By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
To combat the bad publicity, Nix says, the city asked the National Animal Control Association to review the pound. "They actually complimented us very, very highly," Nix says.
The association's report suggested that the city stop ignoring low-priority calls and recommended that dangerous dogs be a higher pickup priority than owners handing over dogs they didn't want. Other suggestions included better equipment and a better-trained staff. Reviewers also "expressed concern" that animals were not scanned for microchips or tattoos and suggested the pound search incoming strays upon arrival and again before they are euthanized.
Nix says the city completed 88 percent of the association's suggestions. "Their biggest recommendation was increasing staffing, and [the city] decreased staffing," Nix says. "We've pretty well gone through the things that we can do without additional cash. Additional cash is not available."
The kennel's most notable improvement, Nix says, is the new veterinary staff. It's difficult to hire vets to work at the pound, he says. After Levingston and Hanna were dismissed, Nix received several applications from recent graduates, but the kennel needs someone with experience to handle the high volume, Nix says. And experienced vets can make more money in private practice.
Early in his career, Raymond L. Harris worked at Busch Gardens treating monkeys, polar bears and the famous Clydesdales. He co-founded one of the first emergency veterinary clinics in Houston, volunteered at the Humane Society and spent 27 years in private practice.
As a veterinarian at the Houston pound, Harris's goal is to eliminate the public's image that the pound is a full-kill facility where every animal picked up is destroyed. "We don't want to put an animal to sleep unless we have to," he says. Harris teaches humane euthanasia classes statewide. He discusses acceptable and unacceptable methods of killing animals and reminds students to check each animal's tag to make sure the right creature is being killed.
Most days, Harris doesn't do much veterinary work. He prescribes medication and is alerted when something is seriously wrong with an animal, but vet techs do the day-to-day caregiving. The majority of his time is spent in the administration building scheduling employees, ordering supplies, training staffers and consulting with physicians about rabies exposure.
Veterinarian Dave Rundell, the staff surgeon, was previously the chief surgeon for Houston's Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He says he was tired of giving rabies shots and treating earaches in 20 years of practice. "Shelter medicine is doing more for more animals," Rundell says.
Three of the five veterinary technicians graduated from vet school in Mexico. Ben Castillo says he wanted to obtain a veterinary license when he moved to the United States, but his English wasn't good enough.
There are no specific requirements to become a kennel worker. "You don't need an engineering degree to clean a cage," Nix says. "Some of the best kennel workers can neither read nor write." But educational requirements for animal control officers were raised last year, so they now have to have at least a GED.
Jonathian Few graduated from Prairie View A&M with a degree in animal science. When he applied for a job at the Houston Zoo, he was told that he needed hands-on experience. As an animal control officer, he's handled hawks, bats, tigers, boa constrictors, pythons and iguanas. "I'm getting what I came to get," he says.
We are terribly overcrowded. We just don't have enough pens to segregate all the sick dogs from the healthy ones. -- City veterinarian Dr. H. Don Rouse, March 14, 1971
Located on a dead-end road off Collingsworth, the domed kennel looks like a spaceship landed in the Fifth Ward. Many of the bubbled skylights leaked, so they've been removed, leaving black circles. The entire building is covered in rings of rust.
The front foyer has imported Italian granite cobblestones laid in a fan-shaped pattern like streets in Heidelberg. Armstrong designed a second-floor surgical suite and envisioned the pound becoming a training hospital for veterinary students doing monthlong surgery rotations. But the second floor was never completed. Instead, it serves as a depressing company gym -- all the windows are blacked in, and stationary bikes, free weights and rows of gray lockers sit on the unfinished concrete floor.
Nix hopes to break ground on the new building before the end of the year. The dome won't be torn down or abandoned like the previous two kennels. Instead, the rusty, leaking roof is going to be covered in a solid sheet of metal, and the building will be used to quarantine animals. Veterinarians hope to use the spare kennel space to house adoptable animals, too.
The cages in the dome are too small, Nix says. Technically, the 30- by 42-inch cages meet state requirements that an animal be able to stand up and turn around. But the cages were designed to hold one animal, and often dog runs are doubled up. The new kennel's cages will be four times as big, Nix says.
On a Tuesday-afternoon tour, a German shepherd and a chow are in the same cage even though empty pens are available. The dogs' food box is knocked out onto the aisle floor. Nix stoops to pick up the food and fastens it to the cage door. By the time he reaches the end of the aisle, the dogs have slammed the box out again. Since animals stay at the pound three days, Armstrong designed the metal mailboxes to hold all the food they would need. The idea was that kennel workers wouldn't have to touch animals and risk getting bitten. That was a nice idea in theory, Nix says, but rats and roaches infested the kibble. He points to a broken valve in the kennel that served as an automatic water bottle. Stray dogs didn't know how to use it, he says, so molasses had to be painted on the tap. "It's like feral cats," he says. "They've never seen a litter box, so they go to sleep in it."