By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
A recent Monday found the animal cruelty investigator again behind the wheel of the big, white Chevrolet fitted out like a tank. Beside Lieutenant Mark L. Timmers were a tranquilizer rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun, with a 9-mm pistol mounted to the dash. Timmers himself presented as a short man, thickly muscled, with sunglasses over his eyes and another gun around his middle, along with nightstick, handcuffs, a radio and more ammo. He had no idea what he was riding into, he explained. "We try to be as prepared as possible."
The weekend had brought 22 new calls to the Houston Humane Society's animal-cruelty hotline, and every one would have to be investigated. Traveling down a desolate, southernmost stretch of Cullen, he turned abruptly down into a dirt driveway and stopped before what he called "your basic single-wide Arkansas trailer." The fence was an improvisation, the grass was littered with garbage and, of course, "it's never a good sign," he said, "when there's a pool table in the front yard." But lighting a cigar, Timmers made his way to the door.
"Police! Policía!" he called out, but no one answered. He walked around back, and there found three miserable dogs — pit bulls with neither food nor water, too listless to strain against their chains or even to bark. "They look like crap," was Timmers's professional opinion, but he knew there must be something else. Something here to explain the smell. He kept looking and had just walked past a large dog carrier when black flies rose up and announced themselves.
"Oh shit," said Timmers, leaning over, peering in. "We just walked into a criminal case."
World-renowned for its harsh treatment of criminals, Harris County has been gaining a reputation over the last few years for tenderness toward animals. Melanie Rushe, a spokeswoman for the Houston Humane Society, says public awareness of animal cruelty has grown, and Houston has become a "very animal-minded, animal-conscious" town. Eventually, the Humane Society decided it could no longer be satisfied merely to shelter abused animals, but must go forth actively to protect them.
Five years ago, the Humane Society became the only animal-welfare agency in the South, according to publicity, to hire for the same purpose two sworn, gun-toting peace officers. By contracting through the Precinct 6 Constable for the services of Lieutenant Timmers and Sergeant Patrick Leone, the Humane Society transformed from a law-enforcement referral agency to law enforcement itself, with the power not only to seize abused animals but also to arrest abusers on the spot.
Timmers and Leone embarked on some 1,100 calls last year, acted on about 150 animal seizure warrants and filed criminal abuse charges against 45 people. Their cases are handled exclusively by the vegetarian Belinda Smith, the only assistant district attorney in Texas to prosecute animal cruelty charges full-time. Smith admits that it's partly due to her own lobbying that laws against animal cruelty have lately been strengthened in Texas. "Because our office has such clout," she said, "people listen when we say things need to change."
Timmers insists he's got "the big picture on all of this," and between calls, sat down in the Starbucks on Montrose to discuss his work. Despite his tough exterior, Rushe had said that he's "a total bleeding heart for animals on the inside," and sure enough, he was greeted warmly in the coffee shop, as the officer who distributes pictures of pitiful dogs available for adoption. Timmers explained that he was simply the enforcer of new standards of civilization. When he began wearing the blue 26 years ago, even spouse abuse was essentially condoned, and now it seemed to him only right that people are prohibited from abusing either their families or their animals. Other cops kid him for being "bowwow police," but the people Timmers meets now are far worse than those he commonly encountered as a patrol officer, responding to victims. He divides the abusers among several categories.
The most decent are probably the cat ladies — over-40, well-educated, single women who probably care too much about animals. Understanding what it means to be alone, they seem always to find room for one more stray until, as the house fills with strays, they become insensitive to the stench and filth. Timmers arrives typically when the neighbors notice, sweeping in to take the animals away, 45 at a time, leaving a mental-health professional behind to consult.
Such cases account for the rare excursions into white, affluent neighborhoods. Traveling the city, Timmers works otherwise in poor, ethnic areas, and he often takes it as his job to say, "Welcome to America. This is our culture. These are our standards. Let me educate you." Everyone arrives with a different understanding, and a year ago, when Timmers encountered a family of Cambodians that was gathering, feeding and eating stray dogs, he hardly felt comfortable telling them it was wrong. "That was their lifestyle," he said. All he could do was blandly issue citations, demonstrating that dogs here would be an expensive food source.
In virtually every other case, Timmers confronts the coldhearted. There are many cases of abandonment — horses left to starve when people can't afford to feed them, dogs locked inside when owners move away. Often, "By the time we get there, all we have is the skeleton and fur," said Timmers. Thinking about the sort of people who can leave an animal to such a fate, he can only conclude that there must be "something pathological" about them, some "piece missing."