To this day, a photograph rides on the dash of sheriff’s deputy Jim Fabby’s pickup as he makes his rounds along the county’s roads and thoroughfares. In the faded print, the starved dog’s tired expression and haunted eyes by themselves serve as a reminder of man’s inhumanity against his best friend.
The female dog had waited … and waited … and waited - but whoever dumped her at that lonely location off of Farm-to-Market 85 near the Ellis County line never returned.
After about a month, a resident in the area called county animal control, saying he continued to see a dog just sitting by the road, getting thinner with each passing day.
“Some dogs will do that,” Fabby said. “They’ll wait in the same spot for their owners to return.
“They’re so fearful to leave they’ll stay in that spot until they die rather than go find something to eat, all because they don’t want to miss their owner coming back,” Fabby said, remembering the call, which he went out on a couple of years ago. “They’ll just sit there, waiting.”
The dog had grown emaciated from lack of food by the time Fabby picked her up under the “stray” and “running at large” provisions of the animal control ordinance in effect at that time. She was taken to a local shelter where, due to her extremely poor condition, the decision was made to give her life a humane ending.
Change in the ordinance
As of September, animal control officers are no longer allowed to pick up dogs considered stray or running at large as commissioners made the decision to remove those words from an ordinance that had been in place since 1996.
Under the amended ordinance, the female dog picked up off of FM 85 could well have seen her days end out in the country - perhaps hit by a car or eaten by coyotes, perhaps shot by someone or simply dying hungry and alone.
Since the commissioners’ reworking of the ordinance, animal control officers have been directed to only pick up animals they can attest meet “nuisance,” “vicious” or “rabid” definitions.
The Daily Light rode with Fabby on Thursday, during which time he responded to a call in Forreston - a report from a resident describing a starved-looking dog eating on a road kill.
It took a little searching, but Fabby located a brown and white, medium-sized dog of a mixed breed type. Although not as thin as the female dog from several years ago, the wear and tear of an unwanted life is beginning to show in the dog’s rib cage and backbone. With her tail tucked underneath, the dog kept her distance from any humans, staying out of reach.
Nearby residents said the dog, which was apparently dumped several weeks ago, spends much of its time laying in the grass by a horse they have. Their efforts to coax the dog to come closer have been unsuccessful, they told the Daily Light, saying they have tried to put out some food as an act of compassion.
Compassion or inaction - which is the crime?
The people are not being identified by the Daily Light as that act of compassion could place them in violation of the commissioners’ ordinance, which prohibits “harboring,” defined as “the act of keeping and caring for an animal or of providing a premise to which the animal returns for food, shelter or care for a period of 10 days.”
Under the ordinance, the commissioners also say that anyone harboring an animal or allowing an animal to remain on a property for 10 days or longer is now its owner. Further provisions in the ordinance make an owner responsible for vaccinations, with the ordinance noting that any violation of its provisions is a class C misdemeanor.
During the recent commissioners’ court meeting, Wally Swanson of Ennis questioned the commissioners’ decision to leave abandoned animals to fend for themselves.
“Is it your position today that you are not violating state animal cruelty laws?” he asked, saying he’s having an attorney research the question.
Swanson also said he was concerned the county was accruing a liability by not picking up stray dogs.
“What if one of these dogs that’s not picked up turns out to be dangerous and kills somebody?” he asked, saying Ellis County as a whole could have its image damaged and noting the manner in which animal control is handled is an expression of community values and ethics.
Sheriff’s office procedure
In accordance with the amended ordinance’s definitions of “nuisance,” “vicious” and “rabid,” the sheriff’s office has established a standard operating procedure relating to animal pickups.
“Animals which are not vicious, potentially rabid or a nuisance will not be picked up simply because they are stray animals,” the SOP reads, noting also, “A nuisance is defined as any dog or other pet animal which by any long continued noise, cry or other activity shall disturb the peace, comfort, sensibilities and or property of others, through activities such as continuous barking and or noise, coming onto the property of others and getting into trash, flower beds, et cetera, located on the property of others.”
After viewing the thin dog in Forreston, Fabby said it didn’t meet the ordinance’s criteria to take in.
“There’s no reason to pick it up. It’s not bothering anything,” he said, noting he also was informed while he was there that three other female dogs and nine puppies were recently dumped a little further down the gravel road and have since been going in and out of a culvert. Fabby checked the culvert but couldn’t locate them.
“They may have moved the pups,” he said, gesturing toward several ramshackle structures back off of the roadway and noting again the criteria under which he is allowed to pick up animals. “These are strays.”
It can be a no-win situation, with Fabby saying, “I just try to do the best I can. I try to use my best judgment, but now, with the changes, if I pick a dog up or not, someone is mad.”
