Info:Correction Date: August 29, 1996
Wildlife rehabilitator Vivian Steele got along fine with animals. It's people who gave her trouble.
By Randall Patterson
It never seemed like a source of evil, a slaughterhouse for small things -- even if there was a freezer full of corpses and a man called Mr. Bones sifting through them.
"We're Houston's biggest warm fuzzy," said Vivian Steele, and although the warm fuzzy community is divided on that, the place never seemed anything less, and at first, she appeared no more complicated than the birds she resembled.
Then and always, her short red hair was mussed, and she sounded out of breath. "Out of mind is more like it," she said, for the casualties were arriving in an endless parade -- so many wounded blue jays, squirrels and opossums conveyed over the tiled floors of Town & Country Mall, past J.C. Penney, across from Dillard's, into what is known as the wildlife shelter of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition.
"We've got a bleeding bird in front!" a volunteer announced, holding hands aloft like a surgeon. "I think it's a cat attack!"
In her white pants and shoes, her blouse patterned with happy little elephants, Vivian rushed to the scene. She cleaned the puncture wounds under the magnifying glass and gave the pigeon his chance in the incubator. There was a spate of sparrows and starlings after that, and then came a drowsy young mockingbird with a hole in his skull teeming with maggots. "Aw, he's got a boo-boo on his head," she said, and she swabbed out the bugs and was able to smile as she told another tenderheart that the bird would soon be in the home of a caregiver, on a course of antibiotics.
"It is so touching to see this, all these nurturing people who care," Vivian wimpered. Then she leaned down to the lame duck waddling by. "Even Webster cares, don't you? Don't you!"
The animals came in boxes and bags and cupped hands, carried mostly by women with children, and received mostly by women whose children had grown. They all seemed very sweet people -- the absolute sweetest -- and no one was sweeter than Vivian, the shelter director. Some of the ladies were older than her 45 years, but she called to them as "angel" and "baby" and "little one," and none seemed to mind. When the phone rang from someone who was bringing food for the duck, Vivian exclaimed, in her usual way, "Bless her sweet socks!" And perhaps the duck was excited, too, because shortly afterward, there was a squirt, and Vivian clucked, "Oh, ducky poopy! I'll bet you're proud of yourself, aren't you? I sure would be!"
Mr. Bones, a gray methodical figure, emerged about then with his frozen dead. He took doves and chimney swifts, and said this is much better than picking up roadkill. He would feed them to his beetles and make educational displays of the skeletal remains. Vivian thanked him for making room in the freezer. ("Keep those little beetles happy, by golly!") And she seemed to think he was a wonderful man, that they were all wonderful together, and that this was a wonderful, wonderful place.
"I have plans that would just take your breath away," she said, "and I would tell you about them, too, if I didn't know there are people out there thinking, 'What can we do to keep them from obtaining their goals?' But they're out there. I know they are."
The enemy who will be known as Anonymous the First remains convinced there is something sinister about Houston's biggest warm fuzzy.
"Right out there in the public, everything is rosy and peachy keen and wonderful," she said, "but you can never know what goes on in the background."
Four years ago, there was a great cataclysm within the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Lines were drawn, and bridges were burned. On one side were Vivian Steele and the shelter she founded, and on the other, a group of members who walked away.
Vivian refers to them now as the Dark Forces, and she's not alone in believing they're behind a conspiracy to shut the shelter down. The rumors began circulating shortly after the break and swirled without impact until September 1993, when each member of the TWRC board received a letter from the executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"We are appalled by the reports we have received," wrote Patricia Mercer, "as some of the allegations would likely constitute torture under Texas law."
She wrote of an injured bird who was reportedly left overnight in the freezer and who was found still flapping the next morning. Most vividly, it was said that Vivian Steele tried to break the neck of a wounded yellow crowned night heron, and did not succeed until she slammed the lid of her car trunk upon it.
There were other complaints, but among rehabbers, no charge could be more damning than cruelty. Rather than taking "a defensive posture," the board should "do something about these problems," Mercer urged. For her part, she forwarded the "strong evidence" of animal cruelty to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and their inquiry became a front-page story two years ago in the Houston Post.
The follow-up story was never done. The department didn't find Vivian Steele guilty of cruelty, but nonetheless, the heron rumor trails her to this day, along with another that she kills just about everything she can get her hands on.
Unbelievable, said Vivian. "It just doesn't even make any sense how they can take someone like me -- a morning person! a cheerful person! -- and turn me into this witch. I am not the Antichrist!"
She bubbles along on the surface of things because when she doesn't, she tends to get depressed, she said. Vivian's cheerfulness is a decision, a tool she acquired as a child to make it through the day.
