For more than a year, a Huntsville-based animal rescue group has been picking up dogs from municipal shelters in and around Houston and sending them to a Connecticut shelter with a history of animal cruelty. According to one source close to the operation, the Texas dogs transported along this route number in the hundreds.
Connecticut authorities say the nonprofit rescue, Mr. K’s Halfway House for Hounds and Kitties Too, doesn’t have a license to bring animals into the state, but that hasn’t stopped Mr. K’s from transporting animals over the past 18 months.
The animals are delivered to the SPCA of Connecticut, run out of a foreclosed home that is set for court-ordered auction in March. The home doubled as the residence of former director Fred Acker, who was convicted on multiple counts of animal cruelty in 2014 and 2016, and sentenced to one year in jail. However, he disappeared while out on bond pending appeal, and is now a fugitive.
Acker, with the aid of current director Susan Fernandez as well as other employees, crammed dogs into cramped cages with often nothing in their water bowls but their own urine. They were warehoused in an open-roofed barn in freezing temperatures, or else stacked upon each other in an off-site kennel for as long as 24 hours at a time. Authorities’ seizure of the animals, and Acker’s subsequent trial, made headlines. (The SPCA of Connecticut is not related to the national organization, the ASPCA, or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The term “SPCA,” like “humane society,” is fairly common in animal rescue).
Lax laws at the time hamstrung state inspectors and were unclear on shelter guidelines. But a small band of legislators, disgusted by Acker’s treatment of animals, worked to pass legislation in 2017 to close loopholes.
Mr. K’s co-founder, Wilma Garrett, declined to comment on (or acknowledge) her group’s relationship with the SPCA of Connecticut. However, Garrett told the Houston Press that she doesn’t dump any of her animals in shelters — they go to pre-arranged owners. She said she transported 40 dogs to new owners in Connecticut and New York in November 2019.
She would not disclose how many animals in total she’s delivered there, but a source familiar with both entities, who asked not to be named, said it’s in the hundreds.
It’s easy to understand why a rescue would not want to be publicly linked to a shelter with an appalling history. But if the shelter is only a staging area for pets to be handed over to their new owners, there shouldn’t be a problem, assuming the rescue is licensed to operate in that state.
To be clear, the Press did not find any indication that animals in this Texas-Connecticut pipeline have been harmed or mistreated. But the lack of transparency, and loopholes in the Harris County Animal Shelter’s rescue group approval process, allowing Mr. K’s to deliver animals to Connecticut against that state’s regulations, reveal cracks in the narrative that many transport groups like Mr. K’s perpetuate: that all of their animals find happy homes.
Operating in the dark makes verifying any of Garrett’s claims difficult. It also raises questions as to how — or if — a nonprofit animal rescue that relies on donations can simply withhold information without being held accountable.
And it’s especially troubling when asking for basic information like the current board of directors, financials, and most importantly the fate of animals in Mr. K’s prompts hostility and threats from its spokesperson, and the hiring of a lawyer to assist in stonewalling.
“Stop fucking with me,” Mr. K’s spokesman, Rocky Fiore, eventually told the Press in an email, after multiple requests for information. “I smell a lawsuit, want to continue?”
Why continue? For one, it’s crucial for the public to know the fate of dogs transported out of Texas; secondly, vulnerable dogs and cats deserve the utmost accountability; and thirdly: A lot of this stuff is simply bananas.
Billed as a No-Kill Shelter, Brokering Transports to Where?
Throughout its two decades, Mr. K’s has been something of a soap opera.
From its humble origins in a home in the Heights, the group led a somewhat nomadic existence, moving to the Spring area off FM 1960, then to Tomball, where noise complaints landed the group in Harris County District Court. The lawsuit was settled when Mr. K’s found a property on Jackrabbit Road, which is where the Press interviewed Garrett and her mother Jackie Price in 2004.
“We look like hobo junction right now,” Price told the Press’ Margaret Downing, referring to the ramshackle conditions that was then home to roughly 120 dogs and 30 cats.
