El Paso, it's time to be brutally honest with ourselves. We have a pet problem.
This week, I was driving home from the grocery store when I noticed two cars in front of me were going at a snail's pace. They were blocking both lanes of traffic and there was no way to legally get around them.
Annoyed, sweaty from this near triple-digit heat and wanting to get home, I was about to honk my horn when I noticed something white in the street. It was a dog hobbling its way right down the middle of the road. By the way it was walking, it looked like it had already been injured.
As a pet parent myself, I immediately jumped into action, blocking traffic along with the other two cars as best as I could and simultaneously calling out to the dog from my window.
Like me, cars came up from behind quickly, got annoyed, honked and then realized what was happening. Heading the other direction, other drivers were doing the same. I got out of my car, groceries melting in the heat and began chasing the dog out of traffic. It ran so quickly, though, that I couldn't catch it and the dog disappeared into a nearby neighborhood.
I wish I could say that I chased it until I caught it. I wish I could say it had a collar and that I was able to reunite the pup with its family. But the truth is I have no idea what happened to that dog. And, there's a reason I didn't invest more energy into chasing it down and catching it.
It's because this wasn't my first time finding a dog in the middle of the road here in El Paso. It wasn't my second, my third or fourth. The fact is, I've chased down loose dogs at least a dozen times in my year and a half here. I chased down a small dog this week while on assignment in the Kern neighborhood. But I couldn't catch that dog either.
I've chased down so many, in fact, I can't remember every time I've done this. But there are a few stories that did stand out to me and I wanted to share them with you to highlight the fact that we as a city and we as a county have a problem.
One of the most memorable dog-catching days for me was last summer. I was working on a story about HPV rates in the Borderland with my photographer Jay and we were on a tight deadline.
We got all of the interviews we needed for the day and started heading back to the station. We were on Mesa right in front of the Monticello apartments when we spotted two small, white dogs running in the middle of the road. Most cars were slowly driving by and then heading on their merry way. But a few cars pulled over.
Now this was before the new Alamo Draft House theater was built. It was just one big construction site. I told my photographer to pull over, hopped out and I, too, began chasing these two dogs down.
We managed to catch the first one easily enough. But the second one kept running and running, up through the arroyo and into the construction site. It must have been quite a scene. I was wearing a black skirt and sparkling purple top and sandals while I chased this dog up and down a construction site for what felt like an hour (it was probably closer to 30 minutes).
My photographer even joined in on the chase. We cornered the dog a few times but couldn't catch it. And trust me, we tried everything. I cajoled it, called and whistled, stayed still and tried to get it to come to me, bribed it with food, you name it.
Eventually, it ran up the mountain behind the construction site and went out of sight. We couldn't catch it (kind of a common theme, I know, but at least I'm trying, right?). So we brought the other one back to the station with us, called animal services and left it with my assignment desk editor while we scrambled to make deadline.
It took nearly two hours for animal services to show up. They checked it for a microchip and then took it with them and left. My co-workers know I'm a big old softie when it comes to animals. So no one said a word to me about the fact that I brought a mud-covered dog to the office and essentially forced my co-workers to dog-sit while I finished my work. Many other workplaces would likely not be as understanding or accommodating.
A couple of months later, I was at a park on the west side shooting a standup about canopies in the parks when this medium-sized dog walked right up to us. She had no collar and we had no idea where she came from. So we walked around with her and looked for her owner. No luck. We rang doorbells and asked residents around the park if they recognized her, no luck. Finally, we decided to put her in the car, take her to work with us and once again call animal services.
The dog was incredibly obedient. She knew all of the basic commands and was just an absolute sweetheart. If I didn't live in an apartment with two cats, I might have tried to adopt her. But I couldn't. So once again, we called animal services and we waited for them to come and take her away.
The next day, my photographer Andrew called to check up on the dog and see if its owners had come to claim her, knowing that I was concerned about her. No one had claimed her. What's more, the dog didn't have a microchip so the shelter told us they would put her down if no one claimed her within six days.
So we kept calling back. Five days later, no one had come to claim her. The thought of this sweet obedient dog being put down simply because her owner didn't have a microchip implanted in her was overwhelming.