"If I give you the impression that I hide behind a facade of being a birdbrain, I don't mean to," she apologized.
From about the age of six until she was 19, Vivian was molested by a relative, she said. She thought it was her fault and grew up believing she was indeed a bad person. No one corrected her. No one ever came to her aid. Vivian learned what it meant to be stranded, and it was as a child that she began taking little wild things into her care.
Her stepfather was in the Air Force, and the family frequently moved. Vivian's first ambition was to become a flight attendant, because the attendants were so nice to her, "and I wanted to be a nice person and help little children." Later, as a teenager, it was out of the same desire to help that she grew interested in becoming a mortician. She saw the job as the noble easing of grief, but her mother saw it as a life of death. To make that point, Vivian was taken to a mortuary and shown the finished product.
"He was absolutely beautiful!" she recalled. "It sounds so corny, but he was so peaceful looking, and I was absolutely sure this is what I wanted to do."
But her mother forbade it. The family was soon transferred to Libya, and instead of a mortician, Vivian became a Polynesian dancer working the parties. She put flowers in her long red hair and wrapped a sarong around her waist. One night in the audience, there was an Englishman named Ed Steele who worked for an oil company.
"He tells me he fell in love at first wiggle," said Vivian.
They married and moved to Houston not long afterward. He became her Shnooglebutz and she his little Sugar Booger. Three children were born before Ed discovered the secret of Vivian's childhood. The children didn't learn for years after that. Vivian was trying to protect their innocence and everything else. "I'm a rescuer," she said. "That's what I am." And, afraid that someone would steal them, she wouldn't let the children play in the front yard, wouldn't hire a baby sitter, wouldn't let them ride the bus. "You can safely assume that I smothered them," she said, and at some point, they began to rebel.
When they became involved in what she considered destructive behavior, Vivian didn't know what to do. She said she enjoyed her children as babies, but was confused by the anger of teens. People are complicated, she said. "That's why I like animals better. If you get bitten, you expect it. People are so unpredictable."
When you begin caring for wild animals, one rehabber explained, your view of the world is forever altered. You realize that Mother Nature is not always a nice lady, and in stormy weather, you might stand at the window, wondering how many little baby critters are shivering on the ground, and whether they will drown, and what the ants will do to them if they don't.
You feed the babies you have every half hour, all day long. If you travel, you take them with you. Maybe you buy a truck with four-wheel drive so you can get to the best release sites. With so much invested, you have to believe what you are doing is right, and you get into angry debates over whether a cage with a concrete floor is better than dirt, or whether the vet's disinfectant is any better than diluted Clorox. If you decide to feed your young squirrels formula, there's a chance you'll run into the woman who will call you a murderer for not using scalded milk.
As lovely as rehabbers are to animals, they are notoriously beastly to one another. There are about 400 permit holders in Texas, and hundreds more working in apprenticeship. If you take the name of any one of them and present it to any four others, said a Parks and Wildlife official, you're going to hear a lot of dirt.
Vivian wasn't expecting any of this when she joined TWRC in the late '80's. She was thinking only about the animals. "Who wouldn't want to snuggle bunnies?" she asked, and she soon began snuggling them all.
A TWRC recording directed people with wounded animals to the rehabber in their area, and the Steeles began living with phones that rang around the clock and strangers bearing assorted gifts. At the time, the only training was a seminar given once a year. New volunteers were each assigned a mentor, but often, everyone was so busy, it was simply learn as you go.
Vivian once had 150 animals in her care -- just about everything furry and feathered that crawls and flies. She had them in the back yard, the garage, even occasionally in the bathtub. Handling even this volume, neither she nor any rehabber was likely to affect the overall population of a species, but Vivian was content working for the individual. Her sympathy extended to the whole animal kingdom. Little rat babies are only an inch long, "and they're so cute!" she said, and she saw no quandary in raising these rats to release in the wild, while buying other rats from a company called Gourmet Rodent to feed to the wounded birds of prey.
"I didn't kill them," she explained. "They came frozen in little ratcicles."
Each spring brought a crush of orphaned animals, and each fall when it was over, TWRC leaders would say something had to be done. Many husbands were protesting ("I wanted supper," said Ed. "I didn't care about any baby birds.") and many volunteers were burning out and quitting. Vivian saw nothing being done, and she took control.
"I didn't know they didn't see this organization as broken," she says now. "It was very obvious to me it was broken, and I worked my tiny behiny off to fix it."
Ed did not immediately benefit, for the first shelter was opened in their garage. Then and now, it was to be a central location for the deposit of animals. For everyone but the Steeles, it was meant to quiet the phones, eliminate visits from strangers and distribute the beasts more evenly.
