Beastly Behavior

Wildlife rehabilitator Vivian Steele got along fine with animals. It's people who gave her trouble.

Info:Correction Date: August 29, 1996
Beastly Behavior
Wildlife rehabilitator Vivian Steele got along fine with animals. It's people who gave her trouble.

By Randall Patterson
It never seemed like a source of evil, a slaughterhouse for small things -- even if there was a freezer full of corpses and a man called Mr. Bones sifting through them.

"We're Houston's biggest warm fuzzy," said Vivian Steele, and although the warm fuzzy community is divided on that, the place never seemed anything less, and at first, she appeared no more complicated than the birds she resembled.

Then and always, her short red hair was mussed, and she sounded out of breath. "Out of mind is more like it," she said, for the casualties were arriving in an endless parade -- so many wounded blue jays, squirrels and opossums conveyed over the tiled floors of Town & Country Mall, past J.C. Penney, across from Dillard's, into what is known as the wildlife shelter of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition.

"We've got a bleeding bird in front!" a volunteer announced, holding hands aloft like a surgeon. "I think it's a cat attack!"

In her white pants and shoes, her blouse patterned with happy little elephants, Vivian rushed to the scene. She cleaned the puncture wounds under the magnifying glass and gave the pigeon his chance in the incubator. There was a spate of sparrows and starlings after that, and then came a drowsy young mockingbird with a hole in his skull teeming with maggots. "Aw, he's got a boo-boo on his head," she said, and she swabbed out the bugs and was able to smile as she told another tenderheart that the bird would soon be in the home of a caregiver, on a course of antibiotics.

"It is so touching to see this, all these nurturing people who care," Vivian wimpered. Then she leaned down to the lame duck waddling by. "Even Webster cares, don't you? Don't you!"

The animals came in boxes and bags and cupped hands, carried mostly by women with children, and received mostly by women whose children had grown. They all seemed very sweet people -- the absolute sweetest -- and no one was sweeter than Vivian, the shelter director. Some of the ladies were older than her 45 years, but she called to them as "angel" and "baby" and "little one," and none seemed to mind. When the phone rang from someone who was bringing food for the duck, Vivian exclaimed, in her usual way, "Bless her sweet socks!" And perhaps the duck was excited, too, because shortly afterward, there was a squirt, and Vivian clucked, "Oh, ducky poopy! I'll bet you're proud of yourself, aren't you? I sure would be!"

Mr. Bones, a gray methodical figure, emerged about then with his frozen dead. He took doves and chimney swifts, and said this is much better than picking up roadkill. He would feed them to his beetles and make educational displays of the skeletal remains. Vivian thanked him for making room in the freezer. ("Keep those little beetles happy, by golly!") And she seemed to think he was a wonderful man, that they were all wonderful together, and that this was a wonderful, wonderful place.

"I have plans that would just take your breath away," she said, "and I would tell you about them, too, if I didn't know there are people out there thinking, 'What can we do to keep them from obtaining their goals?' But they're out there. I know they are."

The enemy who will be known as Anonymous the First remains convinced there is something sinister about Houston's biggest warm fuzzy.

"Right out there in the public, everything is rosy and peachy keen and wonderful," she said, "but you can never know what goes on in the background."

Four years ago, there was a great cataclysm within the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Lines were drawn, and bridges were burned. On one side were Vivian Steele and the shelter she founded, and on the other, a group of members who walked away.

Vivian refers to them now as the Dark Forces, and she's not alone in believing they're behind a conspiracy to shut the shelter down. The rumors began circulating shortly after the break and swirled without impact until September 1993, when each member of the TWRC board received a letter from the executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"We are appalled by the reports we have received," wrote Patricia Mercer, "as some of the allegations would likely constitute torture under Texas law."

She wrote of an injured bird who was reportedly left overnight in the freezer and who was found still flapping the next morning. Most vividly, it was said that Vivian Steele tried to break the neck of a wounded yellow crowned night heron, and did not succeed until she slammed the lid of her car trunk upon it.

There were other complaints, but among rehabbers, no charge could be more damning than cruelty. Rather than taking "a defensive posture," the board should "do something about these problems," Mercer urged. For her part, she forwarded the "strong evidence" of animal cruelty to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and their inquiry became a front-page story two years ago in the Houston Post.

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