Mariposa, a mixed breed, was found in the desert with a blanket along with her dead puppies. Moose, a Doberman mix puppy, walked up to the front door of a home in East El Paso and stayed because the skinny pup had nowhere to go.

A litter of terrier mixed pups, now being sheltered at the Animal Rescue League of El Paso, were found abandoned along Transmountain Road. A Chihuahua puppy, also living at the shelter, was found alone in the desert.

The stories go on and on and on, as countless stray dogs and cats are being found — some alive, some dead — in and around El Paso’s neighborhoods. It is a trend on the uptick, and one that has animal advocates and officials concerned.

Loretta Hyde, director of the Animal Rescue League of El Paso, said the issue of loose dogs, whether in packs or alone, is not new. But the problem is more prevalent now. Hyde said the reason for this is because El Paso Animal Services did not pick up healthy strays at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“Those animals that were already running loose were multiplying,” Hyde said. “Now, their puppies are having puppies and their puppies are having puppies.”

Michele Anderson, acting marketing and public engagement manager at El Paso Animal Services, said the shelter numbers now are what they were prior to the pandemic and decreased adoptions has led to overcrowding at the shelter.

According to the shelter reports for 2020, the shelter limited the amount of animals the shelter would take in starting in April. Numbers of animals taken in by the shelter began increasing to pre-pandemic levels in August 2020.

During a city of El Paso Animal Shelter Advisory Committee meeting in June, members brought up their concerns regarding abandoned animals and what appeared to be the lack of enforcement by animal services.

The committee provides guidance and advice to all of the animal shelters located within the city.

Mariposa was found in the desert with a blanket along with her dead puppies before being taken in by the Animal Rescue League of El Paso. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

The committee is compiling a list of animal welfare issues and proposed legislative solutions that will be recommended to the city for its upcoming legislative agenda. The next Texas Legislature begins in January 2023. Some possible suggestions include increased penalties for abandoning pets, stricter rules to obtain breeding certificates, grooming regulations, and requiring the spaying and neutering of pets.

“The bottom line is that we try. Our goal is to work with animal services to do what is best for the animals,” said committee member Gina Gagen. “And the thing is, until we stop some of (the animals) from coming in, we’re trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.”

The committee discussed pursuing stricter ordinances and regulations but tabled a decision to its July 13 meeting.

City spokeswoman Laura Cruz Acosta said any recommendation from the committee would have to be placed on the City Council agenda for consideration and the council would have to vote whether to approve increasing fines or penalties.

Lauralei J. Combs, director of the Animal Welfare department in El Paso County, said the department continues to receive calls of abandoned pets. In some cases, the animals are found abandoned in an empty residence after the owners moved out.

The reasons why a pet may be abandoned are numerous, but Combs suggested that the class C misdemeanor with a $500 penalty is too weak.

“There needs to be jail time,” Combs said in an email to El Paso Matters. “A class B (misdemeanor) would be more effective.”

Loose and abandoned dogs

Hyde said the way owners are getting rid of their pets is becoming brazen. 

“I just had one dog that was found tied out front the other day to the gas meter,” Hyde said. “I got his license plate and the truck and I’m pressing charges against him. I’ve got two others — one was a cat, where the lady took it out of the crate and she turned it loose. But because she turned it loose on the street across from the shelter it took off. It got hit by a car — a beautiful Siamese.”

In another instance, a woman asked if she could surrender her dog to the rescue. Hyde said yes but told the woman a donation was required because the rescue relies on donations to operate. Instead, the woman drove down the street and dumped her dog.

“My girls (staff) were coming back from lunch and they saw this,” Hyde said. “They told her, ‘You can’t do that.’ They got her license plate, they took her pictures and they caught the puppy and they brought it back (to the shelter).”

A dog sits in his kennel at the Animal Rescue League of El Paso on May 31 after his elderly owners surrendered him. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

According to El Paso Animal Services and the Animal Rescue League of El Paso, there are several reasons why dogs are on the loose. It could be that a fence is not high enough, a gate isn’t secure, the dog is bored, or the dog is not spayed or neutered and will find a way to leave their home to mate.

And then there are cases of abandonment. The dogs are being abandoned at parks, the desert, neighborhoods, in front of a school, daycare or on the street.

The Lost and Found Pets in El Paso page on Facebook features numerous postings of pets found at cemeteries and along roads around the city and pictures of packs of abandoned dogs.

In July 2021 the story of Nanook, a husky, went viral. A video showed the husky being abandoned on the side of the road in East El Paso by a teenage boy. Nanook was rescued and found a home shortly after his ordeal. But that is not the case for all animals that are abandoned.

During the shelter committee meeting, a concern regarding a pack of loose dogs on Alameda Avenue and El Paso Drive was raised by resident Shirley Neagle.

“The packs of dogs have killed so many of our little feral cats,” Neagle said. “And they are aggressive to the neighbors. They are a pack of five or six dogs. They come around 2 or 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Neagle said there was a nighttime patrol from Animal Services in the area for a week but this specific patrol has since been discontinued.

