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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The BCG Report on Dallas Animal Services – A Watershed Moment for No Kill?

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a prestigious, full-service consulting firm with international reach. The city of Dallas, TX, hired BCG a few months ago to make recommendations for reform of the city shelter, Dallas Animal Services (DAS). BCG just issued the report, and it could be a game-changer for No Kill reform efforts, especially in large cities.

Dallas has had complaints for years from people who live in South Dallas about large numbers of free-roaming dogs. The city’s media took up the cause, pointing out that South Dallas was an impoverished area with a high minority population, and arguing that the residents of South Dallas were being ignored by the city. Complaints of people being harassed and bitten by stray dogs continued to grow. Then, in May of  this year, a woman was attacked by a pack of dogs in South Dallas and bitten more than 100 times. She died of her injuries.

After the woman was killed, many other horror stories were publicized, including one of a woman who was walking her small dog when she was attacked by two free-roaming dogs. She heroically held her small dog up over her head while the two strays bit and scratched her. Finally the owner of the dogs arrived and called them off. The victim had to be driven home because she could not walk. A photograph of her after the attack shows what appears to be an 8- or 10-inch gash on her upper arm and several other scratch or bite marks. Another story was of a grandmother who had to use her cane to keep a dog from attacking her pregnant daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.

The dogs of South Dallas suffer too. Many are killed by cars. There are so many dead dogs that certain areas of South Dallas have become known as dumping grounds for dead and injured dogs. Most cities got their stray-dog populations under control in the years from 1970 to 2000 by means of spay-neuter and leash-law campaigns. In a few cities, like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, those efforts never took hold, and some parts of those cities still have large numbers of stray dogs roaming the streets.

It was in this context that Dallas hired BCG to analyze the situation and come up with recommendations to reform DAS. When I heard about this, I felt that BCG would probably develop a strategic plan that was long on enforcement (“catch and kill”) and short on shelter lifesaving. After all, BCG is a mainstream group. The consultants who work for BCG understand very well that the primary duty of local governments is to exercise the police powers that are delegated to them by the states. Local governments, first and foremost, have a duty to keep people safe. And that duty extends only to human beings, not animals. In any contest between the safety of a human and the life of an animal, a local government is required by its delegation of powers to put the safety of the human first.

Even if BCG was favorable to shelter lifesaving and wanted to make lifesaving a priority, I thought it was unlikely that they would talk to the right people about how to do that. Relatively few people today understand how large cities make No Kill transitions. Indeed, there are some prominent No Kill leaders who do not seem to understand that public-private partnerships have been key for almost every large city that has gone No Kill. I was afraid that even if BCG talked to No Kill leaders, they would talk to the wrong ones and come away thinking that No Kill was not ready for prime time.

For all those reasons, I was shocked to see that BCG’s final report, which was just released, puts shelter lifesaving on an equal footing with public safety. The commitment to shelter lifesaving in the report is not just lip service. The report prominently states that the goal is to “increase the number of positive outcomes for Dallas dogs, euthanizing only the sickest animals.” It specifically targets a 90% live release rate. This high-profile report, prepared for a major American city by a prestigious mainstream consulting firm, says unequivocally that the goal of No Kill is just as important as the goal of public safety. That is extraordinary.

What makes the BCG report a watershed event, though, is that it provides Dallas with a detailed roadmap and a step-by-step plan of exactly how to get to No Kill, without busting the budget. The report sets out the usual things that we’ve all heard — increasing adoptions, better online marketing, increasing shelter hours, preventing surrenders by helping owners with pet problems, increasing volunteer hours, etc. Any No Kill advocate could list those things in their sleep. But the report provides details of the research it did to back up those recommendations, the details of exactly how and when and to what extent they should be implemented, and the cost and number of animals expected to be affected by each program.

For example, the report doesn’t just say “start a spay-neuter program.” Instead, the drafters of the report counted the dogs in South Dallas, figured out how many of them would have to be sterilized to keep the population down, and researched how the program could be structured to make it effective. They came up with a recommendation to provide 46,000 low-cost spay-neuter surgeries per year for three years. To increase adoptions, one recommendation is that the city open a second offsite adoption center, either using its existing arrangement with PetSmart Charities or with a similar organization. The report estimates the cost for this added venue and the number of additional adoptions the new venue would produce. The report even goes into detail about the order in which things should be implemented, with the goal of keeping lifesaving high at the same time enforcement is being stepped up.

