to."

But outside groups believe the best way to avoid euthanizations is to simply stop killing animals. That includes tightening the standards for how intakes are evaluated, says Nikia Fico, of Citizens for a No-Kill Tucson. She believes far too many dogs are deemed vicious and euthanized without adequate oversight from trained animal behaviorists.

"Right now, it doesn't have to be a certified veterinarian who makes the decision that an animal is vicious," she says. "We want to have a legal standard of what it means to be vicious, and it has to be decided by a court of law—not just a vet, but a court of law.

"If (an animal is not deemed vicious), they need to work to try to place that animal" with a home, Fico believes.

Others suggest that there's no reason that PACC can't outright become a no-kill shelter. They include Nathan Winograd, a nationally known advocate for no-kill programs such as the one he helped establish at San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's also author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No-Kill Revolution in America.

Winograd says that Pima County lags far behind other counties when it comes to working toward no-kill. For comparison, he points to Washoe County, Nev., which includes the city of Reno. He says Washoe County's shelter takes in nearly 40,000 animals, and is able to save 90 percent of its dogs and 86 percent of the cats. "Given that (Washoe) is taking in nearly twice the number of animals per capita as Pima County, there's really no reason that Pima County can't be doing better than it is."

When he brought that message to Tucson last year, he says the PACC gave him "a whole host of excuses as to why it couldn't be done. Then when I started going through the different programs that help (alleviate) the perceived 'need to kill,' they were either not being done, or only being done on a token level."

Those steps include creating an extensive foster-care program for animals awaiting adoption, and developing a closer working relationship with rescue groups.

"I'm not talking about doing that on a token level," he says. "I'm talking about putting in a program so that it replaces the killing of those animals entirely. You can do those kinds of things by tapping into the compassion of the community. But it seemed to me, when I was talking to rescue groups in Pima County, that it wasn't a "partnership" with the PACC. "It was an adversarial relationship, which is incredibly unfortunate."

In his book, Winograd argues that statistics from a number of sources—including the American Veterinary Medical Association—reveal that there are more than enough homes in this country to accommodate every shelter animal. The problem is that shelters aren't doing a good enough job of finding those homes.

While officials at PACC say their outreach efforts are hobbled by funding shortfalls, Winograd calls that a red herring. "A lot of these programs are incredibly cost-effective," he says. "I would argue that they are even more cost-effective than killing animals, because every time you kill an animal, that costs money. It costs taxpayers money to hold the animal; it costs money to kill the animal; it costs money to dispose of the animal's body.

"By contrast, adoption brings in revenue," he says. "Or transferring an animal to a rescue group might not bring in revenue, but it transfers the cost of caring for that animal from taxpayers to private philanthropy, and it saves money from the need to kill and dispose of the animal's body."

Not surprisingly, Winograd has no shortage of detractors. Among them is Pat Hubbard, operations director at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. "People say that PACC needs to be no-kill," Hubbard says. "But nobody provides them with the resources to make this happen. Then we have a book by this man who says that there are enough homes out there. Well, where are they? We want them. We work very hard to find these homes."

Back at PACC, Gallick calls no-kill a fluid concept. "Even within Tucson," he says, "there are different definitions of no-kill and when it's acceptable to euthanize an animal, almost going from rescue group to rescue group. There are some that say that absolutely nothing is to be euthanized. There are groups that say that only the treatable, manageable ones would not be euthanized."

And sometimes, sheer capacity narrows the margins. Gallick points to a time last summer when he says that no animals posted on the rescue list were euthanized. Then the rescuers seemed to hit a wall. "For some groups, it was financial. For some groups, it was (a shortage of) foster homes. Some groups had too many animals, so they put a stop on intake."

But Susan Scherl, founder of midtown's HOPE Animal Shelter, believes the only way to make Tucson a no-kill town is by jolting the status quo. "First and foremost, you have to get the people out of power who don't think it can happen," she says. "If you have the Pat Hubbards of the world, and Kim Janes, and even Justin Gallick, who don't think it can ever happen, they're not going to move in that direction."

According to Janes, however, saving every animal goes beyond PACC's mission.

"Our goal is to move absolutely in (the no-kill) direction, balanced with our charter, which is public health and safety," he says. That includes "taking severely damaged animals out of poor owners' hands and getting them out of harm's way. They're past the point of rehabilitation, and so we have to take (the euthanization) step. I don't know if that will ever go away as long as you have people who aren't going to take care of their pets."

