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.

Ten years ago, Sean Hawkins, then director of the Houston Animal Rights Team, filed a formal complaint with the state veterinary board and demanded Armstrong's resignation. Hawkins told district attorney Johnny Holmes that sick, injured animals were not receiving treatment and submitted sworn statements from animal control officers. "It was just a hellish, hellish situation," Hawkins says.

Assistant District Attorney Roger Haseman spent more than six months investigating 12 allegations of animal cruelty. "Other than the fact that they were clearly euthanizing animals, it was difficult to determine if they were really doing anything illegal," Haseman says. "People really didn't like what was happening and definitely wanted changes. But from a criminal standpoint, being able to prove any violations was another matter."

Haseman couldn't substantiate animal cruelty charges and the veterinary board didn't find any violations, either. But both Armstrong and staff veterinarian Karen Kemper resigned.

If people spayed and neutered their pets, bureau director John Nix says, he could retire.
Mark Dean
If people spayed and neutered their pets, bureau director John Nix says, he could retire.
Veterinarian Sam Levingston says six puppies a month washed down the drain.
Jeff Fitlow
Veterinarian Sam Levingston says six puppies a month washed down the drain.

If I had more funding, I could kill a lot more animals for you. -- Robert E. Armstrong to City Council, February 6, 1988

With blood smeared on his yellow apron, kennel worker Billy Graggs opens a cage. There's nothing but a deep, loud growl. "Good boy," Graggs tells a big black chow. He makes a lasso and tries to throw it over the chow's head, but the dog dodges.

"Bring my control stick," Graggs orders.

The dog screams, shakes, lunges at Graggs and is tranquilized.

A Doberman mother is muzzled and then picked up by one leg and the fur on her mid-back. Graggs rubs her nose and pats her back as a veterinary technician injects poison into her foreleg.

The Doberman's pale brown puppy is brought out of the cage. The dog's mother lies dead on the table, blood dripping steadily from the injection site onto a newspaper.

Veterinary technician Jesus Martinez injects the trembling pup in both legs, but it's still breathing.

He injects the needle into the pup's chest, and the kennel worker begins to bag the body. It's still breathing.

"That's it for him," the bagger says.

"No," Martinez says. "He's still alive."

We have to make room for other dogs. We have to put them to sleep. -- Dr. George Fischer, director of veterinary services for the city health department, December 9, 1973

On his third day as the city's senior veterinarian, Sam Levingston says, seven puppies washed down the drain. The staff attached a three-prong fish hook to the end of the rope and rescued four of them. A hose was used to flush the remaining three down the sewer, he says. "You could hear them whimpering," Levingston says.

The 72-year-old veterinarian says that during the next seven years that he worked at the pound he saw numerous animal abuses. He says dogs were beaten with a five-foot steel rod and that some days he saw as many as 34 animals without water. In the spring of 2000, Levingston wrote Nix a letter listing 18 instances of animal cruelty. Shortly afterward, Mayor Lee Brown issued both Levingston and chief veterinarian Dr. Adel Hanna a letter of indefinite suspension. (Hanna did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The city withdrew Hanna's letter and allowed him to retire.)

Nix says Levingston and Hanna were terminated because they failed to treat a rottweiler and a Great Dane. The rottweiler was bleeding vaginally for ten days before Nix found her lying in a pool of blood, he says. "I told them to do something for her," Nix says. "She died anyway."

The Great Dane was quarantined after biting a postal worker. On the ninth day of a ten-day quarantine, the dog was foaming at the mouth. Since it looked rabid, Nix says, a veterinary technician told Levingston to examine the animal. Levingston ignored it, and the dog died the next day.

"Nothing was ever done," Nix says. "That was the reason for the termination of both of them. We're not gonna have that."

Levingston says the rottweiler wasn't even his patient -- but he did treat it. As for the Great Dane, Levingston's attorney, Martin Shellist, says trial testimony showed that Levingston did indeed examine the dog. Levingston won the $1.2 million whistle-blower suit.

"He has a very clever lawyer," Nix says.

We want to rebuild our image. We want to create an image of respect so people will cease to think of humane officers as just a bunch of dog killers. -- Dr. John W. Williamson, director of veterinary services, May 4, 1969

Four years ago, the pound received an onslaught of bad publicity after erroneously putting to sleep two pedigreed golden retrievers. The dogs escaped from their Kingwood home Labor Day weekend 1998, while owner Pamela Beckert was mowing the lawn. A neighbor found the dogs and called the city because she was going out of town and didn't want to leave the animals without food or water. Pound officials later told Don Beckert that the neighbor's request for the dogs to be picked up was interpreted as a request to put the dogs down. A kennel worker showed the Beckerts the paperwork authorizing euthanasia. "But they filled it out themselves," Beckert says.

Later that year, a four-year-old boy was attacked by three stray rottweilers the day after the city failed to respond to a complaint about the dogs. In a media flurry, Councilman Joe Roach called for an investigation of the pound, declaring that a stray rottweiler was just as dangerous as a man with a weapon and the city should have responded quickly to the call. He said the administration needed to crack down on the pound and fix it.

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