In the Doghouse
"This is where the puppies went down the drain," John Nix says in a matter-of-fact this-is-where- the-coffee-pot-is voice. The automatic cage cleaners are designed to flush away feces, and on a few occasions, puppies got washed away, too.
During the past 30 years, the City of Houston's animal pound has been criticized as nothing more than a way station to the dump. Nix, director of the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, insists things are on the upswing. There's a new fleet of air-conditioned trucks, a find-your-pet Web site, and animals are being transferred to other shelters. More animals are adopted, fewer are put to sleep -- and no puppies have gone down the drain since 1993, he says.
Yet this summer veterinarian Sam Levingston accused the city of firing him after reporting to Nix several instances of animal abuse and cruelty. Levingston says that at least six puppies a month washed down the drain. He says that dogs unloaded from the trucks were jerked to the ground so roughly he heard pelvic bones crack. Unruly dogs, he says, were drowned in flea dip and labeled "dead on arrival."
In August, Levingston won a $1.2 million whistle-blower lawsuit against the city.
Regardless, animal protection activists who spent years protesting conditions at the pound are now on an official advisory committee and declare that it has infinitely improved. "It's not an animal torture dungeon," says Sean Hawkins, executive director of the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program. "The animal care at that facility has made a complete turnabout. It's not ideal, but it's better than it was."
But veterinarian Robert E. Armstrong, himself a former director of the pound, says that the city facility is like a triage clinic in the middle of a battlefield, although he hasn't worked there in ten years. "There's nobody there practicing veterinary medicine," Armstrong says. "The place is a slaughterhouse."
Historically, every time the pound receives complaints, the building is blamed for the inhumane conditions. Authorities say that if only there were more kennels, that were more spacious, with a better cleaning system, then staffers could focus on treating animals humanely.
In his office, Nix unrolls a set of blueprints and spreads them on his desk. "The new kennel is going to be very, very different," he says. The current kennel is only 12 years old; this will be the pound's fifth facility in the past 50 years.
This one, Nix says, will be fully functional -- this one, he hopes, will last.
If pounds were rated on a scale of from zero to ten, Houston's rating would be zero. I didn't see anything being done right, from the way dogs were unloaded from trucks to the way they are put to death. -- Belton Mouras, founder of the Animal Protection Institute, May 13, 1972
In the 1950s rabies swept the country and Houston's mayor ordered a roundup of stray dogs. A new pound was built in the Fifth Ward that was four times the size of the original, overcrowded kennel. It quickly filled to capacity and was replaced by a $650,000 structure.
In the early 1970s, city dogcatchers told the Houston Chronicle that as they drove dogs to the euthanasia chamber they often broke the animals' bones. Back then, dogs were killed in a small room filled with gas fumes from an eight-cylinder engine. "I opened the door and there were animals three feet deep," says Peter Haig Basralian, founding president of Concerned Citizens for Animal Protection. "They took the animals in and marched them on top of the dead ones." And not every dog removed from the chamber was dead, he says, before it was thrown into a barrel of dead dogs sold for fertilizer. Reports emerged that sick animals were not separated from healthy ones, pens were overcrowded, and hungry dogs ate each other.
Striving to improve abysmal conditions, Basralian and his late wife organized about 40 Houstonians and formed the Concerned Citizens for Animal Protection. In 1973, the group joined forces with the United States Humane Society and filed a lawsuit against the city, the mayor, eight members of City Council and the director of the health department. District Judge George E. Cire signed a writ of mandamus ordering the city to clean cages, feed animals and make sure dogs were dead following removal from the euthanasia chamber.
When Armstrong became the bureau's director in the 1980s, he announced that he was in the business of killing animals. "I wanted the city to understand that 30,000 animals are destroyed each year in the city of Houston," he says. "There's no way to hide it."
But there were internal problems a new facility couldn't and didn't solve, Armstrong says. He saw employees hitting and kicking animals, others carried guns, came to work high and stole animals to sell for profit. Of approximately 100 employees, Armstrong says, he fired 86. The city threatened to fire Armstrong if public image and staff morale didn't improve. He was forbidden to speak to the media, he says.
Ten years ago, Sean Hawkins, then director of the Houston Animal Rights Team, filed a formal complaint with the state veterinary board and demanded Armstrong's resignation. Hawkins told district attorney Johnny Holmes that sick, injured animals were not receiving treatment and submitted sworn statements from animal control officers. "It was just a hellish, hellish situation," Hawkins says.
