Erika Emal feeds 55 to 65 stray dogs, but that only covers seven to ten blocks in her neighborhood of Sunnyside, in southern of Houston.
It's understandable that cities with struggling economies like Detroit have major problems with strays, but surprising that the booming Texas city estimates that 800,000 to 1.2 million dogs are living in the streets, according to the city's animal shelter BARC. According to a report published by the University of Texas School of Public Health, 52 percent of the residents of Sunnyside/Greater Hobby say that stray animals are a problem and that percent is even higher in other parts of the city.
Emal started South Side Street Dogs, a non-profit animal rescue, to begin to address the problem. Although it don't have a brick-and-mortar shelter yet, the organization helps foster and find permanent homes for street dogs, raises awareness about issues related to strays, and organizes spay and neutering programs.
"My father was an animal rescuer when I was a kid in the '70s," Emal said, adding that helping strays wasn't really a choice. She grew up in a house full of rescued dogs, cats, raccoons and squirrels and often volunteered for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.
"When I worked for a local shelter in 2000 I really got a glimpse into the astronomical problem. There are 5 major shelters in Houston, I was at the largest I guess. It was not unusual to euthanize 200 a day."
Before starting South Side Street Dogs, Emal would regularly find dogs that had been hit by cars on a busy street near her home. "Other rescues were getting sick of me calling," she said. "That's when I knew I just had to do it on my own."
Unlike other shelters in the city, where about 80 percent of the animals are surrendered pets, South Side Street Dog concentrates its adoption efforts on stray dogs. "If they're approachable, I try to get them into foster homes," because many friendly strays are used as bait in dogfights.
Dog fighting is a major issue where Emal lives. "They talk about dog fighting like it's an everyday thing," she said. "It's almost like it's not against the law." She wishes the Houston police would make stopping dog fighting a higher priority. "The police can't do anything about it unless they catch them in action," but calls regarding animal-related problems receive a slow responses.
The biggest problem is a lack of education, according to Emal. "There are different issues that affect circumstances in different parts of the city," she said. "But the common theme is simple lack of education, lack of understanding about the life cycle of dogs and cats."
"The spay and neuter message isn't getting out enough," said Jessica Russell, a board member of South Side Street dogs. "The population growth is exponential."
South Side Street Dogs has partnered with Unity for a Solution, a program that offers free spaying and neutering. The city also has one mobile unit that offers pet sterilization services, but its capacity is frequently overwhelmed. "If they can find money for stadiums," asks Emal, "why can't we find some money to underwrite spay and neuter programs?"
Russell hopes the work being done by South Side Street Dogs will inspire others to get involved. "There's still a lot to be done, but it's so nice to see that spark of action that can lead people to see that they can help too."