Animal Care Officer Robert Lopez looks for stray dogs while making his rounds on the southwest side of San Antonio on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. MARVIN PFEIFFER/ Photo: Marvin Pfeiffer, Staff / San Antonio Express-News / Express-News 2017

Dogs roaming the streets continue to be a common sight in some areas of San Antonio, but a heavy dose of education — along with a 12 percent increase in handing out tickets to errant pet owners — is finally making a dent in the problem.

“A lot of animals we picked up ended up being owned animals,” Animal Care Services Assistant Director Shannon Sims said. “It’s not a huge stray problem. It’s a huge people problem we’re facing.”

In 2013, there were 91,993 calls for service; for 2017, it was 98,092. But fewer animals are being impounded, and the number returned to their owners has more than tripled over the past five years from a little over 2,000 in 2013 to about 7,000 in 2017.

Taking responsibility is the key, officials say.

ACS spokeswoman Lisa Norwood said officers and staff spend a lot of time and energy educating the community that it’s illegal and unsafe to allow their animals to roam free of restraint. The ticket for a violation carries a $300 fine.

“It’s the roaming dogs that perhaps live in a front yard with a fence, and a gate, for whatever reason, is left open, allowing the dog to roam free in many neighborhoods,” Norwood said. “The solution is easy. Just two or three seconds to close a gate and keep the pets on their property. It comes down to one word: responsibility. Owners who allow their pets to roam are irresponsible.”

ACS issued more than 11,000 citations last year, and Sims said the agency estimates that 13,000 will be issued in 2018. By contrast, there were only 5,070 issued in 2013.

“We’re changing people’s mentality about animals,” Sims said. “It’s a long-term investment rather than short-term rewards. The real influence is going to be four or five years down the road.”

Sims said roaming dogs are more prevalent on the South Side than on the North Side. City Council Districts 3 and 4 saw 6,200 dogs impounded last year alone — one fifth of all dogs impounded citywide. He said the biggest difference is that homeowner associations, more common on the North Side, can assign culpability, as opposed to neighborhood associations, which are often active on the South Side but don’t have the authority to penalize those who let their dogs wander.

There are ongoing efforts on several fronts to address the issue. Last year, the council authorized funding for a dedicated ACS officer in each council district, such as Officer Robert Lopez in District 4, and a new spay/neuter clinic was opened at Brooks City Base.

A routine trip

Josephine Puente regularly sees dogs roaming in her Southwest Side neighborhood. She’s seen dogs of all breeds, sizes and colors during the 20 years she’s been living in her home tucked away from busy traffic on Military Highway.

The 80-year-old Dallas Cowboys fan wasn’t surprised when a brown and white terrier mix and her four puppies took up residence in a field across from her home. Nor was she surprised when Lopez arrived in his ACS truck. She watched from her driveway as he approached the dogs, a looped rope dangling from his belt, carrying a handful of treats.

As they nibbled at the snacks, Lopez slipped a leash over the adult dog’s neck and led her to his truck. Within minutes he’d secured two of her pups in kennels beside her. He spent more time rounding up the last two, who had scrambled beneath a parked Chevrolet. Sliding on his stomach, he reached under the car and retrieved the scared pups from their hiding place. He cradled each one separately as he reunited them with their siblings and mother.

“They go and they come,” Puente said as Lopez drove away in his truck toward the ACS campus, where the dogs would be vaccinated, microchipped and made available for adoption. “Sometimes people throw them on the railroad tracks, and some just let them loose.”

These are the true strays, the animals that don’t have a caretaker, don’t have a home or have been abandoned. But, as ACS officials point out, they aren’t the major problem. While Lopez catches and impounds these animals, he’s spending more and more of his time talking with dog owners, trying to persuade them to be more responsible.

“In many cases, he is taking more dogs back to a dog owner and educating them or fining them than taking them to the shelter,” said District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, who sees benefits of having a dedicated ACS officer in his district. “That does so much to relive the stress not only on strays on the street and residents that call us, but it does so much to relieve more space at Animal Care Services for those dogs that are picked up.”

The thousands of requests for picking up stray dogs and sending them to the city shelter are slowly giving way to better relationships with residents and directing roaming animals back home, the councilman noted.

”I think it’s the best innovation we could’ve come up with to make sure that someone knows the district as well as the council member who represents it,” Saldaña said “That’s what Robert Lopez is for me.”

Educating the community isn’t just about publicizing the law against allowing dogs to roam or issuing tickets; it’s also about teaching prevention. To that end, ACS officers and animal advocates promote spay and neuter programs.

On the South Side, there’s the new $1.3 million Brooks City Base Spay/Neuter clinic, which opened in February at 8034 City Base Landing. It offers low-cost surgeries, wellness clinics and educational services to South Side pet owners. The clinic also offers heartworm testing, microchipping and vaccines.

The San Antonio Humane Society operates the 2,500-square-foot clinic, which has separate holding rooms for cats and dogs, a surgery room, a surgery prep area and two exam rooms. The area’s humane society is not associated with the Humane Society of the United States.

Krista Lazo, surgery services supervisor and clinic manager, said veterinarians perform an average of 45 surgeries a day at the clinic. She said they also work with the city’s feral cat trap-and-release program and 20 local rescue groups.

“I think what reminds us of why we’re here are the rescues,” she said, “because of the types of pets they bring in and how disheveled they may be.”

She estimated that 40 percent of their sterilization surgeries are free and that the remaining 60 percent are low cost, made possible by grants from organizations such as the Petco Foundation.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from the community,” Lazo said. “As a nonprofit, we’re grateful to get donations from Petco and the city.”

Education continues

On a recent day, Lopez said he wrote more than 20 citations within five hours. By midafternoon he had stopped and talked to three residents about closing their gates and keeping their dogs on their property.

He said that after a year working the district and talking with residents, things have started to look up. He said he’s discovered that sometimes, whether someone follows the law is a matter of resources. He promotes the shelter’s Four Paws program, which helps those who don’t have the money to buy a dog house or the ability to fix broken fences.

“It used to be a little more troubled, but after paying more attention to neighborhoods within the district it has gotten better,” he said. “There’s always going to be loose dogs, but education-wise, people have learned to take better care of their animals.”

Article originally published here: Education, more tickets help ACS make headway on San Antonio’s roaming dog problem