By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Last month, Almita Flores of Houston found a gorgeous yellow lab. She says she posted flyers in her neighborhood as well as a notice on Craigslist, but never heard from anyone claiming to be the owner. After two weeks, she says, the dog — whom she decided to call Max — got out, only to return with a five-inch gash, two deep holes in his hind legs, and swollen genitals.
Feeling overwhelmed and not thinking clearly, Flores posted on Craigslist again, asking for help on what to do for Max, rather than taking him to an emergency vet. Flores said she got a lot of e-mails but only one phone call — from a woman who she says claimed to run an animal rescue. So this is how Max wound up in the hands of a woman named Michele Dow, and how no one — not Flores, not the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, not Waller County Animal Control — can even say if Max is still alive.
Flores tells Hair Balls she drove out to the home Dow rents in Pattison, just outside Brookshire. She described the setting as an overgrown shack with "dogs all over the place," trash and a golden retriever "with two deep holes on his back."
"My God it was a mess," Flores explained in an e-mail. When Flores went to her car to get a blanket, she wrote, Dow took Max inside the home. Inside, Flores wrote, were dogs in cages stacked all over the kitchen and dining room. Flores said she was taking Max and splitting.
According to Flores, Dow "began raising her voice saying that I was selfish and that I probably could not afford to take care of the dog and that she needed to keep the lab over night." Flores — stuck out in the middle of nowhere — freaked. So she left. And then she lied. She called Dow and told her she had just heard from the owner, so she'd need to come back and get Max. No sale.
The more Flores called, begging to get Max, the more angry Dow grew. Flores sent us the transcript of the texts Dow allegedly sent her. In one, Dow allegedly threatened to call INS. (See, Flores is Hispanic, so she must be undocumented, get it?)
Dow changed her number that night. Fortunately, we were able to find another number for her. When we told Dow we had found multiple instances of her claiming to have a no-kill nonprofit online, she said, "You only came across one [reference], so let's keep it real." She said that she was looking into starting a 501(c)(3) at one point, but, "The last step is $1,500, which is why I haven't had it."
Before she hung up on us, she told us, "This lady's [Flores] a nut. Why don't you talk to her, and you'll probably have a great story."
Those seemed like pretty strong words from a woman who continued to post messages on her former veterinarian's online obituary memorial for years, updating a dead woman with stories of all the animals she's acquired — at one point totaling 51. She also wrote that "my cpa has made me a 501c not for profit corporation! and i am QUITE good at getting donations! $$$...so as i said the place is a zoo..."
What exactly were these "donations"? And if she was so good at getting "$$$," why couldn't she afford the $1,500 incorporation fee? Were those "donations" used to satisfy an old student loan (plus interest) of $21,998.06 that the U.S. Department of Education had to sue her to recover, according to federal court records? We don't know, because Dow wouldn't answer questions.
On another Web site, Dow posted a comment saying she had 21 dogs and 13 cats and that she runs "a small not for profit no-kill shelter."
And while the nonexistent shelter may have been no-kill, it apparently wasn't no-injury. Dow's tales on the obituary Web site are riddled with anecdotes about injured animals. There was Turbo, who "cut his face, and had to get doggie plastic surgery (lol)," and there was Fetch, who "got sassy" with Barney, so Barney "kicked his ass," so Dow had to lay out some "$$$." She also wrote, "I really do wish that u could meet my new kids! i lost 5 last year but with you being up there i feel like they are safe and doing just fine!"
Flores called the Waller County Sheriff's Office. The sheriff's office's call notes state that Flores "was dog sitting and the dog was injured while in her care, she continually lied to the rescue lady...to cover up the first lie. Eventually, Flores attempted to be honest with Dow, Dow took the dog to the vet and advised she would willingly release the dog to the rightful owner, not trusting Flores would do the right thing for the dog."
Here's what Captain Brian Cantrell of the sheriff's office told us: "We have made calls to [Dow's home] and we are under the understanding, kind of by both parties, that the dog was a voluntary surrender...Ms. Dow, to our understanding, has paid some vet bills to treat that dog. I also know that the [Houston] SPCA has gone out there and confirmed the welfare of the dog, and made sure the dog was okay. I also know our animal control was made aware of it...Our animal control did call [Houston] SPCA to confirm...They followed up on it...We want to make sure the dog's okay. We have an obligation to do that."