AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Kevin Garinger’s roughly four-acre property, just southeast of the Austin City Limits, his two rescue dogs have free rein of about an acre of fenced-in land. Outside the fence line, he said he often finds other dogs looking for food or a friendly face.
“That usually ends up being me,” he said.
He reached out to KXAN after seeing what feels to him like a spike in the number of animals running loose. He described seeing Nextdoor or Facebook posts from his neighbors about it, too.
“Definitely every day, but sometimes more often than that,” he said.
Garinger knows a few of them are neighborhood dogs who have wandered away from home, but he believes many could be people’s pets who have been “dumped” or abandoned in his neighborhood because it’s rural and remote.
“They get confused, and they don’t know where they are or what’s happening,” he said.
Rebekha Montie, the Field Services manager at Austin Animal Center, said it doesn’t have a way to track the number of dogs people assume have been “dumped” unless there is a witness. However, it does track animals who are “demonstrably abandoned.” For example, a dog found tied to a bus stop or left in a carrier or at the shelter would fall into this category.
So far in 2023, the Austin Animal Center has classified 149 pets as “abandoned.”
Montie said she couldn’t speak to whether rural areas or Extra-Territorial Jurisdictions are a target for dumped dogs, but did say 78717 – the zip code just east of Garinger’s — was one of the areas with the highest number of intakes to the center.
Garinger and others who find a lost or stray animal used to be able to bring them to the Austin Animal Center, but the center halted intakes last fall due to capacity problems.
He said, now, he calls 311 to report a loose dog, but often no one responds. So, he knocks on neighbors’ doors to check before he ends up trying to find a rescue who can take the animal. In recent months, he said finding a rescue with space has become increasingly difficult.
“We don’t know where to take these dogs, and they don’t either,” he said.
More than 1,700 calls have been made to 311 about loose dogs so far this year, according to city data. Prior to that, the number of loose dog calls increased each year, from more than 7,400 in 2020 to more than 8,500 in 2022.
Since the start of 2020, more than 250 calls were logged from Garinger’s zip code, 78719. The zip codes on either side of his, 78744 and 78717, each ranked in the top five highest number of loose dog calls. 78744 tops the list, with more than 2,500 calls since 2020.
In an email to KXAN, Montie said every call to 311 regarding Animal Services is evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.” She went on to explain that Animal Protection will not generally be able to physically respond to calls about a healthy, non-aggressive dog, “since it is a low-priority call.” They can also close out 311 calls without any in-person response.
“We also found that once the officer arrived on scene, they discovered that the dog was either back home or not able to be located; time is better allocated to other calls,” Montie said. “Local and national data shows that loose dogs are picked up very close to home; intervening may prevent that animal from being reunited with its family.”
She went on to explain that if a loose dog is called in and is not confined by the finder, they notify all officers working in the area to be on the lookout.
“It is generally not followed up on unless another call is received,” the email explained.
Abandoning an animal can be considered cruelty under Texas law and could result in criminal punishment — a fine or even jail time.
Montie said it’s hard to comment on whether “dumping” dogs has become a widespread or growing issue in the city, but she did cite several complex issues facing pet owners and contributing to the intake problems.
“We are seeing an increase in people struggling to maintain financial and housing security, especially pet owners,” she said.
She also cited the pandemic as limiting access to affordable spay and neuter options, which can contribute to the population of these animals.
“With the current overcapacity issue at the shelter we have no kennel availability for the animals that are waiting to come to the center. This is due to low reclaim and adoption rates as well as higher lengths of stay for medium/large dogs. This has been documented as a national issue. As such, our officers work hard to reunite pets in the field or support finders in hanging onto the animal until the owner can be found,” she said.
Last month, KXAN’s city government reporter, Grace Reader, found that – even before the shelter closed its doors to intakes – the number of dogs coming into the shelter was lower in 2022 than in years prior. She spoke to advocates who worry this is a red flag.
“Many pets are being turned away,” Kristen Hassen told Reader, who serves on the Austin Animal Commission.
The director of the Austin Animal Center, Don Bland responded, saying he believes that during the pandemic people started utilizing social media and Nextdoor to relocate a pet instead of bringing it in.
“Getting the citizens to help and keep animals out of the shelter was very beneficial for the community as well as the shelter,” Bland told Reader. “And so I think that’s where you’ve seen a lot of intake down around the nation.”
Garinger said he also had a conversation with leadership at the Animal Center, too, and understands they are stretched thin on staffing and capacity.
“I know they’re doing all they can, I just think they need more resources,” he said.
He said he will keep knocking on doors and trying to find rescue operations that are the right fit for dogs who come his way. He has a message for other people in and around Austin: do what you can to help, whether that means volunteering at a shelter or rescue, stepping in to help a neighbor or getting your dog spayed or neutered.
“Also, make sure that you’re ready for a dog — when you get a pet any pet, just make sure you’re ready for it,” he said.