Assistant District Attorney Roger Haseman spent more than six months investigating 12 allegations of animal cruelty. "Other than the fact that they were clearly euthanizing animals, it was difficult to determine if they were really doing anything illegal," Haseman says. "People really didn't like what was happening and definitely wanted changes. But from a criminal standpoint, being able to prove any violations was another matter."
Haseman couldn't substantiate animal cruelty charges and the veterinary board didn't find any violations, either. But both Armstrong and staff veterinarian Karen Kemper resigned.
If I had more funding, I could kill a lot more animals for you. -- Robert E. Armstrong to City Council, February 6, 1988
With blood smeared on his yellow apron, kennel worker Billy Graggs opens a cage. There's nothing but a deep, loud growl. "Good boy," Graggs tells a big black chow. He makes a lasso and tries to throw it over the chow's head, but the dog dodges.
"Bring my control stick," Graggs orders.
The dog screams, shakes, lunges at Graggs and is tranquilized.
A Doberman mother is muzzled and then picked up by one leg and the fur on her mid-back. Graggs rubs her nose and pats her back as a veterinary technician injects poison into her foreleg.
The Doberman's pale brown puppy is brought out of the cage. The dog's mother lies dead on the table, blood dripping steadily from the injection site onto a newspaper.
Veterinary technician Jesus Martinez injects the trembling pup in both legs, but it's still breathing.
He injects the needle into the pup's chest, and the kennel worker begins to bag the body. It's still breathing.
"That's it for him," the bagger says.
"No," Martinez says. "He's still alive."
We have to make room for other dogs. We have to put them to sleep. -- Dr. George Fischer, director of veterinary services for the city health department, December 9, 1973
On his third day as the city's senior veterinarian, Sam Levingston says, seven puppies washed down the drain. The staff attached a three-prong fish hook to the end of the rope and rescued four of them. A hose was used to flush the remaining three down the sewer, he says. "You could hear them whimpering," Levingston says.
The 72-year-old veterinarian says that during the next seven years that he worked at the pound he saw numerous animal abuses. He says dogs were beaten with a five-foot steel rod and that some days he saw as many as 34 animals without water. In the spring of 2000, Levingston wrote Nix a letter listing 18 instances of animal cruelty. Shortly afterward, Mayor Lee Brown issued both Levingston and chief veterinarian Dr. Adel Hanna a letter of indefinite suspension. (Hanna did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The city withdrew Hanna's letter and allowed him to retire.)
Nix says Levingston and Hanna were terminated because they failed to treat a rottweiler and a Great Dane. The rottweiler was bleeding vaginally for ten days before Nix found her lying in a pool of blood, he says. "I told them to do something for her," Nix says. "She died anyway."
The Great Dane was quarantined after biting a postal worker. On the ninth day of a ten-day quarantine, the dog was foaming at the mouth. Since it looked rabid, Nix says, a veterinary technician told Levingston to examine the animal. Levingston ignored it, and the dog died the next day.
"Nothing was ever done," Nix says. "That was the reason for the termination of both of them. We're not gonna have that."
Levingston says the rottweiler wasn't even his patient -- but he did treat it. As for the Great Dane, Levingston's attorney, Martin Shellist, says trial testimony showed that Levingston did indeed examine the dog. Levingston won the $1.2 million whistle-blower suit.
"He has a very clever lawyer," Nix says.
We want to rebuild our image. We want to create an image of respect so people will cease to think of humane officers as just a bunch of dog killers. -- Dr. John W. Williamson, director of veterinary services, May 4, 1969
Four years ago, the pound received an onslaught of bad publicity after erroneously putting to sleep two pedigreed golden retrievers. The dogs escaped from their Kingwood home Labor Day weekend 1998, while owner Pamela Beckert was mowing the lawn. A neighbor found the dogs and called the city because she was going out of town and didn't want to leave the animals without food or water. Pound officials later told Don Beckert that the neighbor's request for the dogs to be picked up was interpreted as a request to put the dogs down. A kennel worker showed the Beckerts the paperwork authorizing euthanasia. "But they filled it out themselves," Beckert says.