Eventually, that's what happened, but experienced rehabbers resented it deeply. "Who's this Vivian person -- can't even find her car keys!" was how Vivian remembered it. To them, the drop-off center meant the public would be leaving donations now with Vivian. She believed the money should go into a general fund for rehab supplies. The rehabbers told her they didn't like her brands and that the money was rightfully theirs.
Whatever she proposed, they denounced. When Vivian suggested they all use one discounted veterinarian, they told her they liked their own. When she tried to set up a baby-sitting service so they could occasionally travel, they told her they didn't like each other. They argued about everything.
"It was like, 'Ladies, please -- let's breathe a little, learn to laugh some,' " Vivian said.
In 1992, she opened a new shelter in a beat-up trailer behind Town & Country Mall. The experienced rehabbers stayed away, but there were plenty of others. They all loved the animals and had their own ways of expressing it. One woman claimed to sleep nude with her opossums. Other rehabbers sought a spiritual connection with a bird and hired a medium to ask the beast if it was ready to be released.
In such a crowd, "no matter what you do or say," said Vivian, "the dreaded 'e' word always comes up." TWRC's policy on euthanasia was clear -- animals that would never again survive in the wild must be humanely destroyed -- but many rehabbers couldn't make the decision. They had volunteered to save life, not to end it, and Vivian was one of the few unafraid of death. She remained calm because she knew she didn't cause these injuries and that her only role was to stop the pain. When she could, she loaded up the frail and broken and made her van a tumbrel to the vet, but there were other times when the suffering was so severe that Vivian closed her hand around the heads of little birds and, in the way that is generally recommended, ended their lives with a twist. This was her "final gift."
"She was a cold, cold person," said Anonymous the Second.
All of these tensions found themselves well-represented on the board of directors. They were "a lot of little old hens bickering," said one of them, Carol Meyer, and she dragged Ed Steele into it, thinking maybe a man could keep the peace. As the new treasurer, Ed's first impression was of "a loose group of people who liked animals but hated each other's guts," and keeping the peace was something he could never do.
When Vivian asked for $500 for three months' rent for her shelter in the dilapidated trailer, there was a faction on the board that had been dreaming already of something grander -- of a chunk of land donated somewhere near the zoo, of the donations that would build a very pretty wildlife rehab center, with all the bells and whistles.
Members of this group offered little support for the shelter in the trailer. They frequently voted against it, and would never visit, even when a party was held specifically to draw them there. In November 1992, they had arranged for the removal of Vivian Steele as volunteer coordinator, when they realized that Vivian and Carol Meyer had a plot of their own. The two women arrived at the annual election with 36 angry shelter volunteers. They voted out the president, and voted Meyer in. The shelter volunteers took control.
Within days, the old president and two other board members resigned their TWRC memberships. In League City, they soon founded the Wildlife Rehab and Education Coalition. The last word of the name was dropped after they came to be known as the Wreckers.
"Basically, what's happening is you've got a civil war going between two organizations," said Cindy Eckert, TWRC's current president. "When they split up, they just went after us tooth and nail."
With the lines of communication cut, the wind began to talk. In May 1994, the letter from the SPCA became the basis of the Parks and Wildlife Department's inquiry. When the Post story about the investigation appeared in July, as the shelter was moving inside the mall, the TWRC faithful blamed the timing on a Wrecker campaign to shut the shelter down.
Vivian thinks she understands how the tale of the chilled bird was born. It was a horror story told after-hours at the shelter about a neighbor boy who was interested in taxidermy: as his first project, he put a live bird in his home freezer. As for the other bird story -- slamming the trunk lid down on the heron's neck, again and again, blood everywhere -- Vivian says she has no idea where that came from. She didn't own a car then, but a van without a trunk. Anyway, she said, it wasn't something she would ever do.
"Who saw this?" she asked. "Nobody could ever come up with the who because the who doesn't exist. It never happened."
The little old lady who is said to have witnessed the death of the heron is also said to have been so distressed by it that she just wanted to forget the whole thing -- at least as far as making official reports and talking to reporters. It was people she told who told the SPCA's Patricia Mercer, and Patricia Mercer said she felt an obligation to tell someone else.
"Investigating the truth is up to the authorities," Mercer said.
As a duly authorized secondhand source, Anonymous the First came forward. She would only speak over the phone. She didn't want her name printed because she was "afraid of what Vivian can do." She was a TWRC volunteer who left for WR&E with about a dozen others when they heard about the heron.
"None of our feelings have faded," she said. "It's still a thorn in my side because I don't think they have the best interests of the animals at heart."
