Hugo Parrales and Chris Allen are officers at the Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, or BARC, as it is less intimidatingly known, which is to say they spend their days responding to Houstonians calling in about strays. The calls, like the strays, seem to multiply daily. “For every call we answer and complete,” Parrales sighs, “four more show up.” The officers deal with stray dogs, stray cats, stray horses, stray livestock, even stray skunks. (They employ a special shield for the purpose.)
Most of the calls have an unpredictable element to them. On the day we met them, for instance, Allen was forced to shoot a muscle-contracting dart into a violent pit bull in southeast Houston, which stunned the animal for about a half-hour. Parrales, meanwhile, dealt with the animal’s owner, who in his own way was stunned too.
But the men have one constant in their otherwise uncertain lives. Every month or so, Allen and Parrales have a meeting with mail carriers, for whom contact with strays is frequent, and frequently dangerous. One of them took place recently at Martin Luther King Post Office on Cullen Blvd., where carrier Keith Watkins told of dogs jumping gates and rushing at him from cars. Shun Brisby said he’d been bitten three times while delivering mail, twice by dogs that lay in wait for him under cars, once when a canine burst through the front door while a resident was retrieving mail. Brisby has heard of attacks by dogs that tore through screen doors, dogs that jumped four- and five-foot fences, and dogs whose owners just don’t bother to chain them. “I cut their mail back,” Brisby says of the last group. “Yeah, they’re not getting mail.”
In May, the Postal Service released its annual list of cities with the most dog attacks on letter carriers. Number one was Los Angeles and number two was Houston, which, believe it or not, was an improvement. The year before, the Bayou City topped the list with 63 attacks. Hence the monthly meetings, with Allen and Parrales methodically going through categories of attackers, everything from “ankle biters” to “mommas with babies.” They remind the postmen to use a dog-repellant spray if the creatures threaten them or come too close. When he speaks, Allen’s brow furrows with evident passion, and the congregation nods at the hazards posed by even dachshunds and beagles.
At the end of such sessions, the officers always try to leave time for questions, and there are often several. “But what if a dog…” is how many begin. Mail carrier Janelle Dawson: “But what if a dog runs out of a yard it doesn’t belong in to get you? Over on Lockgate they’ve got like eight or nine dogs, but they only own one of them.”
“Call 311,” Parrales replies.
He gives the same answer over and over during the meeting, acknowledging that Parrales and his beleaguered colleagues don’t usually get to the calls until the next day, by which time the offending animals’ owners have typically chained the dogs that mail carriers had seen running loose. Generally, pet owners deny allegations, and when they do, the officers don’t have much recourse.
Then there’s the population problem. The last time Allen checked, our city had no fewer than a million stray dogs (not including “the litters,” Parrales adds.) “We’re outnumbered—we’re outnumbered,” Allen pleads, waving his arms in frustration. “We can’t win this battle.”
Their meeting with the postal workers complete, Parrales leaves to file paperwork and kennel the immobilized caged pit bull, who will be given a few days for collection from the owner before she is screened and, pending health results, either put up for adoption or euthanized. Allen, meanwhile, drives the short distance to Francis M. Law Park, where stray dogs seem to be everywhere—crossing streets, approaching strangers. They are skinny, filthy, smelly. Some still have collars, cast-offs by owners who only wanted them as cute puppies, Allen says.
“If you want a dog, take care of the damn dog,” he growls. Irresponsibility: that’s why there are so many strays, why there are so many attacks on mail carriers, why Houston is perennially at or near the top of the list of America’s most dog-violent cities. “You come out here every day thinking you’re making a difference—you’re not. You have to have something major to combat the problem.”
Major, as in what? Keeping your dog behind a tall-enough fence, Allen replies, locking it in a kennel when you go away, putting it in a separate room when the mailman comes around. Thinking about it, these didn’t seem like major things at all. They seemed like the least an owner could do.