“My neighbors have followed these dogs and they come from the canals,” Neagle said. “That’s how they travel and then they go into the neighborhood. Some of these poor dogs are coming from the car lots. The dogs are not secured. We’ve had the dogs coming into our neighborhood since last September. … There are also dogs in the area of Seville Drive, and there were at least six or seven dogs.”

El Paso Animal Services officials said they investigate sightings of loose or packs of dogs.

Loretta Hyde, director of the Animal Rescue League of El Paso, reaches toward a crate of puppies on May 31. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

Critically, dangerously full

As of June 10, El Paso Animal Services was housing more than 2,000 animals. That has led to the doubling up of dogs and cats in kennels. In some cases, three to four dogs share a kennel.

According to a shelter report, 2,878 animals were at the shelter and in foster care on May 1. By the end of the month the numbers increased to 3,387 with the shelter housing 1,224 animals and fostering 2,163. The majority of those fostered are puppies and kittens.

The strain on capacity is clearly visible.

Upon entering the shelter, a wall of kennels, stacked on top of each other, house several kittens. Along the hallways of the shelter a couple of dog crates house large dogs. Offices have their doors blocked with baby gates to keep the dogs housed in the offices from coming out.

The shelter is looking to expand. City Council approved the expansion of the shelter in 2019, Cruz Acosta said. But the pandemic set the timeline back. Phase 1, or the design phase of the expansion, will move forward at the end of this year or beginning of 2023.

With El Paso Animal Services over capacity, they have turned to the community for assistance seeking fosters. The city has waived pet adoption fees. Pets who are adopted are microchipped, vaccinated and spayed or neutered.

However, spay and neuter services to the community are currently suspended because the shelter has one veterinarian on staff. Therefore, those services are being offered by their partners Mobile Pet Vet.

“More pets are entering than are leaving. It’s not so much that we’re seeing an increase in abandonment, we’re just seeing our normal amount of intake and a decrease in adoptions right now,” Anderson said.

“That’s where our struggle is right now. At El Paso Animal Services, our adoption numbers have gone down.”

With El Paso Animal Services over capacity in June 2022, employees and staff are having to double-up their kennels. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

Anderson said this is a result of the pandemic, which has left many people in unstable jobs and unstable housing.

Anderson said the instability of people’s lives may lead them to surrender or abandon their pets because they don’t realize the shelter can provide them with dog food or help them find a new home for their pet. The shelter’s home-to-home program allows fosters to take in pets directly from their owners without the animals having to go to the shelter.

“Our goal is to keep pets with their families,” Anderson said.

In an effort to alleviate and make room for more animals, the shelter hosted an Emergency Foster Matching event on June 10 and 11 to find foster or forever homes for litters of kittens and for medium- to large-sized dogs. The shelter urgently needed to find 40 dogs foster homes and as many fosters for kitten litters as possible, it said on social media. Adoption fees were also waived.

A kitten at El Paso Animal Services is one of several hundred brought to El Paso Animal Services in recent weeks. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

Prior to the pandemic, the shelter had a few months when they met the 90% no-kill rate goal, which is calculated by the live release rate per month, or the total animals released from the shelter through adoption or animals transferred to another facility.

Anderson said the shelter is currently at a 79% live release rate. Animals that are sick, injured and not responding to treatment or are aggressive and a danger to the community are not released.

In May 2022, the shelter took in 1,776 stray dogs and cats, and reunited 177 with their owners.  At the same time 36 owners surrendered their animals. Only 400 dogs were adopted.

By comparison, in May 2021 the shelter took in 1,296 strays and reunited 157 animals to their owner. A total of 243 animals were adopted out.

In May 2020 only 449 strays were taken into the shelter and 125 were adopted.

The majority of animals that are euthanized have infectious diseases such as upper respiratory infections, distemper or parvo, or were not responding to treatment for their ailments.

Those that died at the shelter or while in foster care were often too young and could not thrive without their mothers.

In May 2022, 195 animals died in care, and 290 animals were euthanized at the shelter. By comparison, in May 2021, 14 animals died in care, and 62 animals were euthanized; and in May 2020, 37 died in care and 45 animals were euthanized.

Michele Anderson, spokesperson for El Paso Animal Services, examines a kitten on June 1. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

Kittens tend to make up the larger number of animals that die in shelter care. That’s in part because people who find them may inadvertently be “kidnapping” them from their mother.

And once at the shelter the kittens may not thrive without their mother.

“The community needs to stop kidnapping kittens,” Anderson said.

Instead, she recommends those who want to help place a ring of flour around the area where the kittens are spotted. If they later see larger paw prints, it’s an indicator that the kittens’ mother is around.

Kittens should only be brought into the shelter if they look emaciated or sick, she said. The majority of kittens brought in to the shelter are healthy, indicating that momma was likely close by.

Resources available but no immediate answer

After several failed attempts to get Moose to leave her driveway, Crystal Reyes took pity on the lanky pup, whose hip bones were showing. She got him some food and water.

She asked her neighbor, who has great danes, if Moose was hers. He was not. She took Moose to the vet to see if he was microchipped. He was not.

“I felt bad just leaving him out in the street,” Reyes said. But she was concerned about the cost of food since she already had pets of her own.