Money and publicity are what matter to TWRC, said Anonymous. Certainly, it isn't the animals. Anonymous was always willing to give a creature a chance, but Vivian practiced "indiscriminate euthanasia." Anonymous believes the heron story absolutely, and it was she who told the SPCA. She trusts her source, and does not trust Vivian, "because of the things she's done."
Well, there was the time a poor old guy brought in a poor little starling, and Vivian talked him into a donation, and as soon as he left, she popped the head off that bird and took the $5 for lunch.
"I thought that was awful."
But Anonymous kept talking, and it came out that the bird looked to be in bad shape, and that Vivian had killed it in "a very quick, humane way," and that she had left a note indicating she would pay the money back.
"Maybe it is being petty and picky," said Anonymous, "but it was piled on top of everything else."
Like what? she was asked. But she couldn't remember.
"I've given you all the specifics I can," Anonymous said. "What you need to do is get a spy in there, someone to go and get firsthand information. That's what I would suggest."
It was like the conversation of crickets. Where one buzzes, another one listens, and another buzzes, and when you get too close, they go silent, and remain silent until they are sure they are unseen.
Anonymous the Second said there was a snake at the wildlife shelter that no one ever petted.
Another woman said she heard that Vivian euthanizes all unprotected birds and most mammals. "I don't talk behind people's backs," she said, and she boldly gave her name but then called back to say her husband wouldn't allow it. She became Anonymous the Third.
Danielle Carelock was another Wrecker and the only brave soul to stand and say that, yes, she had been badmouthing the TWRC shelter but had never set foot inside it.
"I was trying to tell my friend to tell her friend to be careful," she said. "That's all."
In due time, with such reports pouring in, TWRC developed its own rumor mill and began to see conspiracy. As Ed Steele explained it, it sounded kind of like this:
A friend told him that a friend told her that a friend said she'd heard that a Wrecker had been tongue-lashing TWRC. Someone else said they had talked with someone who said they had seen this Wrecker's name on the SPCA donation list -- and you know what that means, don't you? Well, it was proved once and for all when a friend said she sat next to a friend of the Wrecker, who said the Wrecker was trying to round up support to build another wildlife shelter.
It was clear, at least to Ed Steele, that TWRC's shelter would have to be wrecked first, and that this Wrecker was doing the wrecking.
"You won't find her fingerprints on the body," he said, and he was certainly right -- no fingerprints, no evidence, no nothing.
Kathy Pyne, a WR&E board member, called Steele's conspiracy theory "crazy," "baffling" and "totally incredible." She and fellow board member Sharon Schmalz would not discuss gossip. They worried what a story about gossip would do to their reputations, but they seemed at peace with what had been done to Vivian Steele's.
The official WR&E view was eventually presented by Wrecker Barbara House. "I don't think there's any evil, horrible people involved in all this," she said. "There's caring, emotional people, and I think that's all there is."
After the Post story appeared, Vivian sat on her bed, hugging her teddy bear and crying. The SPCA had stopped referring animals to the shelter, and a few of the newer volunteers quit. Eventually, the state, while finding no evidence of cruelty, did discover that Vivian sucks at filing, as she put it. Her permit was probationary for six months, as she endured inspections by wildlife officials with guns.
"It was pretty awful," said Vivian. "Somebody tried to punch us out, and we didn't fall down."
Inside the mall now, the shelter is a posted "No Gossip Zone." Another sign says there will be a $10 fee for dealing with grouches. Though all wild animals are welcome at the shelter, Vivian screens her prospective volunteers, and bases her decision to keep them largely on their sense of humor and sense of death. A good balance there has created something "just like the Brady Bunch -- it's disgusting how well we get along!" she said.
The shelter has a regular veterinarian, good volunteer training, a good location -- everything Vivian always wanted. "A marvelous organization," said P.C. Haney of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. "Couldn't praise them enough."
Vivian's next big idea -- something she calls "the answer on dealing with urban wildlife" -- sounds very much like the giant shelter the old board wanted. For their part, the Wreckers still don't have a shelter and are operating as TWRC did years ago.
Vivian has never completely understood why they left. She thinks maybe her enthusiasm was part of the problem. Some people don't like enthusiasm, she knows, and she tries to keep from gushing and bubbling all over them, but still, "they think you're fake and phony," she said, "and they run screaming off into the woods. The old board was like that -- little grumpy people."
"They are no longer with us," said Vivian. "Good riddance! And no, I didn't take them to the parking lot and slam their heads in the trunk. Crossed my mind, but I didn't do it!
Keywords:Correction: In staff writer Randall Patterson's story "Beastly Behavior" in that same issue, the name of P.C. Hanes, a member of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, was misspelled as P.C. Haney.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.