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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Houston’s Problem

According to a 2005 mayor’s task force report for the city of Houston and Harris County, animal shelters in the area killed 80,000 animals in 2004. The 2005 report gave total intake for the city and county’s 5 shelters as almost 120,000 animals in 2004. These numbers do not account for inter-shelter transfers, and the coverage area of the shelters may not coincide exactly with the boundaries of Harris County. And we do not know how much has changed since 2004, or exactly what was included in the 2004 intake numbers. But if the 2004 intake numbers still hold true today (as many local advocates claim), then with the county’s human population of 4.1 million there is shelter intake of about 29 per 1000 people. This is near the top of the estimated average range of 15 to 30 for shelter intake expressed as pets per thousand people (PPTP).

There are communities in the United States with intake of 30 PPTP or above that manage to save all their healthy and treatable animals, but none that I know of that are as big as Houston and Harris County. The size of  the city is important because larger, more densely populated urban areas tend to have proportionally fewer housing units that allow pets, and therefore their adoption potential per thousand people is lower. The largest community I’m aware of that manages to maintain a high live release rate at a high PPTP is Washoe County, Nevada, which has a population of about 420,000 people and PPTP of 36. “No Kill” large cities generally have substantially lower PPTP than 30. Austin, for example, with shelter intake of about 17,000 last time I checked, and population of about 900,000, has a PPTP of about 20. Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2013 had a PPTP of 3.5. The Portland metro area has a PPTP of about 15. Atlanta is about 10. Even San Antonio appears to have had intake of only 23 PPTP recently. The state of Colorado, which was at a live release rate of 89% in 2013, had intake of 32 PPTP. The Colorado figure is not comparable to the large cities cited, however, since it includes intake from some private rescues as well as many small towns.

In addition to the high shelter intake, there may be another factor at work in Houston, and that is the permanent stray population. The Houston shelters admit that they are not able to take in all the homeless animals in the city. When there are a lot of homeless animals in a city that are not being picked up and impounded, they compete with shelter animals for homes. If someone has three or four neighborhood cats hanging around, that person may be just as likely – or more likely – to take in one of those cats as to go to the shelter to adopt. If a rescue takes in a pregnant stray dog from the street and finds homes for her and her five puppies, that will be six less potential adopters at the city shelter. Thus, when we are trying to figure out how many animals a shelter in a particular city can adopt out, we must include the number of permanently homeless strays in with shelter intake, since all those animals are part of the pool of animals that potential adopters have available.

How bad is Houston’s stray problem, and can it really be bad enough to seriously hamper the city’s effort to improve its live release rate? In the 1970s there was a nationwide pet overpopulation crisis, with shelter intake on average estimated as being some 5 times higher than it is today, plus a large number of dogs and cats in the environment who were never taken into shelters. A survey of mayors in 1974 showed that animal control issues were the number one complaint of citizens. Public health officials were concerned with the zoonosis threat from the large numbers of strays. Animal advocates reacted with a huge grassroots effort to get people to sterilize their cats and dogs. The effort was very successful, and animal shelter intake plummeted from an estimated 26 million nationwide in 1970 to 7 million in the year 2000. The number of animals killed in shelters during that time period dropped from roughly 23 million to 5 million.

But there are still some places that never managed to fix their pet overpopulation problem. One of the people who is central to San Antonio’s No Kill effort told me that he had heard an estimate of 150,000 stray dogs in the city. Based on the number of dead dogs picked up by animal control in San Antonio my guess would be closer to 50,000 stray dogs, but whether it is 50,000 or 150,000, the city is not going to be a safe haven for all animals until it solves its stray problem.