Still, the shelter is increasingly focused on the adoption and redemption of animals, he says. That includes the recent addition of a coordinator to work with rescue groups, and sharply reduced fees.

"In our heart of hearts, we're going to do everything we can to save every animal that comes here, regardless of how it gets to us," Janes says. "But we've also got to do the enforcement side, and we take that very seriously. And the rabies control and protection side, we take that very seriously as well."

Another hurdle, even more daunting, is the routine fickleness of people.

"Just last week, one family adopted a 3-month-old puppy," Gallick says. "Then they brought the dog back because it bonded with the kids but not the husband. They gave the dog five days. I said, 'Wow, OK, not a lot of commitment there.' I've even had people return a dog because it didn't bark."

Carroll has long been PACC's champion, promoting adoptions, suggesting new strategies such as a mobile spay and neuter clinic, and bringing a homeless dog or cat to each Board of Supervisors meeting. Recently, he toured Maricopa County's state-of-the-art shelter, where he got a glimpse of the possible. Under Ed Boks, who later had stints heading up animal control in both New York City and Los Angeles, Maricopa became the nation's first county to officially adopt the no-kill concept. "When animal care and control anywhere embraces 'no kill,' it's a reversal, like 'man bites dog,'" Boks told the Arizona Republic.

That contrast leaves Carroll shaking his head.

"Other communities are so invested," he says. "This pet overpopulation is because of low-cost spay and neutering that we don't provide. And we have to convince a large part of our community that's the right thing to do.

"Corporate and community groups should also be doing more to assist in this Sisyphean labor," he says. "We had an opportunity to do something when I first was on the board. We had Rodrigo Silva, and then he went to Phoenix and did incredible things." A former PACC manager, Silva left to replace Boks at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control.

Carroll, a Republican, blames the Democratic-majority board for failing to properly fund PACC year after year. "I've been everywhere looking for ideas," he says. "But when it comes to implementing something, I'm the minority vote."

For example, Carroll says it took nearly a decade to convince other supervisors that euthanized animals should be cremated rather than just dumped in the county landfill. "I told them, 'This is disgusting and unprofessional, and you're going to do something more respectful than putting these animals in a dump truck.' That was in 1999, so it took about eight years for the rest of the board to finally agree to it. It costs about $25,000 a year."

Back in Dogpatch, a roaming pit bull has attacked somebody's Chihuahua. On the way to that call, we pass the home of the dog that bit Yardley Coronado. "There he is," says Velez. "He's wagging his tail."

The officer gets out of his truck and walks up to the fence. In response, the dog shrinks back toward the house. So Velez stalks over to his truck, jumps in and honks the horn. Despite a car in the drive, there are no fluttering curtains or opening doors at the residence.

Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't humans on the premises. Velez says it's common for people to haul their kids inside and lay low when they see the dog catcher. "Hell, they won't come out for cops, let alone for us. They don't have to (talk to me) by law, unless I get a warrant."

With three dogs watching, we pull away and head for the pit bull problem. There, we find Jose Rojas. When Velez spots the brindled pit bull, he straps on a brace that runs from elbow to forearm. He says another pit bull nearly ripped his arm off when it yanked on the snare. "I can lift a cup of coffee now with that arm—after two months. It still hurts."

Then we jump out and meet Rojas, an air-conditioning installer who shares his house with his wife and two kids. Velez tosses Rojas a leash and asks him to lasso the pit bull, which is acting more scared than mean. "Believe it or not," Velez tells me, "the dogs freak out when they see my uniform."

Rojas turns the dog over to Velez, and rubs his chin in thought. "I don't know who that dog belongs to," Rojas says. "There are all kinds of dogs everywhere out here."

Velez snares the dog, which starts to whine as he pushes it into a cage on the truck. Then we're headed back to PACC. As the dirt of Dogpatch gives way to pavement, Velez ponders the nature of his work. As a whole, he thinks people are starting to take animals a little more seriously.

"I still remember when I was a kid," he says. "I think society is a whole lot better now, or at least more aware."

But that's still a far cry from perfect. Velez turns onto Old Nogales Highway and falls silent for a moment. Then he clears his throat. "There is stuff out there that will rip at you," he says. "But I think I've gotten to the point, fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, that I can get detached from it. It affects me, hell yes, it affects me. But I have to detach, or I wouldn't be able to do my job."

He also defends PACC's role in a tough corner of Arizona.

"Hey, we're killing ourselves trying to work with rescue groups, to work with the public and make the public more aware," he says.

"Are there things we can do better? Probably. I'm sure AIG and Lehman Brothers had things they could have done better, too."