Like most bad ideas, this one sprang straight from the loins of good intent. It was, in short, our softhearted decision to rescue two lost, massive but apparently sweet-natured pit bulls, wandering the streets on a viciously hot August afternoon.
We tried loading them for a van ride to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, where the kill rate for strays is ostensibly lower than at the county pound. But gentle as they seemed, one pit got funky when we slipped on the leash. That raised the deal-breaking specter of unfamiliar dogs with gargantuan jaws going nuts while riding down Grant Road.
Desperation forced us next to call the Pima Animal Care Center, which is a gussied-up name for the county's shamefully under-funded shelter. At that point, we had no place to hold the dogs except for our enclosed porch with its scant shade. This we explained to the dispatcher, who politely replied that we were in for a long wait to have these poor pooches picked up.
Why was I surprised? When I found a pit bull pup loose on a busy roadway a couple of years earlier, a PACC dispatcher likewise noted a daunting delay—and then suggested we turn the pup back onto the streets.
This time, that suggestion was only implied. The thought of releasing these big dogs so they could be hit by a car or even bite a kid was appalling. But if not, they would wait and wait on our roasting porch.
"I know you guys are doing the right thing," the dispatcher told me, "but the most honest answer I can give you is that it's probably going to be several days. It could be today or tomorrow ... or it could be a week from now."
Welcome to animal management, Tucson style.
According to Pima Animal Care's website, one of its primary missions is "picking up stray dogs to increase safety for the animals and your neighborhood, while providing an opportunity for lost pets to be reunited with their owners."
But how many people are willing to help when it means hosting strays for days on end? That's just not an option for many—like us—already boasting a houseful of pets and no extra room.
The take-home message? If you try to help, you're the sucker.
Consider that, at any given time, less than a dozen PACC enforcement officers are working more than 9,000 square miles, handling hundreds of calls from nearly 1 million residents. Or that Pima County's best-kept secret is how thousands of adoptable animals are euthanized each year because the shelter doesn't have room to keep them.
But don't blame the pound for this mess, say critics. Instead, they point to lousy funding by the Pima County Board of Supervisors, and a public too ignorant or apathetic to get their animals sterilized. Often leading those critics is Ray Carroll, who happens to be a board member himself, representing District 4. For years, Carroll has battled to beef up Animal Care Center funding.
He has not gotten far.
Just how important are animals to the Board of Supervisors? Consider that it took Carroll nearly a decade to persuade his colleagues to stop dumping euthanized animals in the county landfill like trash. "I told them, 'This is disgusting and unprofessional, and you're going to do something more respectful than putting these animals in a dump truck,'" Carroll recalled in an earlier interview.
To emphasize just how low a priority we place on our animal care facility, he points for comparison to Albuquerque, N.M.
Let's do the numbers: This year, the county has budgeted $5.9 million for the Pima Animal Care Center and its 79 full-time employees. According to manager Kim Janes, in the past fiscal year, the center took in nearly 24,000 animals and euthanized 36 percent of them, or roughly 8,600. (Others dispute the death toll; a UA student studying the center's intake in 2011 pegged euthanization rates at more than 60 percent.)
Compare that to the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, which serves about 675,000 residents spread over an area nearly the same size as Pima County, but with a budget of $10 million. It has 139 employees, and a free spay and neuter clinic. In 2012, the department took in about 24,000 animals. Of those, only 4,226 were euthanized.
According to Jim Ludwick, a program analyst for the Albuquerque shelter, his department owes its success to the steady, strong culture of support from city leaders. "The program has been built up over time," he says. "And over the years, there have been many people who have been very helpful to the animal programs here."
Back in Pima County, Carroll says he'd push to boost Animal Care's funding with a transfer from the county's general fund.
In the meantime, though, people can't even expect assistance with rescued strays. "Pima Animal Care gets something like 35,000 calls a year from people who want our help," Carroll says, "and probably 5,000 of them just go away through complete frustration."
According to Pima County Deputy Administrator Jan Lesher, it's too soon to tell whether next year's budget will see a bump for Animal Care. But she says the center did get a $1 million increase last year, and that the next county bond election will likely include $22 million for a new, bigger shelter.
Still, the priorities seem clear; the same bond package will likely include $90 million for a new road mostly benefiting our hometown bomb maker, Raytheon Co.
Meanwhile, the city of Tucson currently pays the county $3.5 million for PACC services, with $1.1 million coming back from licensing fees. Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik has floated the idea of returning some of those licensing funds to Animal Care, adding them to the county's $220,000 spay and neuter program allocation. But under Kozachik's proposal, the money would be administered directly by the nonprofit Animal Welfare Alliance of Southern Arizona, rather than through the Pima shelter.
"In as much as they are euthanizing 6,000 or 7,000 animals a year out there, my sense is that we could put $150,000 a year into AWASA, and AWASA has contracts with seven or eight veterinarians scattered all over town," says Kozachik. "This money would go to help pay for the vets' cost."
But it will take time for any benefits to reach our streets, which are still filled with wandering strays. As for the pit bulls taken in by my wife and me, we finally found the owners through Craigslist. Had we instead set them free, they'd likely be roadkill by now.
Or just another number in Pima County.