Just about every day for more than 30 years, Jimmy Jones says, stray dogs and cats have roamed his block in the Jennings-May St. Louis neighborhood on the south side.
But on this warm summer afternoon, when he looked around, none were in sight.
“Stray cats, there’s usually a whole lot of stray cats,” he said.
A few blocks away, Richard Smith was outside waxing his car. When asked about stray animals in the area, he said he doesn’t see them often. A neighbor’s pet chickens wandering the street are a more common sight.
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“A few times, that’s about it,” Smith said of stray dogs. “To me, that’s not many strays.”
Their neighborhood is considered a hot zone for stray animals. But since the city established a new strategy two years ago for catching strays, areas like the Jennings-May St. Louis neighborhood have fewer problems. Animals are getting caught faster and many more are being returned to their owners almost right away.
Brandon Bennett isn’t ready to claim victory over the city’s stray animal issue just yet, but he’s getting close.
As director of Fort Worth’s code compliance department, Bennett changed the way animal control officers approach their work a couple of years ago, resulting in thousands of dogs and cats being taken off the streets.
Bennett said it seemed the animal control officers were spending too much time running from call to call, only to have the dog gone by the time they got there. Running around with a net trying to catch a stray was not working, he said.
Now, six animal control officers and a supervisor are dedicated to catching strays and their success is measured by how many they can pick up, not by how many calls they can get to, Bennett said.
They’ll work in teams in the early morning and evenings, when strays are most active. Their capture rate is high because they target high-risk areas, based on residents’ reports of strays.
“The longer an animal remains a stray animal, the greater the risk to the animal and to the public,” Bennett said.
Officers will also spend a little extra time trying to find owners, which has meant far fewer animals taken to the shelter, he said.
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of stray dogs returned to their owners in the field more than doubled, going from 616 to 1,267, city figures show.
The increase is in part because more dogs have microchips. In 2012, only 581 dogs were returned to their owners in the field, a year that saw 5,421 strays dogs being captured by the city.
The top areas for strays are on the north side and a large swath south of Interstate 30 and east of Interstate 35W, and the southwest quadrant at Loop 820 and I-35W.
The first “stray team” of three animal control officers was started in 2014, catching 4,634 stray dogs and returning 127 of them to their owners. That was 1,012 more dogs caught than in 2013. The department had three trucks and didn’t have to buy any additional equipment.
A year later when a second team of three officers was added, the city saw a 28 percent increase in the number of dogs caught. In 2016, the two teams caught 6,896 dogs.
The city spent $274,000 to buy three more animal control trucks. Now, the only cost of the program is employee salaries.
Mayor Betsy Price noticed the improvement during the fourth annual rolling town hall when it made its stop in July in the east side Polytechnic neighborhood.
“It’s the first time we’ve not had loose dogs after some of the cyclists,” she said during a council work session.
Fort Worth is mirroring nationwide trends when it comes to strays. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about about 6.5 million animals enter shelters nationwide every year. Of those, 3.3 million are dogs and 3.2 million are cats.
Fewer of those animals are euthanized, partly because the number of stray animals successfully returned to their owners has increased, the ASPCA said. About 710,000 animals that enter shelters as strays are returned to their owners, it said.
Pet owners need to understand it’s not OK to let your dog run the neighborhood, Bennett said.
“The odds are greater today we’ll catch the animal and there’s going to penalties,” he said.
Barry Alexander, a code compliance officer in Fort Worth for 16 years and supervisor of the stray teams, said the officers have developed better skills in netting dogs and are using better equipment, including deep sea fishing nets. Occasionally, they will have to use a tranquilizer gun on large, aggressive dogs, he said.
Bennett said the long-term success of the program will depend on residents being the eyes and ears for the department. If residents don’t call, they can’t assume that an animal officer came and caught the stray.
“We really need people to provide us with this information,” Bennett said. “If we get a number of calls in a certain neighborhood, that’s where were going to put the stray animal team.”