By Jeff Balke
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Rowe has committed her life to the dogs. "I gave up my marriage for Mr. K's," Rowe says. "My husband thinks it's a waste of time because the problem is not getting any better, it's getting worse. He gave me an ultimatum: Either get a divorce or continue what I do."
She's also filed for bankruptcy. She supposedly lives on kennel grounds in a small house next to the puppy compound. Mr. K's was cut off by its original dog food supplier after falling behind in its accounts. Katy veterinarian Greg Wood at the Animal Clinic at Kelliwood provides free exams and deeply discounted medical services for the shelter and seems to be a great guy. But even he cut them off after they ran up $2,500 in unpaid bills. Wood reinstated his services after they cut their balance in half. Located miles from the shelter, he rarely makes it out there. They bring their animals to him. Many of their adoptions also operate off-site.
To support herself and her mother, Rowe works for Hug a Pet, a pet-sitting service. No one is paid at Mr. K's, although McNew says that if they get ahead they do take a little salary.
Critics of Mr. K's declined to have their names used for this column, saying they are afraid of retaliation from Leslie Van Biljon or that they would have difficulty continuing to operate in the relatively tight-knit rescue community. All say they believe Rowe and McNew started with the best intentions, but that they do a lousy job. Some say they have hesitated for months or even years to say anything critical of Mr. K's, afraid that by doing so they will tarnish the reputation of all area dog rescuers and shelters. Several want Mr. K's called to accounting on its finances; others say the dogs aren't cared for properly, that they occasionally go without food.
Rowe concedes that someone hasn't always been there to let in the community service workers on time, and that there have been a few occasions where they've been left out for an hour or two. She welcomes the help of the Houston Young Lawyers Association, which is trying to settle Mr. K's debts, get it better organized and help it find a permanent home. In fact, this search provides an excuse for less-than-optimum conditions now. Why put in a slab if you're just going to pull out of there in a short while? Van Biljon says.
The outdoor dog kennels are hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Before they reach the promised land, the dogs will have to continue to tough it out.
Leslie Van Biljon is alternately described as very charming and manipulative and vindictive. "She's one of those kind you don't mess with 'cause she'll screw up your life," says one acquaintance. From South Africa, Van Biljon is a stay-at-home wife and mother who has immersed herself in animal rescue and joined Mr. K's a little more than two years ago.
She has leased land in Montgomery County, where she has brought in horses -- the exact number fluctuates -- to do horse rescue, she says. Their stables were constructed from the wall material that was donated to Mr. K's by local architect Mo Nasr. (Nasr did not return calls to the Press.)
Wilma Rowe says there were no irregularities. Both she and Van Biljon say Mr. K's is applying to have a sort of branch location on this Montgomery County property. There are five dogs from Mr. K's living there now, she says.
Rowe and Van Biljon confirm that some of the donated highway barrier material was resold but say they used the funds to pay vet bills for Mr. K's. "Anytime we have extra stuff, we can sell it," Rowe says.
Asked about the use of probationers on Van Biljon's land, Rowe at first denied their presence, then explained it as "community service workers who are also volunteers and are doing it on their own time." Van Biljon says Mr. K's has applied to be able to bring community service workers out.
There are a lot of people willing to say they don't like Biljon, although again, not necessarily to her face, saying she has a bad temper.
On March 29, Trey Arnold, an officer with the Animal Abuse squad of the Montgomery County Constable's Office, came out to investigate a report that Van Biljon had beat a recalcitrant horse in the head. Arnold says he cannot talk about the case, other than to confirm that it is under investigation.
Van Biljon says there is always infighting in the local rescue community and that her detractors are just pursuing a vendetta against her.
Harris County Animal Control stopped sending animals to Mr. K's about two years ago, according to Colleen Hodges, agency spokeswoman. It didn't meet the county's standards of care, she says. But the county has no authority over animal shelters; it can only decide to which facilities it will send animals.
The number of rescue groups -- or placement groups, as many prefer to be called now -- has grown exponentially, to more than 200 in the Houston area, Hodges says. "They come, they go. They get mad at each other. You don't know who you're sending your animals to. It may turn out to be 50 dogs crammed in someone's garage.