Why is Dallas giving money to the Dallas Zoo but ignoring the animal shelter?
A request from Dallas' animal shelter for much-needed new facilities is being brushed aside by the city, at the same time that Dallas City Council members are lining up to give money to the privately-run Dallas Zoo.
Dallas Animal Services (DAS) is the publicly-funded shelter charged with the care of more than 24,000 homeless pets in the city.
The Dallas Zoo is the city-owned but privately managed facility in South Dallas that keeps approximately 2,000 wild animals on display.
Both organizations have asked for funding. One is being rejected. The other, which slid in with a last-minute ask, is already getting thumbs-ups.
The money they're seeking would be from the city's $1 billion-plus city bond package, which will be up for election in May 2024.
Dallas Animal Services needs a new facility. The organization presented a proposal for a $114 million modern new shelter in August 2023. Despite a demonstrable need and a year-long campaign by shelter staff and advocates, their request to be included in the bond package has been denied.
The Dallas Zoo wants more security and a parking lot. Zoo management showed up at the Park, Trails and Environment Committee meeting on February 5 with a request for $30 million. Their request received gushing praise from at least three City Council members.
So why is Dallas considering giving more money to a privately run animal facility for a parking lot, yet denying support to the city's own municipal shelter?
DAS and the bond
In 2023, the city of Dallas began working through the nuts and bolts of a 2024 bond package that would provide funding for streets, parks, flood control, and other city services.
DAS' current shelter opened in 2007. Nearly 20 years later, it is not only overcrowded and in disrepair, it's obsolete in terms of current welfare standards at shelters across the U.S. The design and creation of a new facility was one of the department goals that current DAS director MeLissa Webber was tasked with when she took her position in 2021.
To ensure that a new shelter for DAS would be included in the bond package, members of the Dallas Animal Advisory Commission, Friends of DAS, and other animal advocates have lobbied the Community Bond Task Force as well as the Critical Facilities subcommittee, providing information on the need for a new facility to committee members and city staff.
But according to city spokesperson Jennifer Brown, despite those efforts, the shelter will not be included as part of the package.
"With so many competing needs throughout the city, the DAS Animal Shelter ultimately was not recommended by the subcommittee for the 2024 Bond program," Brown says.
The subcommittee she's referring to is the Critical Facilities Subcommittee, chaired by Jennifer Staubach Gates, and consisting of citizens appointed by City Council members as well as City Hall staff, including Efrain Trejo, assistant director of the Office of Bond and Construction Management. That committee has a big say in which projects are included on the bond.
How was DAS' request handled by the Critical Facilities Committee? Poorly, advocates say, measurable by the following benchmarks.
One of the key criteria to get placement on the bond is an "equity score," which includes social factors such as the benefits these projects would offer to low-income communities.
Brown claims the shelter was given an equity score, but advocates such as Shelby Bobosky, chair of the Animal Advisory Commission, attended a bond subcommittee meeting in which critical information for the shelter, including the equity score, was left blank.
"The animal shelter was never treated fairly from the beginning," Bobosky says.
As part of the bond process, Dallas issued a survey seeking feedback from residents on which proposals mattered the most.
"How would you spend a total of $1000 Bond Dollars? Streets? Public Safety? Parks? Somewhere else? We want to hear from you!" the survey said. It included categories such as Parks and Trails, Libraries, Public Safety, and Homeless Assistance.
A new shelter was not presented as an option.
As part of the bond process, members of the Critical Facilities Subcommittee toured projects that were seeking funds, such as fire stations, libraries, and the Dallas Police Training Academy.
Despite invitations and an open door to visit the shelter, the committee members did not visit DAS, says Rachael Gearing, who serves on the Animal Advisory Commission.
"Since they wouldn’t come take a tour, we created a video and sent that to the committee members instead," Gearing says. "We felt it was important to show some of the dilapidation of the physical facility that's happening at DAS. The facility is kind of in shambles - it’s not in great condition."
For Gearing, the issue is not the Dallas Zoo but the fact that the shelter is in need and is not receiving a fair shake.
"It's disheartening that the shelter, which is in such desperate need, is not being prioritized," she says.