In March 2009, Estelle Nelson paid the Houston Humane Society $500 to bury her dog, Lady. An employee named Toni Baker handled the paperwork and presided over the funeral. Not long afterward, Baker was part of the exodus of employees from HHS -- an exodus due in large part to what ex-employees described to Hair Balls as constant sexual harassment and threats of physical harm from Shelter Director Edward Perez.
So when Nelson returned to visit Lady's gravesite a few months later and saw that there was still no marker on the gravesite and wanted to ask Baker about the marker, she was out of luck. Nelson said she had been told that markers can take several months to receive.
When she informed HHS of the problem, she explained in an e-mail to Hair Balls, Rick Perez (Edward Perez's brother, also an HHS employee) said they would straighten things out. Nelson says that when she returned again, the marker was not in the spot she remembered from the funeral. But HHS maintained that the dog was in the correct grave.
"That's when I suggested that they call [Baker]," Nelson says. "And they said, 'Toni wouldn't even know what happened yesterday, much less a year ago.'"
Finally, she says, HHS personnel told her that they could exhume the remains, but it would cost $1,000. Not wanting to dig up the remains of her dog, or disturb the dignity of someone else's pet, Nelson declined.
After Nelson contacted Hair Balls, we called Phillip McDaniel, the attorney representing both HHS and Edward Perez in a sexual harassment suit filed last October by an ex-employee.
We would have called a spokesperson, but HHS, a non-profit that uses the "Humane Society" brand and depends on donations and public awareness of animal-welfare issues, does not have a spokesperson. The place just has a hard time retaining employees, what with the shelter director allegedly calling female employees "whore" and "slut" the whole time.
Also, Executive Director Sherry Ferguson told Hair Balls that all questions needed to go to McDaniel -- and the Board of Directors apparently isn't interested in the goings-on there, as most of them have routinely ignored our calls.
We never heard back from McDaniel, but we heard from Nelson last Friday: she said she got a call from an attorney named Amy Danna, who said she represented the Houston Humane society, and who said that her dog's remains were exhumed and she needed to come pick them up.
Nelson told Hair Balls she was surprised that a lawyer, and not a HHS staffer, was calling her. She was also shocked that her dog's body was exhumed. But really, we don't know why she was surprised -- what's so weird about a non-profit that supposedly cares for unwanted animals having multiple law firms handle customer concerns and media inquiries? That's so totally not sketchy.
Danna told Hair Balls that Nelson demanded that HHS exhume Lady. Nelson told us that when she argued that point with Danna, the lawyer wasn't interested: "I said, 'if they retained you as their attorney and they told you that, they lied to you.' And she hung up on me," Nelson says.
We asked Danna what kind of work The Clary Firm did for HHS, and she told us "We help the Humane Society out from time to time on things that are really very wide in nature," including conflict resolution, contracts, and reviewing resumes. (In HHS's advertisements to fill the spokesperson position, applicants are told to contact Danna, and not Executive Director Sherry Ferguson, which, again, is absolutely un-sketchy).
When we asked at what point a person who asks HHS staff a bunch of questions can expect to hear from a lawyer, attorney Brian Clary, who apparently had been listening to our convo, said, "In terms of how we get contacted to represent them or to advise them...it's a privileged matter....It's a decision that is made between us and the client."
Both Clary and Danna assured us that Nelson had been mistaken, and that her dog's body was always where it was supposed to be. Danna said Nelson even asked HHS staff to move Lady's marker to different spots where she thought Lady was actually buried.
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"Rather than undertake a big argument with her, and rather than try to add to her grief by engaging in...an argument or a discourse about her being wrong, they just moved the marker...they thought it would help her, in some way, be more comfortable," Danna says.
When we asked Danna if HHS kept a master plan of which animals were buried in which graves, she said "I don't know." We also asked her how long it takes for HHS to get markers, because if it takes months, that might account for some of the confusion. But she said "I don't know." Clary told us that if there was a set of documents somewhere with burial information, it would not be public record. So apparently, we just need to take HHS's word on it. (Clary also told us that they exhumed the body at no cost to Nelson and were refunding her $500 burial expenses)
Clary added: "We didn't exhume 25 graves to find [Lady]. It's where we thought it was all the time, and I'm hoping that Ms. Nelson will find some comfort and solace in that...that this whole thing has been a mistake."
We're sure that Nelson getting a call saying that someone went ahead and dug up her dog's remains without her knowledge gave her plenty of comfort and solace. And we sincerely hope that Danna hurries up and hires a spokesperson for HHS soon -- hopefully it'll be someone who understands that if you want people to keep donating, you kinda sorta need to be nice to them.