In the Doghouse

An animal typically has three days before he leaves the city pound, dead or alive. What happens during that time continues to cause concern.

"This is where the puppies went down the drain," John Nix says in a matter-of-fact this-is-where- the-coffee-pot-is voice. The automatic cage cleaners are designed to flush away feces, and on a few occasions, puppies got washed away, too.

During the past 30 years, the City of Houston's animal pound has been criticized as nothing more than a way station to the dump. Nix, director of the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, insists things are on the upswing. There's a new fleet of air-conditioned trucks, a find-your-pet Web site, and animals are being transferred to other shelters. More animals are adopted, fewer are put to sleep -- and no puppies have gone down the drain since 1993, he says.

Yet this summer veterinarian Sam Levingston accused the city of firing him after reporting to Nix several instances of animal abuse and cruelty. Levingston says that at least six puppies a month washed down the drain. He says that dogs unloaded from the trucks were jerked to the ground so roughly he heard pelvic bones crack. Unruly dogs, he says, were drowned in flea dip and labeled "dead on arrival."

Starved strays come to the kennel ravaged by mange and maggots.
Mark Dean
Starved strays come to the kennel ravaged by mange and maggots.
Dogs that haven't been on a leash before shake and fight and bite the rope.
Mark Dean
Dogs that haven't been on a leash before shake and fight and bite the rope.

In August, Levingston won a $1.2 million whistle-blower lawsuit against the city.

Regardless, animal protection activists who spent years protesting conditions at the pound are now on an official advisory committee and declare that it has infinitely improved. "It's not an animal torture dungeon," says Sean Hawkins, executive director of the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program. "The animal care at that facility has made a complete turnabout. It's not ideal, but it's better than it was."

But veterinarian Robert E. Armstrong, himself a former director of the pound, says that the city facility is like a triage clinic in the middle of a battlefield, although he hasn't worked there in ten years. "There's nobody there practicing veterinary medicine," Armstrong says. "The place is a slaughterhouse."

Historically, every time the pound receives complaints, the building is blamed for the inhumane conditions. Authorities say that if only there were more kennels, that were more spacious, with a better cleaning system, then staffers could focus on treating animals humanely.

In his office, Nix unrolls a set of blueprints and spreads them on his desk. "The new kennel is going to be very, very different," he says. The current kennel is only 12 years old; this will be the pound's fifth facility in the past 50 years.

This one, Nix says, will be fully functional -- this one, he hopes, will last.

If pounds were rated on a scale of from zero to ten, Houston's rating would be zero. I didn't see anything being done right, from the way dogs were unloaded from trucks to the way they are put to death. -- Belton Mouras, founder of the Animal Protection Institute, May 13, 1972

In the 1950s rabies swept the country and Houston's mayor ordered a roundup of stray dogs. A new pound was built in the Fifth Ward that was four times the size of the original, overcrowded kennel. It quickly filled to capacity and was replaced by a $650,000 structure.

In the early 1970s, city dogcatchers told the Houston Chronicle that as they drove dogs to the euthanasia chamber they often broke the animals' bones. Back then, dogs were killed in a small room filled with gas fumes from an eight-cylinder engine. "I opened the door and there were animals three feet deep," says Peter Haig Basralian, founding president of Concerned Citizens for Animal Protection. "They took the animals in and marched them on top of the dead ones." And not every dog removed from the chamber was dead, he says, before it was thrown into a barrel of dead dogs sold for fertilizer. Reports emerged that sick animals were not separated from healthy ones, pens were overcrowded, and hungry dogs ate each other.

Striving to improve abysmal conditions, Basralian and his late wife organized about 40 Houstonians and formed the Concerned Citizens for Animal Protection. In 1973, the group joined forces with the United States Humane Society and filed a lawsuit against the city, the mayor, eight members of City Council and the director of the health department. District Judge George E. Cire signed a writ of mandamus ordering the city to clean cages, feed animals and make sure dogs were dead following removal from the euthanasia chamber.

When Armstrong became the bureau's director in the 1980s, he announced that he was in the business of killing animals. "I wanted the city to understand that 30,000 animals are destroyed each year in the city of Houston," he says. "There's no way to hide it."

He says the kennel's flat roof leaked, slimy black mold grew on the walls, and state officials threatened to shut it down. In 1988, City Council voted to build yet another kennel.

But there were internal problems a new facility couldn't and didn't solve, Armstrong says. He saw employees hitting and kicking animals, others carried guns, came to work high and stole animals to sell for profit. Of approximately 100 employees, Armstrong says, he fired 86. The city threatened to fire Armstrong if public image and staff morale didn't improve. He was forbidden to speak to the media, he says.

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