El Paso is moving toward a no-kill city, but we aren't there yet. And the fact is that the animal services center is already overwhelmed. The interim animal services director told the El Paso Times that it takes in about 30,000 animals a year. Its live release rate for 2015 (where the animals are either adopted out, reunited with their families or sent to other shelters) was just 42 percent. That release rate is getting better, but the shelter still euthanizes many animals.
In order to reach a no-kill status, the shelter would need $1 million in its first year, according to the Times. It will take much more than that to keep the shelter that way. Officials are hoping to have a 90 percent live release rate by 2020 but we just aren't there yet.
So Andrew, being the kindhearted person he is, adopted her and named her Leah even though his family already had three other dogs and a cat. And Leah's life was spared. Perhaps it was karma or luck or poetic justice, but Leah actually ended up saving one of Andrew's other dogs.
A man tried to steal the family's Saint Bernard and Leah managed to get the family's attention and trip the guy up by running between his legs and the would-be dog-napper fled without Benny.
After the experience with Leah, I promised myself I wouldn't call animal services if I found another dog because I don't want to risk having it be put down. So a few months ago when I was heading out to run some errands and found two dogs running in the street together, I put them in my car and took them to Petsmart.
That ended up being a good decision because only one of them, a dog named Lady, had a microchip. We called the number the microchip was associated with but no one answered. Thankfully, the veterinarians at Banfield let me essentially take over one of their exam rooms while I waited for a call back. No one called. An hour went by and still, nothing. Banfield was getting ready to close and said it couldn't hold them.
So I called in another favor, this time to the Animal Rescue League of El Paso. I had interviewed the director for KFOX14 several times for a number of pet-related stories. Despite the fact that their kennel was more or less full, she agreed to take the dogs in and wait for the owners to come claim their pets.
Then there was that time I was doing a story about a flooded cemetery in Central El Paso and came across a big, mean dog that nearly bit me. Luckily, the owner wasn't too far behind and I was able to see one happy reunion.
But the one dog-catching experience that will haunt me for the rest of my life was this tiny Pomeranian dog that kept running back and forth across the street of a residential neighborhood. I was on my way to work and pulled over to try to catch the dog. I bent down and tried to coax the dog into coming over to me. A couple of times, she got pretty close, sniffed my hand and then ran away before I could catch her.
Then a car came and startled the dog. It tried to run across the street again but was hit, just a few feet away from where I was kneeling. I will never forget the yelp the dog made when she was hit, her labored breaths as she laid there in the road or the look in her eyes as shock set in.
The driver stuck around for a while then said he was going to go drive to a veterinarian's office and never came back. I looked at the collar and called the family, who lived only a few doors away from where I was. The mother came out screaming, a sound I will also never forget. She called her ex-husband, he came and grabbed the dog and they rushed off to the closest pet hospital.
Luckily, the dog survived, though she lost her tail as a result of the accident. She had managed to escape from a hole in the fence.
So why am I telling you all of these stories? I wanted to highlight the fact that the latest dog-chasing incident this week wasn't a one-off. It's a fairly common occurrence and there are things that can be done to either prevent the dogs from escaping or help out the people who find them.
The first, most important thing you can do is make sure your dog has a microchip and that the information on the microchip is updated yearly. This will help those of us who find your dog find you. Also, collars with a dog tag containing your phone number are a must.
Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to check your yard regularly for holes the dogs can escape through. When I was a kid, we would just open the back door to let my dog Casper out without going outside ourselves most of the time. My dog managed to dig a hole under the fence but we found it before he escaped. I'm not saying you need to inspect your yard every day, but if your dog spends a lot of time in the back yard, check it once a week or so.
Don't leave your dog outside in the Sun City heat all day and don't leave them in a hot car, even with the window cracked. I admit, those two tips have little to do with your dog escaping, but I'm sick of seeing social media postings or news articles about pets suffering from their owners' bad choices.
And, if you see a dog that's clearly alone in the road, don't just drive by, do what the people in West El Paso did this week and pull over to help out. Maybe if more people pulled over to help, people like me wouldn't have so many stories to share. Just remember, that's likely someone's dog and it wasn't the pup's fault they got out. They are harmless and often scared and confused and just trying to find home. And, if it were yours, wouldn't you want someone would pull over to help?
The first part of solving any issue is to admit that we have a problem. And yes, El Paso, we do have a big pet problem. But it's nothing that can't be solved with a little common sense and compassion.