Crystal Reyes has been fostering Moose, a Doberman-mix, since he showed up at her doorstep in February. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Reyes)

Reyes said she sought help from El Paso Animal Services’ food pantry.

After filling out an application, she was provided with a bag of food the next day. She asked them to keep her case number open. 

Reyes said Animal Services stopped following up with her after she missed a phone call from them. But Reyes continued to call.

“I know I said I had an open case. I have a reference number and everything but honestly I don’t even know if it’s still active,” she said.

Over two weeks, Reyes left voicemails with Animal Services and other city departments several times. She finally received a text message from Animal Services asking that she provide her case number so she could pick up food.

“But by then my boyfriend was really discouraged because they had stopped reaching out and it was impossible to get through to see if we could get any help,” she said.

The kicker to all this, Reyes said, is that her boyfriend works next to Animal Services. So, picking up the bag of food would have not been an inconvenience.

Reyes has since stopped trying to get a hold of the Animal Services Pet Pantry.

“You know it’s expensive, it’s $40 a bag for him, and we have our own pets, too,” Reyes said.

To check Animal Services’ response, El Paso Matters called its public 915-212-7297 number six times on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The calls were answered with a voicemail giving its hours of operation and address, followed by several options, including speaking to customer relations. When any of those options were pressed, the call went to a separate voicemail referring callers to 311 — the city’s general customer service number.

In another test of the system, El Paso Matters called 311 regarding a loose Belgian Malinois wandering near Pebble Hills High School and was given a case number. El Paso Matters then called Animal Services and left a message with the case number. A response was received within 15 minutes.

Other voicemails regarding spay and neuter services and adoptions, were likewise returned the same day, and staff responded to questions on Facebook.

But when an initial call is made and no one answers, it deters the community from reaching out, Reyes said. And not everyone who might need Animal Services uses social media, she added.

These concerns were expressed by members of the Animal Advisory Committee during its June meeting with El Paso Animal Services Director Terry Kebschull.

Kebschull said he would check the phone lines to see if the problem was a switchboard issue.

It’s been five months since Reyes took in Moose. No one has claimed him. But he has finally found a forever home.

“He is adjusting very well to his new home,” Reyes wrote on Facebook. “Moose has his fur-ever home now.” 

Johan, a very friendly pitbull mix, has been at El Paso Animal Services since February 2021 after he was found wandering an El Paso neighborhood. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

What to do when you find a stray

Within the first 48 hours of being at the shelter, an animal can become very depressed and in some cases will not thrive in the stressful environment.

According to El Paso Animal Services, if a dog or cat is taken in by a neighbor and that neighbor tries to locate the owner, that pet has a 40% chance of being reunited. If that same animal is taken to the shelter, their chances of reuniting with their owner drops to 13%.

Officials with El Paso Animal Services said this is likely because many people in the community may not know where to go to find their lost pet, or maybe visited the shelter once, didn’t see their pet and did not attempt to come back to check again.

If a person finds a friendly stray they can:

  • Take them into their home or yard until they have time to attempt to locate the owner.
  • Post the animal’s photo on social media sites such as the Lost and Found Pets in El Paso, the Nextdoor App or Pawboost.
  • Take them on a walk around the neighborhood to see if anyone is looking for them. Look for vehicles that are driving slowly.
  • Take them to a veterinarian to get scanned for a microchip.
  • If a dog’s microchip isn’t found, suggest that the microchip reader be scanned along the dog’s body and not just between the shoulder blades, as the microchip can migrate.
  • Contact Animal Services or 311 to report the lost animal and provide as much detail as possible. Do not remain anonymous and keep the case number provided to you. Cases remain open for up to 30 days.
  • File a lost and found pet report.
  • If someone suspects or sees abandonment of an animal occurring, call 311 and provide as much information as possible. If possible, get the license plates of the vehicle and the description of the suspect and the animal. Pictures and video can also assist in this case. Do not remain anonymous and provide a good call back number.

Programs to keep pets and families together

Animal Services provides links to Home to Home, an initiative that tries to get owners to rehome their animal without having to leave it at the shelter. The shelter’s foster program also helps provide some relief, but there are more animals than there are fosters. If the problem is food, animal services has a pet pantry.

If an owner can not keep their pet, for any reason, they don’t have to immediately surrender the pet to the shelter, or worse, abandon it, which is illegal.

Other helpful resources include a list of animal rescues.

Officials with El Paso Animal Services, along with the Animal Rescue League of El Paso and Huckleberry Hound, all added that microchipping a pet isn’t enough; the microchip also needs to be registered with El Paso Animal Services and a national organization. The information on the microchip should be updated if there is a phone number or address change.

If an animal is found wandering the desert, contact the El Paso Animal Welfare Department at 915-834-8250. Someone can opt to temporarily house the pet until a rescue group can make room for it.

“We will cover all medical needs including spaying or neutering,” Combs said in an email. “Or adopt the pet yourself and we will cover spaying or neutering and vaccines.”

Alex Hinojosa is an El Paso freelance journalist and a mass communications instructor at El Paso Community College.