Later that year, a four-year-old boy was attacked by three stray rottweilers the day after the city failed to respond to a complaint about the dogs. In a media flurry, Councilman Joe Roach called for an investigation of the pound, declaring that a stray rottweiler was just as dangerous as a man with a weapon and the city should have responded quickly to the call. He said the administration needed to crack down on the pound and fix it.
To combat the bad publicity, Nix says, the city asked the National Animal Control Association to review the pound. "They actually complimented us very, very highly," Nix says.
The association's report suggested that the city stop ignoring low-priority calls and recommended that dangerous dogs be a higher pickup priority than owners handing over dogs they didn't want. Other suggestions included better equipment and a better-trained staff. Reviewers also "expressed concern" that animals were not scanned for microchips or tattoos and suggested the pound search incoming strays upon arrival and again before they are euthanized.
Nix says the city completed 88 percent of the association's suggestions. "Their biggest recommendation was increasing staffing, and [the city] decreased staffing," Nix says. "We've pretty well gone through the things that we can do without additional cash. Additional cash is not available."
The kennel's most notable improvement, Nix says, is the new veterinary staff. It's difficult to hire vets to work at the pound, he says. After Levingston and Hanna were dismissed, Nix received several applications from recent graduates, but the kennel needs someone with experience to handle the high volume, Nix says. And experienced vets can make more money in private practice.
Early in his career, Raymond L. Harris worked at Busch Gardens treating monkeys, polar bears and the famous Clydesdales. He co-founded one of the first emergency veterinary clinics in Houston, volunteered at the Humane Society and spent 27 years in private practice.
As a veterinarian at the Houston pound, Harris's goal is to eliminate the public's image that the pound is a full-kill facility where every animal picked up is destroyed. "We don't want to put an animal to sleep unless we have to," he says. Harris teaches humane euthanasia classes statewide. He discusses acceptable and unacceptable methods of killing animals and reminds students to check each animal's tag to make sure the right creature is being killed.
Most days, Harris doesn't do much veterinary work. He prescribes medication and is alerted when something is seriously wrong with an animal, but vet techs do the day-to-day caregiving. The majority of his time is spent in the administration building scheduling employees, ordering supplies, training staffers and consulting with physicians about rabies exposure.
Veterinarian Dave Rundell, the staff surgeon, was previously the chief surgeon for Houston's Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He says he was tired of giving rabies shots and treating earaches in 20 years of practice. "Shelter medicine is doing more for more animals," Rundell says.
Three of the five veterinary technicians graduated from vet school in Mexico. Ben Castillo says he wanted to obtain a veterinary license when he moved to the United States, but his English wasn't good enough.
There are no specific requirements to become a kennel worker. "You don't need an engineering degree to clean a cage," Nix says. "Some of the best kennel workers can neither read nor write." But educational requirements for animal control officers were raised last year, so they now have to have at least a GED.
Jonathian Few graduated from Prairie View A&M with a degree in animal science. When he applied for a job at the Houston Zoo, he was told that he needed hands-on experience. As an animal control officer, he's handled hawks, bats, tigers, boa constrictors, pythons and iguanas. "I'm getting what I came to get," he says.
We are terribly overcrowded. We just don't have enough pens to segregate all the sick dogs from the healthy ones. -- City veterinarian Dr. H. Don Rouse, March 14, 1971
Located on a dead-end road off Collingsworth, the domed kennel looks like a spaceship landed in the Fifth Ward. Many of the bubbled skylights leaked, so they've been removed, leaving black circles. The entire building is covered in rings of rust.
The front foyer has imported Italian granite cobblestones laid in a fan-shaped pattern like streets in Heidelberg. Armstrong designed a second-floor surgical suite and envisioned the pound becoming a training hospital for veterinary students doing monthlong surgery rotations. But the second floor was never completed. Instead, it serves as a depressing company gym -- all the windows are blacked in, and stationary bikes, free weights and rows of gray lockers sit on the unfinished concrete floor.
Nix hopes to break ground on the new building before the end of the year. The dome won't be torn down or abandoned like the previous two kennels. Instead, the rusty, leaking roof is going to be covered in a solid sheet of metal, and the building will be used to quarantine animals. Veterinarians hope to use the spare kennel space to house adoptable animals, too.
The cages in the dome are too small, Nix says. Technically, the 30- by 42-inch cages meet state requirements that an animal be able to stand up and turn around. But the cages were designed to hold one animal, and often dog runs are doubled up. The new kennel's cages will be four times as big, Nix says.
