CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A local woman’s efforts to feed stray dogs in her neighborhood has been shut down by the city’s animal services department, despite it going on for months.
“ACS did, in fact, pick up one of the boxes,” Corpus Christi’s Animal Care Services Program Manager Joel Skidmore said. “Because . . . it’s a hazard for the dogs."
Heather Hirst, who lives near Victory Drive and Old Robstown Road, said it started about five months ago with some dishes and a nearby sidewalk.
“I was just putting two bowls and filling them with food and water for just the stray dogs,” Hirst said. “Corpus has a big problem with strays dogs, and I just wanted to make sure they don’t go to bed hungry.”
To Hirst, she said caring for her community’s strays carries sentimental value. She said she lost a dog of her own, Tank, while she was in the military.
“When I was deployed, I lost my canine in an ambush,” she said. “Even before that I had a soft spot for animals, and I just feel like the best way to keep his memory is by keeping other dogs alive who would otherwise suffer.”
When dishes began being stolen over time, the bowls graduated to wooden box feeders that Hirst built and painted herself.
She’s also received a great amount of support on social media, even going on to create “sponsored” boxes for businesses that want to support her cause.
Although she had been only offering these animals food and water, Hirst said it has been a stepping stone to getting stray animals off the streets.
“With these boxes, over time, you start forming a bond with these dogs — they’ll start off real skittish," she said. "They won’t come to the box until after you leave, but over some time they get closer and closer and then you can put a leash on them. Since starting this, I’ve been able to get — me, and the people I’ve been working with — I have been able to get about 30 dogs off the street and into homes or rescues, even out of Texas.”
That mission of hers was called “Operation No Hungry Bellies,” and on Thursday, it was shut down by the city.
Two of those boxes were taken by the city on Thursday, Hirst said. Skidmore said, while he applauds Hirst’s efforts, it actually counterintuitive to the city’s mission, and attracts animals that aren’t strays.
"Who’s to say they can’t be hit by a car when they’re leaving (their) property to go to the food? Again, ACS wants the dogs to stay on (their) property. We don’t want an area where they know there’s food, and they’re able to leave the property to go to it.”
Before the city took boxes, Hirst said she had been getting a few “unfriendly” phone calls from ACS.
“(They said) that if I don’t remove my boxes, they are going to remove them for me,” she said. “And, that if they see any of the dogs eating out of these boxes, they are going to cite me for for feeding them, and they’ll become my dogs, and that they’ve already given my name to the prosecutor.”
Skidmore said boxes like Hirst’s will be picked up if they are on public property.
“The way the city ordinance is written, if you are actively feeding, providing care, providing water for an animal — you can legally be bound as the owner,” he said. “In this instance, if people are actively attracting an animal to one location, they are providing food, they are providing water, those people can be held responsible.”
Skidmore later said ACS’s main objective is not to give out citations, but to educate.
“Citation is a form of education to the people who aren’t receptive,” Skidmore said. “These peoples' heart is definitely in the right place. They care about the animals, just like ACS does. Just -- we advocate. . . . letting us focus on the strays, or the animals, roaming that are actually in need, not providing the the food or source of water that actually attracts animals to leave the property.”
Hirst said she wishes she would be able to work with ACS rather than against it. The city shared the same sentiment.
"If your primary objective is to find homes for stray, roaming animals, I would encourage her to come talk to ACS, and she can partner with us and pull some animals that we’ve already identified that need placement from our shelter," he said. "That way, we’re working together, not trying to work against each other."
Animal Care Services said it is waiting to hear back from a prosecutor to see if they are legally obligated to return Hirst’s boxes.