That’s why, as of Thursday, in Forreston, there were at least 13 dumped dogs in less than a one-block area of Forreston that don’t qualify for pickup because all they were doing is wandering around looking for a meal. They’re neither vicious nor rabid - and no complaint’s been filed that they’re a nuisance.
Defense and criticism
During a recent meeting, commissioners defended their rescissions to the original ordinance, saying their changes haven’t affected an officer’s use of discretion in picking up an animal nor have they affected residents’ rights to file complaints about animals. They’ve consistently stated that picking up stray and abandoned dogs is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Still, in conversations with the Daily Light, the commissioners have roundly criticized animal control officers and the Ellis County SPCA, as well as residents, saying they - and the county’s budget - have been taken advantage of.
In conversations with the Daily Light, the commissioners have accused the officers of conducting sweeps of any and all dogs in their path to the extent of going into people’s back yards and taking animals to increase their numbers. The commissioners have criticized officers for taking “too many” animals into the SPCA - and then criticized them for returning animals to their owners. “We’re not a taxi service,” one commissioner told the Daily Light.
They’ve said the SPCA has refused to work with the county on different fees - even though one of the commissioners is on the agency’s board of directors and in a position of advocacy for both sides. Commissioners also have characterized a number of residents as “liars” for allegedly claiming their own animals are strays in order to have them picked up for free in lieu of paying an owner-surrender fee to the SPCA.
None of the commissioners have ridden out with the animal control officers to see firsthand what they do.
Background in animals
Fabby’s easygoing nature goes well with his line of work with the sheriff’s office as an animal control officer. He’s only been bitten twice in six years’ work, during which time he’d personally picked up 5,371 dogs and 1,281 cats as of the end of October. And those numbers don’t include the number of skunks and other animals - including a lemur and a macaw he was able to return to their owners - that he’s dealt with.
“I really like what I do and I’m good at it,” he said. “In fact, that’s probably my downfall, because I’m too good at it.”
He shakes his head at the criticism that’s been leveled at him and says he’s only done his job as he was supposed to do in providing a service to county residents.
“If I picked up every single dog I saw, I’d have to have a semi-truck,” Fabby said with a hearty laugh. “There are a lot of dogs out in this county.”
Yes, he’s returned dogs to their owners when he determined in his discretion that was the best course to take and he’s also issued his fair share of warnings and citations, Fabby said.
He talks at length about his role as a public servant and his desire to do the best he can for the community and citizenry requesting service.
Driving along the main roads, side roads and back roads, Fabby’s knowledge of who lives where and what animals they have serves him well. Besides answering his own calls, he also keeps a lookout for possible criminal activity while he’s out and about.
He’s a virtual encyclopedia of animal-related stories, including quite a few relating to his animal control work in Ellis County. He also has stories about his time in the Marines, his travels (he once rode his quarter horses across the United States, a journey that took him about six months) and his other jobs. He’s rodeoed and taught his children and grandchildren how to ride and his love for animals is obvious. It’s a fact he can’t hide - and there’s a slight hesitation as he talks about one particular part of his job.
“You kind of condition yourself to be ambivalent and not let it affect you,” he said of picking up animals to take them into a shelter. “It bothers me … if the truth be known, it bothers me. I have to admit it. If I pick a dog up, I know what’s probably going to happen to it … .”
Although some advise against it, Fabby said he always tries to make eye contact with a dog.
“I want that eye contact,” he said. “I want to know what that dog is thinking.”
He’s in tune enough with most dogs that they just come on up to him. The others he said it typically doesn’t take him long to catch or trap. Most of his calls have been about abandoned and stray dogs that, prior to the amended ordinance, constituted the largest number of those animals taken into the shelter.
“By far and away, stray dogs are the biggest numbers,” he said, noting vicious dog calls account for only a few of his workload.
Since the changes, the calls have continued to come in, but the number of animals picked up has decreased dramatically under the commissioners’ new criteria.
Responding to one dispatch after another Thursday afternoon - including a third suspected rabid skunk call - Fabby detailed each stop in a secretary’s pad, listing locations, time spent, disposition and a call number. Each shift’s paperwork also includes an odometer reading as well as a notation of how many gallons he puts into his vehicle if he stops to refuel.
“Every dog and every cat I’ve ever picked up is documented,” he said, noting all were taken in as the result of a resident’s complaint. “I document every single one, without exception.”
As the afternoon went on, Fabby also answered a Red Oak call about a vicious pit bull, which could not be located, and a call on FM 55 about a shar-pei that killed two rabbits. Prior to Fabby’s arrival, the shar-pei apparently climbed a 6-foot chain link fence to escape the enclosure in which it had been confined by the rabbits’ owner.
At the end of Thursday’s shift, Fabby had one dead skunk in the back of his pickup, with the 13 dumped dogs in Forreston remaining on the streets due to their status as strays.