On a Tuesday-afternoon tour, a German shepherd and a chow are in the same cage even though empty pens are available. The dogs' food box is knocked out onto the aisle floor. Nix stoops to pick up the food and fastens it to the cage door. By the time he reaches the end of the aisle, the dogs have slammed the box out again. Since animals stay at the pound three days, Armstrong designed the metal mailboxes to hold all the food they would need. The idea was that kennel workers wouldn't have to touch animals and risk getting bitten. That was a nice idea in theory, Nix says, but rats and roaches infested the kibble. He points to a broken valve in the kennel that served as an automatic water bottle. Stray dogs didn't know how to use it, he says, so molasses had to be painted on the tap. "It's like feral cats," he says. "They've never seen a litter box, so they go to sleep in it."
The cages are equipped with a self-cleaning system, which flushes water out the bottom. But today kennel workers just hose out the cages, Nix says, because the water's high mineral content clogs the system's sprayers. The air at the pound always feels wet, because the cages are constantly being hosed out and cleaned. Since four cages are attached to a central drain, the automatic cleaner spreads diseases like distemper, parvo virus and kennel cough, Nix says.
In the narrow cat room, metal cages have two-inch spaces between the bars; cage floors are covered in newspaper, and torn-up chicken wire is stretched over the top. "These are the disaster cat cages," Hawkins says. He says kittens can get stuck or poked to death by the chewed-up sharply spiked wire.
"That's actually done, Sean, to keep the kittens in," Nix says. "They climb out and get lost."
In October, Hawkins and the other two members of the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee wrote Mayor Brown a letter declaring that the cat cages are a "substantial violation of state law." Current cat conditions violate both the Animal Shelter Act and the 1975 writ of mandamus, the committee says. "This court order remains in full force and effect," the letter says. The committee lists six incidences of kennel workers getting scratched and demands that Brown "immediately appropriate funding from the Any Lawful Purpose account to remedy the situation without delay."
Committee members informed the city that cat cages were substandard nine years ago, the letter says. New cages were ordered in 1994, but the order was never completed. A couple of new cages were delivered two years ago, but they aren't structurally sound, Nix says, latches have broken off, and roaches crawl inside the rusted, hollow metal.
In the back room, behind the baydock where animals arrive at the kennel, a refrigerator stores biohazard bags filled with animal heads waiting to be taken to the lab and tested for rabies. Nix opens an enormous walk-in freezer. "That's today's crop," he says, gesturing to about 50 black Hefty bags scattered on the floor. On a rolling cart lies a dog's decomposing body; ice has formed on the stiff fur.
Poor people cannot feed themselves, much less their dogs. So they turn them loose. We pick them up Nobody else wants them, so what's left, except to put the dogs to sleep? -- Dr. George Fischer, chief of city consumer health services, June 11, 1975
In the bay dock area, a fuzzy black puppy sidles up against a kennel worker's leg.
"Don't you be standing there like you're my dog," says Robert Tillery. "You ain't my dog."
The pup's picture is taken posed beside a red Fisher-Price fire hydrant. Every new arrival is photographed for www.petharbor.com; the pictures are blurry and out of focus, brown dogs appear black, and the staff often shoots the wrong end of the animal.
As Tillery leads the puppy toward the eight-foot flea dip, the dog runs and hops by his side. Whenever he stops walking, the puppy cowers behind his leg for protection. "Quit acting like you're my dog," he says.
The real cruelty toward animals doesn't happen in his department, Nix says. "If we could get owners to take care of dogs and cats in the city of Houston, there'd be no need for this department. I could retire," Nix says. "We do euthanize animals, but the majority of those animals are better off dead than in the conditions they've been living in."
Every evening starved strays come to the pound ravaged by mange or maggots, he says. Some dogs had chains put around their necks when they were puppies and their flesh grew around the metal. "That's the tragedy," Nix says. "Those dogs cannot be turned around."
Seriously sick or injured dogs are immediately put to death. Many dogs with diseases that would be treated in a normal vet clinic are put to sleep. For instance, nearly every dog with mange is euthanized because the treatment is given in two doses at two-week intervals and it takes an additional eight weeks for hair to grow back. "We just don't have the space to hold them that long," Rundell says. "We're not like a Ben Taub for animals. We don't have an X-ray machine or provide free vet services."
