In December 2014, Rescued Pets Movement, the animal rescue group that is the subject of this week's cover story, took the unusual move of suing one of its own fosters.
The group, which transports thousands of animals from Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, accused Sarah Coleman of not relinquishing a dog slated for transport, and of fraudulently telling an RPM board member that she had returned the dog to a shelter.
Coleman said she was sued after telling RPM that the dog, Rosemary, had an upper respiratory infection as well as heartworms, and was not healthy enough for her scheduled transport date. It is a convoluted and ultimately anticlimactic tale that nevertheless is notable for its scarcity. We've reported on individuals suing rescue groups, but not of a rescue suing one of its own fosters.
Rosemary wasn't the first dog Coleman fostered for RPM, and she already knew just how sensitive RPM board members can could be when it came to fosters directly contacting rescue groups in Colorado.
Coleman told us that back in October 2014, she emailed RPM folks twice to find out what became of Copper, a dog she had fostered for them for two months. But, Coleman says, she never got a response from RPM's foster coordinator.
After an RPM volunteer told her that Copper was placed with a group called 4Paws 4Life, Coleman checked the group's adoption list and found another dog that had traveled with Copper, but not Copper himself. So she emailed 4Paws -- and copied RPM board member Timothy Lambert -- to say, "I am more than willing to drive to Colorado and take him back home to Texas if you all are unable to find him a forever home....I don't mean to sound grouchy, but I love that little baby boy with all my heart and will do anything to make sure he's happy & well. Including driving to Colorado at a moment's notice...he means that much to me."
She told the Houston Press, "I wasn't trying to be shady - I just wanted to know where the dog was."
Coleman says a 4Paws worker replied within a few hours, and was more than happy to update her on Copper, who had found a home.
Little did Coleman know that, by sending that message, she nearly triggered a doggie death march. Lambert swooped in to set her straight with this text: "We work very hard to build relationships with our rescue partners. Please understand that messages like the one you sent to 4 Paws have the potential to seriously damage these relationships. Losing one rescue partner would mean hundreds of dogs dying at BARC because we lost an outlet for them. In the future, please direct any questions you have about your former foster dogs to RPM and we will follow up as best as we can for you on your behalf."
After that text, Coleman didn't feel like fostering for RPM again. But a month later, she answered a plea to pick up a dog from the city's animal shelter (BARC) named Rosemary.
Coleman said she told RPM that she could only hold Rosemary for a few days, because she had already planned a vacation in Mexico the following week. Coleman says that another foster had agreed to pick up Rosemary before Coleman left for Mexico, but the woman who was supposed to foster instead emailed Coleman at the last minute saying she couldn't do it after all.
Coleman alleges that RPM was copied on all the email exchanges, but never chimed in and never arranged for another foster.
Coleman hired a dogsitter to watch her three dogs and Rosemary. She says that, despite telling RPM numerous times that she was going to be in Mexico, an RPM foster coordinator emailed her while she was gone and requested that Rosemary be brought in for her booster shots. Unfortunately, Coleman says she didn't check her email until she got home.
On December 8, three days before Rosemary was scheduled to go to Colorado, Coleman emailed RPM's foster coordinator to explain that she took Rosemary to the vet, and that the dog "has an upper respiratory infection as well as heartworms....I am dealing with her health issues that have arisen and will let y'all know when she is ready to move onward."
That day, RPM board member Katie Beirne called Coleman and requested that she return the dog. Court records show that communication deteriorated from there.
The next day, December 9, Beirne texted Coleman that "the bottom line is that we need to get Rosemary back today. Please call or text me and let me know what time I can have an RPM officer pick her up. If I do not hear something from you by 4:30 pm today, I will have to get BARC and animal control involved....If Animal Control has to come out to your property tomorrow and there's no one at home, their standard protocol is to confiscate all of the animals on the property. We do not want this to happen. We want Rosemary back and then want to part ways and be done."
Coleman saw the text as an overt threat, and she decided to cut off all contact with RPM. She replied that she returned Rosemary to BARC and added, "Please cease making threats toward me or I will involve the police. I have had enough of you all & your bullying tactics."
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After checking with BARC and not finding any record of Rosemary, Beirne texted Coleman to say, "All we care about is Rosemary. I am sad to hear that you don't feel the same. The longer we go without information, the longer she is alone and in limbo. What a shame this is."
Coleman says that, sometime over the following few days, an RPM volunteer bicycled up to her house while she was in the yard tending to her dogs. The volunteer asked questions about Rosemary, and Coleman says she felt like she was being stalked.
According to RPM co-founders Laura Carlock and Cindy Perini, RPM felt it had no choice but to sue Coleman in order to fully resolve where Rosemary was. Their choice of attorney was curious. They hired self-styled Texas Dog Lawyer Zandra Anderson, who for years acted as legal counsel for -- and solicited funds for -- the now-shuttered Spindletop Dog Refuge, where 38 dogs overheated and died in an un-air-conditioned building, and hundreds of others were discovered living in filth. (Carlock and Perini, who are both attorneys, told us that they hired Anderson because of her expertise in this area of law and were unfamiliar with the details of the Spindletop tragedy. They also said Anderson was willing to work at a discount, and that it would have been irresponsible to donors to spend more money than was necessary. Carlock wrote in an email, "We hired Zandra because she has dealt with situations such as we were dealing with and we wanted to handle it as efficiently as possible, with the least amount of pain for anyone involved." Carlock also warned us that "if your article in any way affiliates us with what happens at Spindletop or even implies such a blatant lie, there will be legal repercussions.")
Ultimately, RPM and Coleman settled -- the terms are confidential -- and Coleman formally adopted Rosemary. Carlock conducted a home inspection, marking the first time she and Coleman ever met. Both women told the Press that it was a friendly, positive visit, which makes us wonder how things devolved into a lawsuit in the first place.