The estimate that you usually hear for Houston is that it has from 600,000 to 1.2 million stray dogs. At least one effort is ongoing to better quantify the number of strays. Sometimes estimates of strays are wildly overblown, and that may well be the case in Houston. The estimated numbers are not outside the bounds of possibility, though. In the early 1970s a respected scientist, Alan Beck, did an ecological survey of the free-roaming dog population in the city of Baltimore. He estimated a stray dog population of as many as 1,690 free-roaming dogs per square mile in one neighborhood and an average of up to 750 per square mile for the city as a whole, including wealthier neighborhoods with few strays. Houston has 600 square miles of land area according to the US census bureau. If Houston did have 1.2 million stray dogs that would be 2,000 strays per square mile. The lower end of the estimate of stray dogs in Houston of 600,000 would be about 1,000 per square mile. It may be that Houston’s lack of a zoning code (it is unique in this regard) and its geography, with four major bayous and their tributaries running through the city, have produced an environment that will support a large number of stray dogs.

I suspect that the true number of stray dogs in Houston is less than 1.2 million, and perhaps even less than 600,000, but the higher number does not appear to be completely impossible given what was found in Baltimore in the 1970s. More importantly, the fact that the 1.2 million estimate may be overblown should not cause us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All indications are that Houston does have a serious problem with a permanent homeless dog population. We cannot simply say that because the 1.2 million number may be overblown, therefore there is no stray crisis and the shelters are just making up an excuse to kill. On the contrary, whether the number of stray dogs is 1,200,000 or 600,000 or even less, it is still a serious problem that cannot be ignored in the city’s effort to reduce its kill rate. Look at it this way – even if the number of non-impounded stray dogs is only 120,000, that number is enough to crush the city’s animal sheltering system. If all of those stray dogs were impounded in one year, the PPTP for the county would be 59. No community I’m aware of has achieved a 90%+ live release rate with a PPTP of 50 or higher, except in a few cases of small communities that exported a large percentage of their shelter intake to other jurisdictions. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see how any shelter director on earth, no matter how talented, could achieve No Kill in a jurisdiction the size of Harris County at an intake rate of 59 PPTP per year. At least not without transferring tens of thousands of animals out of the jurisdiction each year.

So what can be done? In cities where owned dogs have a high sterilization rate the number of feral and permanently stray dogs declines almost to zero. It appears that the reproduction rate for stray dogs (unlike community cats) is not high enough to sustain a high stray population, given the hazards of cars and shelter killing, without input from unsterilized owned dogs. In cities with high rates of sterilization of owned dogs, almost all of the “stray” dogs that come into the shelter are not permanently homeless street dogs, but instead are lost or recently abandoned dogs. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, some 90% of stray dogs are returned to their owners. Houston’s apparently high population of permanently homeless street dogs may be an indication that unsterilized owned dogs are seeding the population of strays. In other words, Houston may be one of the few cities in the United States that has never fully dealt with the pet population crisis of the 1970s. It may be that the reason the number of stray dogs in Houston today is reported to rival or exceed the number of stray dogs in Baltimore in the 1970s is that Houston is still back in the 1970s in terms of spay-neuter rates for owned pets.

Houston has recently made an agreement with Emancipet in an effort to get a large sterilization program going. This is a great step in the right direction, but the question is whether it will be enough. In the short term, until the stray problem is conquered, the city may need to redouble its efforts to transfer dogs out of the city to places that have a more manageable PPTP number. Houston already has a transfer program to send dogs to Colorado, and maybe they need to seek out other transfer partners as well. As for cats, BARC has joined the Million Cat Challenge, and if BARC fully implements the program that will go a long way toward reducing the rate of cat killing. There are four other shelters in the area, though, that do not appear to be implementing the Million Cat Challenge program.

Only a few years ago the southern part of the United States was the place where No Kill hopes went to die. In the last five years we’ve had large jurisdictions like Austin (and nearby Williamson County), Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tampa either getting to a 90%+ live release rate or making major progress. With Houston (and perhaps other cities in the south), however, we seem to still have the lingering problem of large numbers of strays, apparently being seeded by the owned-pet population. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, both figuratively and literally, before Houston can truly be No Kill. And it is a problem that the entire community needs to tackle, not just the city, and not just the shelters. The shelters need to take responsibility to do the best they can, including full participation in the Million Cat Challenge and seeking out more opportunities for transfers, but the shelters are going to keep being overwhelmed as long as their intake is so high.



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