Many of the dogs haven't been on a leash before, so they shake and fight and bite the rope until their mouths bleed. "They're terrified," Rundell says. Several refuse to walk, brace their feet against the floor and have to be dragged or carried on a rolling cart.
"They don't never want to walk," a kennel worker says, whistling at a tan mutt. "C'mere, sonny boy," he says. The dog lies down and refuses to stand up. The kennel worker holds the rope over his shoulder and keeps walking. Whistling, he drags the dog across the floor one yard at a time.
"C'mon, honey," he says. "C'mon."
Dogs were held up by their front legs over the dead pile [of dogs] and the veterinarian stabbed them in the chest with a syringe containing the euthanasia solution. No attempts were made to find the heart, the proper site for intracardiac injections. -- Sean Hawkins, executive director of the Houston Animal Rights Team, November 28, 1991
Wearing steel-toed, knee-high black rubber fishing boots, Graggs straps on a black back brace and claps his hands together. "Let's roll," he says.
At 10:30 a.m., before the kennel opens to the public, all the animals on one ward die. Rolling tables are set up at each end of the room, and vet techs lethally inject dogs and cats. Snakes that aren't rereleased are put in burlap sacks and placed in the freezer.
In the new pound, Nix says, there will be separate euthanasia rooms conveniently located at the end of each ward. The current kennel has a euthanasia room, but it's designed for dogs getting off the trucks en route to the freezer. Staff members say it's too far from the cages, and they don't have time to take dogs on a morning death march.
"Years ago they opened the door, stretched the dog out and gave them a heart stick. What we're doing now -- it's better than it was, and it's not what it should be," Nix says. "It's very cramped and not the most satisfactory. Now an animal will be euthanized in the sight of another animal. We try not to, but it happens."
Graggs points to a golden chow in one of two double-sized kennels that flank the end of the row. "We're starting with big boy, right?" Graggs asks vet tech Martinez. It makes sense to start with him, because he's on the end and would have to watch all the other dogs die. He could easily be killed in his cage or in front of it and be entirely out of sight. Graggs pulls on a pair of blue surgical gloves, opens the cage door and whistles. "C'mere, baby," he says. "C'mon."
Damp from the morning cage cleaning, the dog starts shaking. Graggs pulls him out of the cage. The dog squints, and his eyes slant as a rope is wrapped around his snout three times. Graggs takes the dog around the corner, directly in front of the other kennels. Standing behind the dog, Graggs lifts him onto his hind legs; Martinez swabs the animal's leg with alcohol and injects an inch-and-a-half-long needle. He draws a little blood to make sure it's in the vein, and the blue Windex-like Fatal-Plus poison solution turns purple.
The dog sags and his heavy body is dumped onto the cart. Martinez checks to make sure his heart has stopped beating, then the dog's body is placed in a trash bag.
A black dog, housed directly in front of where the chow was killed, is taken out of his cage. The dog fights as Graggs muzzles him and lifts him onto the cart by one leg and the scruff of his neck.
The dog growls and yelps, and soon the whole row begins barking. After the needle is injected, the dog's tail wags three times, then its body goes limp.
Graggs opens the next cage and whistles. A purple-tongued chow mix bares his teeth and growls. The dog pulls away, fights and wriggles out of the muzzle; standing on his hind legs, he backs to the edge of the table and almost falls off. It takes six tries before he is successfully injected.
More dogs are injected, and clean sheets of newspaper are laid on top of the bloody business page.
A brown Lab-pointer mix cowers and shakes when he's taken out of his cage. "He looks mighty good," Graggs says, and convinces Martinez to give him more time.
"See?" Graggs tells the dog. "You got saved."
The last dog on the row is a husky straight off The Call of the Wild. "This one looks good, too," Graggs says.
But he's already had extra time, Martinez says.
"Some we keep, some we can't keep," Graggs says.
Graggs rubs the dog's nose as its leg is shot. The husky lifts his head again and again, looking at Graggs with icy blue eyes. The dog wags his tail and Graggs gently pushes his head down on the cart.
Martinez injects poison into the dog's other leg.
"Sorry," Martinez says. He feels bad when he has to stick the animal more than once. The wet newspapers are tossed into the black bag with the freshly dead dog.
"That's it," Graggs says. "Put 'em in the freezer."