The BCG report goes beyond the usual No Kill cookbook, though, and includes two things that I thought it would surely miss. One is the critical importance of a large, private-sector partner for the city shelter. We have seen this arrangement work spectacularly well in many cities. The two major cities that, to my knowledge, have the highest sustained live release rates in the nation today — Jacksonville and Austin — both have municipal shelters that work closely with a large non-profit. This arrangement has also been key in San Antonio, which has recently been running at a 90% live release rate. The BCG report recommends that Dallas enlist such a partner for DAS, and spells out the benefits that will provide for the shelter.

The second thing I thought the BCG report would surely overlook is the highly important issue of the authority that the shelter director has within city government. Far from missing this issue, the report zeroed in on it and set out a string of recommended changes. The report proposes that DAS become an independent department within the city government, that DAS should be exempt from the civil service hiring recommendations, and that the city should provide adequate funding (spelled out in detail, with dollar amounts) to meet the goals.

Having DAS as an independent agency is key, because that gives the shelter director more power and flexibility. We’ve all noticed the phenomenon of shelters improving dramatically after being taken over by a private, non-profit No Kill contractor, as happened in Atlanta and in Kansas City, Missouri. With DAS as an independent agency, the DAS director will be on a par with the directors of private organizations in terms of ability to make and execute policy. The changes to hiring will be an important part of that increased power and flexibility. So often the directors of municipal shelters are hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy that can restrict even small things like reducing fees for an adoption special or what can be posted on social media. The BCG report recognizes that problem and proposes radical and effective fixes.

Some people in Dallas think that the director of DAS, Jody Jones, should be fired as part of the reform process. I think that would be a big mistake. Jones has been criticized as weak on animal control, but in most cities the size of Dallas the executive director does not personally manage animal control. The public safety part of the BCG proposal is technically the easiest part, and could be carried out by a person specifically hired for that type of expertise, if a new hire is necessary. Shelter lifesaving is far harder to do well, and in that area Jones has expertise. Moreover, because of the limitations imposed on her by the city’s bureaucratic structure, Jones has not previously had a chance to show what she can do. In a time of great change, her familiarity with the system could be an important point of stability.

Some people within No Kill have already criticized the BCG report because it recommends increased enforcement. I think this reaction is short-sighted and harmful. The report provides a roadmap for how the city can quickly increase lifesaving at the same time it increases enforcement. If implementation is done as BCG recommends, there will be no need for more dogs to die in Dallas. And the long-term problems, including the serious public safety issues and the suffering of dogs on the street, will be solved.

It would be counterproductive for No Kill advocates to ignore the very real threat to public safety caused by the free-roaming dogs in Dallas. I myself have advocated for community dog programs analogous to community cat programs. But that idea is a non-starter in Dallas because of the numerous attacks on people that culminated in a woman being literally torn to pieces by a pack of dogs. Public safety is a serious issue, and if we as No Kill advocates refuse to admit that public safety must be taken into account, then we risk marginalizing ourselves and losing any ability to be taken seriously and influence the debate. The BCG report has handed us a huge gift by making lifesaving equal in importance to public safety. We should welcome the report and work hard to see that it gets implemented.

It is possible that the city of Dallas will implement the public safety part of the recommendations and fail to implement the lifesaving part. But if the No Kill movement offers help and support with the lifesaving recommendations, the chances of Dallas implementing the entire report will be much improved. If the No Kill movement instead stands on the sidelines and throws rocks, that just makes it more likely that the lifesaving proposals will fail to be implemented.

And that would be a tragedy. The BCG report could be a watershed moment for the entire country, not just for Dallas. If Dallas succeeds in putting shelter lifesaving on a par with public safety and turns around a very bad situation for its residents while at the same time increasing shelter lifesaving to 90%, then all the other cities that have not yet succeeded in getting to No Kill will have a roadmap that their leaders have to take seriously. BCG is about as prestigious and as mainstream as you can get. If we as No Kill advocates blow this opportunity, we will blow the best chance we’ve had yet to make No Kill a default aspect of good city government.

Getting the street dogs of Dallas into good homes may not be easy, because Dallas seems to have many dogs who have been living rough for a long time, and some who are apparently feral. A lot of these dogs may require rehabilitation before they can become adoptable. Standing ready to help these dogs would perhaps be the most crucial role that the No Kill movement could play in making the BCG recommendations a success. If every No Kill shelter and organization in the country could take in just a few of these dogs, they could all find safety.

The BCG report concludes by stating that Dallas has the opportunity to both improve the quality of life for Dallas residents and “to rescue animals and treat them with dignity and care.” We should make sure that opportunity is not lost.



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