The commissioners have drawn their own criticism from residents - and 871 of them recently signed a petition asking that the changes be rescinded and the 1996 ordinance be reinstated.
Almost a dozen people spoke out during the last commissioners’ meeting, asking that the commissioners change their minds. No one spoke in support of the commissioners’ action.
The discussion included acknowledgement of the issue’s complexity and many layers.
At the commissioners’ request, assistant county attorney Lee Auvenshine explained the amended ordinance, noting animals are no longer picked up for “running at large” as that language was removed.
However, Auvenshine said, animal control officers - which are under the direction of the sheriff’s office - are able to pick up any animal deemed a nuisance, vicious or rabid. Relating specifically to the term, “nuisance,” Auvenshine said officers are allowed to use their discretion, but an eyewitness complaint as to the nuisance should suffice for an officer to pick the animal up.
“There are a lot of misconceptions on what a stray animal is, what a nuisance animal is,” Commissioner Pct. 2 Bill Dodson said. “It’s a no-win situation that we need to address and look into. I don’t have a good answer.”
SPCA board member Bob Mahlstedt and executive director Dana White were among the speakers, discussing the nonprofit agency’s inception and mission.
“Since our inception, up to 2,500 animals have gone to homes where before they probably would have been euthanized,” Mahlstedt said. “Our main purpose is to take in animals and find homes for them.”
The agency has applied for a grant for a mobile adoption clinic and is making up brochures, he said, noting the SPCA also is pushing its membership and microchipping programs.
During the meeting, White brought up her concerns at the potential for a population explosion of stray and feral animals in the county as a result of the commissioners’ decision to change the ordinance. She told commissioners how she recently nearly wrecked her car after a pack of four dogs ran out in front of her vehicle as she was driving home
“We are turning our backs on the strays out there,” she said, noting the center’s financial situation doesn’t allow it to accept owner-surrenders for free, many of which could be ending up dumped in the county.
“I think the ordinance needs to be reinstated until we have another plan,” she said.
Kenneth Patterson of Ennis said the animal control issue involved not only dogs and cats but also coyotes and hogs.
We need the leash law back. If we shoot a dog and it’s a neighbor’s dog, we’ve got a problem,” he said, noting people need to either keep their dog on their own property or on a leash. “If animal control is taken away from us, we’re going to have some problems with dogs.”
Patterson, who recently lost a calving cow to a dog attack, passed around photos of the bovine, which he had to shoot and put down as a result, losing both her and her calf.
“That cow was worth $1,000,” he said, noting the two dogs that attacked her ran away as he approached.
Connie Lewis of Bardwell also requested the ordinance’s reinstatement, questioning the commissioners’ decision to put the picking up of stray dogs onto residents.
“You can’t just walk up to a stray and put it in your back seat,” she said, adding, “They are so hungry and scared. They are aggressive and they will attack you even if they’ve been a really good dog all their life.”
Lewis also spoke to the humanity issue.
“It’s very cruel when you won’t let a dog be picked up and it’s left to be eaten by coyotes,” she said, questioning who gets the final decision about whether an animal is a nuisance or not - the complainant or the officer.
“We have 871 people signed the petition,” she said. “There’s that many people wanting something done about the leash law.”
Carolyn Kuykendall of Ferris expressed her concerns about illegal dog fighting in the county and asked that commissioners also look into that issue.
She requested reinstatement of the ordinance, asking that commissioners show they value the county and value life.
“We’re the caretakers of these animals,” she said. “We’re not executioners.”
Dodson spoke again as to the issue’s complexity, saying he placed the item on the agenda so as to allow the other members of the commissioners court to hear the concerns he’d been hearing.
“There’s a lot of issues here and a lot of misunderstandings,” he said, adding, “There’s also a lot of people not here who want their dogs to be able to run free.”
The issue is one to continue to look into, with Dodson saying, “We need to try to work through this problem.”
White told the Daily Light on Friday that the SPCA is limited as to what it can and can’t do.
The agency has applied for some grant funding to help its limited funding and is always looking to increase its support from the community, she said. “We try to get dogs and cats into rescue and we would love to be a no-kill facility, but we can’t.
“We need more funds, more space and the public needs more education on the root of all problems surrounding this issue,” she said.
‘Life or death’
Asked specifically about starving animals, sheriff’s Capt. Danny Williams said Friday that if animal control officers are dispatched to what turns out to be a life-or-death situation involving an animal, they will in all likelihood pick it up.
“We’re going to play it by ear,” he said. “If it looks like it’s starving to death or if it’s suffering, we’re probably going to pick it up. If it’s just a dog on the side of the door that doesn’t appear in that bad of shape, we’ll probably leave it.
“If it’s a life or death situation, we’re going to pick the dog up because it’s the humane thing to do,” he said. “I’m not going to sit there and let a dog starve to death.”
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