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.

The cages are equipped with a self-cleaning system, which flushes water out the bottom. But today kennel workers just hose out the cages, Nix says, because the water's high mineral content clogs the system's sprayers. The air at the pound always feels wet, because the cages are constantly being hosed out and cleaned. Since four cages are attached to a central drain, the automatic cleaner spreads diseases like distemper, parvo virus and kennel cough, Nix says.

In the narrow cat room, metal cages have two-inch spaces between the bars; cage floors are covered in newspaper, and torn-up chicken wire is stretched over the top. "These are the disaster cat cages," Hawkins says. He says kittens can get stuck or poked to death by the chewed-up sharply spiked wire.

"That's actually done, Sean, to keep the kittens in," Nix says. "They climb out and get lost."

Corpses are stored in the freezer before being taken to the dump.
Mark Dean
Corpses are stored in the freezer before being taken to the dump.
Dog paddle: New arrivals swim across an eight-foot flea-dip pool.
Mark Dean
Dog paddle: New arrivals swim across an eight-foot flea-dip pool.

In October, Hawkins and the other two members of the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee wrote Mayor Brown a letter declaring that the cat cages are a "substantial violation of state law." Current cat conditions violate both the Animal Shelter Act and the 1975 writ of mandamus, the committee says. "This court order remains in full force and effect," the letter says. The committee lists six incidences of kennel workers getting scratched and demands that Brown "immediately appropriate funding from the Any Lawful Purpose account to remedy the situation without delay."

Committee members informed the city that cat cages were substandard nine years ago, the letter says. New cages were ordered in 1994, but the order was never completed. A couple of new cages were delivered two years ago, but they aren't structurally sound, Nix says, latches have broken off, and roaches crawl inside the rusted, hollow metal.

In the back room, behind the baydock where animals arrive at the kennel, a refrigerator stores biohazard bags filled with animal heads waiting to be taken to the lab and tested for rabies. Nix opens an enormous walk-in freezer. "That's today's crop," he says, gesturing to about 50 black Hefty bags scattered on the floor. On a rolling cart lies a dog's decomposing body; ice has formed on the stiff fur.

Poor people cannot feed themselves, much less their dogs. So they turn them loose. We pick them upNobody else wants them, so what's left, except to put the dogs to sleep? -- Dr. George Fischer, chief of city consumer health services, June 11, 1975

In the bay dock area, a fuzzy black puppy sidles up against a kennel worker's leg.

"Don't you be standing there like you're my dog," says Robert Tillery. "You ain't my dog."

The pup's picture is taken posed beside a red Fisher-Price fire hydrant. Every new arrival is photographed for www.petharbor.com; the pictures are blurry and out of focus, brown dogs appear black, and the staff often shoots the wrong end of the animal.

As Tillery leads the puppy toward the eight-foot flea dip, the dog runs and hops by his side. Whenever he stops walking, the puppy cowers behind his leg for protection. "Quit acting like you're my dog," he says.

The real cruelty toward animals doesn't happen in his department, Nix says. "If we could get owners to take care of dogs and cats in the city of Houston, there'd be no need for this department. I could retire," Nix says. "We do euthanize animals, but the majority of those animals are better off dead than in the conditions they've been living in."

Every evening starved strays come to the pound ravaged by mange or maggots, he says. Some dogs had chains put around their necks when they were puppies and their flesh grew around the metal. "That's the tragedy," Nix says. "Those dogs cannot be turned around."

Seriously sick or injured dogs are immediately put to death. Many dogs with diseases that would be treated in a normal vet clinic are put to sleep. For instance, nearly every dog with mange is euthanized because the treatment is given in two doses at two-week intervals and it takes an additional eight weeks for hair to grow back. "We just don't have the space to hold them that long," Rundell says. "We're not like a Ben Taub for animals. We don't have an X-ray machine or provide free vet services."

Many of the dogs haven't been on a leash before, so they shake and fight and bite the rope until their mouths bleed. "They're terrified," Rundell says. Several refuse to walk, brace their feet against the floor and have to be dragged or carried on a rolling cart.

"They don't never want to walk," a kennel worker says, whistling at a tan mutt. "C'mere, sonny boy," he says. The dog lies down and refuses to stand up. The kennel worker holds the rope over his shoulder and keeps walking. Whistling, he drags the dog across the floor one yard at a time.

"C'mon, honey," he says. "C'mon."

Dogs were held up by their front legs over the dead pile [of dogs] and the veterinarian stabbed them in the chest with a syringe containing the euthanasia solution. No attempts were made to find the heart, the proper site for intracardiac injections. -- Sean Hawkins, executive director of the Houston Animal Rights Team, November 28, 1991

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