Stephanie Kunkle-Timko spent more than two years feeding and rescuing dogs in a South Dallas neighborhood known as Mill City.
Things were bad.
Like the time she found a dog and her puppies underneath a van. The mama dog had been chained to a log and the log had been lodged against the tires. So she’d given birth there.
Kunkle-Timko said the dog couldn’t stand up properly or get out from underneath the van. The dog’s owner had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and could no longer afford to care for his pet. Eventually, she and other volunteers rescued Mom and puppies and found them a home.
“We helped a lot of people in Mill City,” she said. “We did more than 70 spay-neuter surgeries, vaccinations, microchips. But we also managed a lot of emergency vet visits and bills.”
The result? A dramatic drop in loose dogs, sick dogs and mistreated dogs.
“What we’re really talking about here are pets in poverty,” Kunkle-Timko said. “And it’s a Dallas problem, but it’s a national problem.
Nearly three quarters of the 40,000 dogs and cats that end up in Dallas’ animal shelter come from neighborhoods south of Interstate 30. That’s why animal advocates say there’s a staggering need for more pet resources and education in the city’s southern half.
Kunkle and others have lobbied for more funding for pet care and education in underserved neighborhoods.
There are organizations, like SPCA of Texas and Spay Neuter Network, which offer clinics for basic preventative pet care. But money for free and low-cost clinics often runs out. And when that happens, there aren’t many options for pet owners in South Dallas.
“The need is staggering and the resources that exist are sparse and either impossible to access due to transportation or utterly unaffordable,” Kunkle-Timko said.
Ed Jamison, director of Dallas Animal Services, agrees there’s a problem. South Dallas is short on grocery stores so it’s known for being a “food desert,” Jamison said, it’s also a “pet care desert.”
“When you Google pet stores in Dallas, you see a huge divide at Interstate 30, there’s like one south of Interstate 30,” he said. “Do vet clinics south of interstate 30 and you’ve got the SPCA’s clinic and one other clinic – that’s it — for the entire southern sector of Dallas.”
KERA aired a recent story about a Dallas woman jailed and then placed in an immigration detention center after surrendering her sick dog to the city shelter. It’s sparked conversations about helping pet owners in need.
Maria Flores was eventually released from Bluebonnet Detention Center and a grand jury decided not to prosecute her for animal cruelty. But she still faces possible deportation.
If Flores had known that help for her dog was available, and she would have sought that help sooner, Jamison says things may have gone differently.
“We don’t want people to be scared of calling city services,” Jamison said. “We don’t ask people their status. You know, we have to have some type of legal ID to do the transaction at the counter, but the last thing we want is to not be seen as that resource and not to be seen as a trusted resource.”
In May, Dallas Animal Services launched a new service for pet owners. Now when someone calls 3-1-1 wanting to surrender a pet, the call gets routed to an intervention center run by Spay Neuter Network. The city shelter is also part of a pilot program with other animal shelters around the country, designed to help families who are struggling to care for their pets.
“Our main goal is trying to find ways to keep pets with their people in these difficult times and we need not to let situations things escalate this bad and contact us as soon as there starts to be a question,” Jamison said.
Kunkle-Timko pointed to the work she and others did in South Dallas and said outreach is key. That means going door to door, getting to know residents and providing information in both English and Spanish.
She’s also proposed adding animal resource centers in certain South Dallas zip codes, but that idea hasn’t gained traction.
“If you can’t get grant funding for this stuff, it really stifles innovation to move animal welfare forward – being out there helping pets in poverty, helping owners keep their pets,” she said. “But we’re not going to get there unless we have funding for it.”
Until then, animal advocates will have to approach this problem one pet at a time.