Amid the rubble of the dilapidated buildings where the city plans to build a downtown arena a pack of dogs and litter of puppies roam the fenced-in, city-owned site.

A group of residents, including former mayoral candidate Veronica Carbajal, have taken on a months-long attempt to extract the animals from the site.

“It’s obvious to me that the city is doing next to nothing when it comes to preventing this disaster,” Carbajal said.

The strays in Duranguito are one example of mounting frustrations about changes to the El Paso Animal Services Department and its response to calls about stray animals during the pandemic. A local animal rescue organization impacted said the changes, which are largely still in place, are a problem.

“Rescue programs have the biggest problem with this, because we’re getting the dogs and cats that they won’t take in or pick up or won’t help the person rehome,” said Animal Rescue League of El Paso founder Loretta Hyde.

Hyde said people have been using the rescues as a substitute for services the city used to provide, which is putting a strain on limited resources for some of the nonprofit organizations.

Carbajal said efforts to have the El Paso Animal Services Center extract the animals in Duranguito have been mostly unsuccessful, although at least one adult male dog was picked up by an animal control officer at the end of June. Carbajal and her group of impromptu rescuers were able to lure and catch two of three puppies.

Loretta Hyde, founder of Animal Rescue League of El Paso, inspects a puppy at the shelter in Canutillo June 30, 2021. (Elida Perez/El Paso Matters)

There are still an unknown number of adult dogs and a possible new litter of puppies in what remains of Duranguito. City animal control officers responded to the site at least four times and have not been able to locate the dogs, but Carbajal said she thinks the attempts were insufficient.

The city shelter, which was full at the start of the pandemic, went into emergency operations last March, said Ramon Herrera, the interim animal services director of El Paso appointed in January of 2021.

Herrera said that meant animal control officers were only responding to calls for animals that were either sick, injured or in immediate danger. He said the city did not respond to calls about friendly dogs roaming through neighborhoods when the pandemic started. The shelter also closed its doors to the public and has not yet fully reopened.

Herrera said the shelter has adapted by holding virtual, phone and curbside appointments. They shifted services to provide pet food to the community and free vaccine and microchip events. The city also began using a pet report system that places information about lost dogs on a virtual map with a photo that includes where the dog was located to help reconnect it with their owners.

During the early months of the pandemic, social media pages created to connect lost pets with their owners including Lost & Found Pets of El Paso, saw multiple posts per day.

That outreach has had mixed results as some posts led to pets being reunited with their owners while others were unsuccessful.

Herrera said the city shelter took notice and started adjusting its response to calls while they were under limited emergency operations.

If a person called the city’s 311 information line with a report of having found a healthy dog, the city shelter would not send an officer to pick up the pet. Instead they directed the caller to get the animal scanned for a microchip at a fire station or veterinarian’s office and were told a shelter employee would return their phone call. 

“Then the question was, can you hang on to them for a while so (we could) coordinate the intake,” Herrera said. “What happened with the pandemic is that the shelter was already fairly full and then we shut down. So those animals (there) were basically in limbo, not able to move anywhere.”

Herrera asked for patience as the city tried to create more space in the shelter, but in several instances by the time they called the person back, the pet had already been reconnected with the owner through social media.

Herrera said that’s when they started the Community and Pet Support, or CAPS, program which aims to keep animals out of the shelter by asking the community  to reconnect pets with owners.

“If we see that a day or two, or even a few hours, will allow us to try to get that pet back home and never need the shelter system — that seems to be working,” Herrera said.

Loretta Hyde, founder of Animal Rescue League of El Paso, inspects the tag for a stray dog turned in to the shelter awaiting adoption in Canutillo June 30, 2021. (Elida Perez/El Paso Matters)

In June of 2020 El Paso Animal Services Center joined the Human and Animal Support Services, or HASS, a pilot coalition of organizations aimed at keeping pets and their owners together and increasing foster care for shelter pets.

HASS is a collaborative project led by leadership from American Pets Alive!, Humane Rescue Alliance and Michelson Found Animals and includes efforts like CAPS. 

The shelter has also been arranging for adoptable dogs to be flown to other rescues throughout the country.

The largest of these efforts occurred this week ahead of the Fourth of July holiday where more than 350 pets were transported. Herrera said they are anticipating a large influx of lost pets this weekend because dogs can get startled by fireworks and run away. 

Herrera said the shelter has changed the way it is serving the community, but has not reduced the number of animals it serves. Through the lost and found pets reports they were able to reunite about 4,000 families with their pets last year. He also said community assistance through increased microchipping and a  partnership with El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, which  provides pet food to struggling families, has helped reduce the number of pets that are lost or have to be surrendered.

“(There have been) lots of changes. I think, if anything…once the doors open, and that is the final thing to get us back into what everyone is considering the ‘new normal,’ we’re going to start seeing that there’s folks who are going to utilize animal services in a different way,” Herrera said. 

In fiscal year 2019, prior to the pandemic, the intake at the shelter was about 26,000 animals, Herrera said. In 2020, that number dropped to about 12,000 and they are anticipating an intake of between 16,000 to 17,000 animals for fiscal year 2021.

While Herrera said they are serving the same number of animals in different ways, Hyde said the reduction in intake is creating more problems.

The reduction of intake by the city shelter means the animals that are not picked up will be left to breed, spread disease, left in the streets to be killed or injured in traffic, or abandoned by their owners, Hyde said.

The Animal Rescue League has taken in multiple animals that have been found abandoned, or injured in the last year. The rescue’s surveillance cameras have also caught multiple people driving up to the rescue to abandon pets.

The result is added cost associated with veterinary care for the nonprofit that relies on donations to operate.

“This is not working for El Paso,” Hyde said.

Cover photo: Stray dogs and puppies roam behind the fenced off city-owned property in Duranguito, the site where the city plans to build the Downtown arena. (Courtesy of Veronica Carbajal)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...