The dogs, Downing wrote, were “housed in an oddly configured assortment of regular kennels and miniature hutlike structures cobbled together from the plastic board used to build walls along highways. There aren't enough kennels for each dog to have one to itself, so sometimes they fight. Some lunge viciously at the wire mesh when a person approaches....Kenneled dogs have bits and pieces of concrete to stand on; the rest is bare dirt or, on this day, mud. An assortment of puppies, kept separately, tumbles over poop in their yard and in their food bowls.”
Beyond that, there were complaints that community service workers were stranded outside the facility when the owners showed up late and the resulting daily logs turned in to the country were questionable. As in were they being given credit for the time they arrived or the time they actually began work. Also some of the material donated to Mr. K’s to build dog kennels was instead used to build horse stables on private property in another nearby county. The private property in Montgomery County that was owned by the woman who was then the head of adoption operations for Mr. K’s.
Laura Carlock, an early supporter of Mr. K’s who would go on to run Rescued Pets Movement, which contracts with the City of Houston and the Harris County Animal Shelter to transport homeless animals throughout the country, told Downing that the animals were “well fed whether they stand in muck or not. They're well cared for."
But behind the scenes, in an email to Mr. K’s supporters, Carlock wrote, "Now, trust me, Mr. K's is not somewhere that I would send my beloved animals. And you would not want to send yours there either.” At that time, a representative of Harris County Animal Control said they had stopped sending animals to Mr. K’s in about 2002 because it didn’t meet the county’s standards of care.
Carlock was listed in early newsletters as the person collecting for a $35,000 campaign to buy property in Texas City. That never came to fruition, and for a while, Mr. K’s relocated to property owned by Price in Caldwell. According to a 2005 newsletter, Mr. K’s was holding weekly off-site adoption events at Petco and PetSmart.
Today, while the group calls itself a no-kill shelter, it operates primarily as a transport. The group's Facebook states that it does “not kennel animals in our Huntsville facility, we only foster them for a brief time as they are processed for adoption and given a Forever home.” (Although the group’s Yelp listing tells would-be adopters that the Huntsville location is open to the public on Mondays. When the Press went there on a Monday visit in late 2019, it was told it was not open and was doing adoptions off site.)
Before Garrett stopped talking to the Press, she said in November that she no longer adopted out dogs in-state because “too many of them...ended up dead in Texas.” (Garrett’s spokesperson contradicted this, stating in an email, “If a good home is found yes of course we adopt within Texas.”)
Small transports like Mr. K’s operate within a cross-country grassroots network (including Canada) where rescue groups work to save animals that in some cases are thousands of miles away. These far-flung transports can offer major relief to overcrowded municipal shelters.
Through social media, a dog in Texas or Tennessee that’s hours away from euthanasia can be “tagged” by a rescue in Ohio or Ontario, as long as a local group can find boarding. It’s then up to the recipient rescue to find an adopter, and these dogs and cats are often claimed before their new owner has even met them.
Mr. K’s has such a relationship with a Canadian woman, Cindy Archer, who runs a British Columbia-based rescue focused almost exclusively on relocating Houston dogs to Canada. Archer’s group is approved to pull animals from the Harris County Animal Shelter; Mr. K’s is not, according to shelter director Michael White. (The Press ultimately learned that a set-up between an approved and unapproved rescue, when neither are beholden to transparency, can be mutually beneficial.)
It's unclear when Mr. K’s ceased housing animals in Huntsville, or adopting them out in Texas -– in May 2018, the group announced a September open house on its Facebook, stating that animals there were available for adoption.
Mr. K's Facebook page is full of praise from supporters lauding Garrett for her tireless efforts, but Garrett, Fiore – and later, their attorney – were slow to respond to requests to hear directly from supporters.
