Dog rescuers throughout the country are worrying today over the fates of dogs they placed at the Spindletop Refuge in Willis, where authorities say hundreds of dogs were found living in their own waste in cramped, stacked crates, near a mass grave with an unknown number of bodies.
The 298 dogs seized Tuesday night by Montgomery and Harris county law enforcement, as well as the Humane Society of the United States, are being evaluated at an undisclosed location, HSUS Texas State Director Katie Jarl told local reporters.
Opened by Leah Purcell in 1985, Spindletop earned respect from those in the animal rescue community nationwide, especially for Purcell's work in rehabilitating and placing pit bulls. Spindletop Refuge was listed as a "friend of the court" in the notorious Michael Vick dogfighting scandal in 2007. While Purcell wasn't a part of the proceedings, the court filing stated that she has "been qualified as an expert witness on [pit bulls] in several court cases, and courts nationwide have entrusted the care of seized dogs to Spindletop."
Purcell and her attorney, Zandra Anderson, declined to comment for this story.
An Austin woman named Marisa (she asked us not to use her last name) created a Facebook page earlier today to coordinate efforts among rescue groups and individuals who've boarded dogs for adoption at Spindletop. Marisa said she placed a two-year-old pit at Spindletop about four weeks ago, and saw no signs of neglect or cruelty.
She said she researched Spindletop for weeks before placing Bella, who she fostered for eight months after the dog was rescued from a Los Angeles shelter the day before she was to be euthanized. She said she paid $750 to board Bella.
"I called her a couple times a week and checked on Bella, and I just feel like...all of us that have dropped our dogs or foster animals there were completely fooled," Marisa said. "And I feel like an asshole and an idiot, and I feel horrible -- but I mean, I did the research I could and felt really good about leaving her there. I bragged about it to people because I thought it was such an amazing ranch."
Hundreds of others thought so, too, especially in the wake of hurricanes Rita, Ike and Katrina, when Spindletop was able to take in displaced and forgotten dogs. Purcell issued pleas for donations after Spindletop was damaged in hurricanes and Tropical Storm Allison.
But the refuge also suffered during floods in February and March, according to an Examiner.com report by animal welfare advocate Cindy Marabito. The report includes a statement by Purcell that "We have lost a lot of supplies including food for the animals, equipment to maintain a safe environment for the animals, damages to buildings, and most importantly, we are needing to raise the kennel an additional two feet with a concrete barrier....This is a dire situation and your help is needed immediately!"
The remains of five dogs were pulled from the collective grave on the property, but Jarl told Hair Balls, "We have information that there were many more dogs buried in that same spot." Based on the advanced state of decomposition, it appears the dogs may have been buried for about a month, she said.
As for the living dogs, Jarl said, some were covered in feces, and "the cages were incredibly overcrowded into spaces where the ammonia levels were so high that it almost knocked our investigators right off their feet," Jarl said. "...I went into one of the houses and even with the mask on, I still couldn't breathe."
Many of the cages were shut tight with makeshift accessories like multiple wires bound around the doors, she said. Some of the dogs were covered in feces
"Some of these dogs, when they walked out of the house...acted shocked just to be on grass," Jarl said.
However, Jarl added that volunteers at temporary shelters said the dogs "were doing great [and] were really happy last night when they got there," and were enjoying food and Kong toys donated by PetSmart. (On a side note: How freaking awesome is PetSmart?)
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"They were playing and they slept really well," Jarl said, adding that dogs that have been seized due to these types of horrible conditions bounce back "when you just simply give these dogs...some fresh air and some clean water and some food and some love and some time outside."
A hearing has been set for Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace's courtroom, 2241 North 1st Street in Conroe. According to the Victims of Spindletop Raid FB page, anyone who has boarded a dog at Spindletop may claim it in there after the hearing -- bring receipts and vaccination records. (Photos would help, too -- anything to make it easier on these officials, who will no doubt have their hands full Friday.)
On another side note: Hair Balls has heard from folks today who were worried that HSUS euthanizes pitties as a policy. Everyone can rest assured that it ain't so.
"The Humane Society of the United States evaluates every single dog that we rescue," Jarl said. "...Our overall goal is most certainly adoption. And I can tell you that many of the dogs that we came across yesterday were really friendly...they were very happy to see us, and we got a few kisses."