It wasn't until December, when Garrett posted a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness Facebook screed accusing the Press of threatening to post her family's private information, as well as allegedly mocking Garrett's marriage history, that the Press heard from a handful of allies. (Garrett’s accusations are completely unfounded, as the Press made no such threats).
These supporters seemed to suggest that any time a person asks a rescue where their animals go, a puppy dies. And probably not in a merciful way, either. (As Garrett herself wrote about the Press's inquiries, “Let me tell you what this man is going to accomplish, he is going to accomplish getting a lot of dogs and cats [that] don't stand a chance killed!....To me, he's no better than the dog shit we clean off of our shoes.”)
But in a less apocalyptic email, donor Betsy Russell, who said she's also helped raise funds for food drives and vet bills, praised Garrett's efforts in the face of chronic animal homelessness.
“The issue of abused, misused, and unwanted pets in the Houston area is an absolute travesty,” Russell wrote. “Wilma can be viewed as a person trying to hold back the waters of Lake Conroe during Harvey with only a paper towel to work with. She is a humanitarian who often works out of sheer desperation and might take on more than she can handle because she simply cannot turn her back on an animal in need.”
Investigating the SPCA of Connecticut and its Leader, Fred Acker
In July 2016, Fred Acker, the former head of the SPCA of Connecticut, was convicted of 11 counts of animal cruelty and, two months later, was sentenced to one year in prison. Acker, then 64, had already been convicted of 15 counts of animal cruelty in a 2014 case involving animals at a different property, but his six-month prison sentence was suspended and he was instead given probation.
Neither experience slowed down Acker, who had been on Connecticut officials' radar since at least 2002, two years after buying a 3,600 square-foot, 18th century white-clapboard home in Monroe, about 80 miles northeast of New York City. Shortly afterwards, he opened the SPCA of Connecticut.
Acker fell into animal rescue after his previous company, which gathered people's personal banking information and sold it to attorneys and debt collectors, came under scrutiny from the Connecticut Attorney General.
The AG accused Acker of violating the state's unfair trade practices act in 1998, alleging that Acker pilfered private information from credit reporting bureaus and then used the information while impersonating those consumers in order to gain access to their bank accounts.
In 2007, a Connecticut court ordered Acker and his company, NRS, to “pay civil penalties of $442,500 and disgorgement of $350,000,” according to an Attorney General's report.
Although Acker's rescue was only zoned for 29 dogs, court records would later reveal that he imported many more from other states, which he stuck in satellite stalags in other towns – like an unheated barn in Bethlehem and a commercial kennel in Milford.
It was a Bethlehem animal control officer responding to a missing dog complaint in October 2012 who triggered the seizure of 63 animals living in squalid conditions in a concrete-floored barn, with an open rafter roof and lit by a lone, exposed light bulb, which ultimately led to Acker's animal cruelty convictions.
Court records indicate that Animal Control Officer Judy Umstead found 76 dogs in cramped cages inside the barn, and in “makeshift pens” outside, where they were becoming drenched in the rain.
“All the pens were on grass, water was pooling, and there was a lot of feces that they were all walking through,” Umstead wrote in her report. Inside, she found “frantically barking” dogs, some stuffed into cages “too small for the dog to even turn around.”
When Umstead returned three nights later with a state trooper, she pointed her laser temperature gun through a barn window and saw that it registered 28 degrees. Acker and Fernandez disputed the temperature; Umstead suggested that Acker buy a large thermometer for the wall, to avoid any confusion.
“He refused,” Umstead wrote.
Fernandez would later testify that it was cold enough on a night shortly before the seizure that she wanted to move eight dogs to the Monroe facility, but only had room in her car for four. Two of those left behind were terrier siblings, Henry and Penny, who shared a crate, and whose coughing had prompted Fernandez to want to move them in the first place.
And while the rescue was already dealing with a glut of dogs, Fernandez told Umstead she was heading to South Carolina to pick up more. (Fernandez declined to comment for this story).
Initially charged with 63 counts of animal cruelty, Acker was convicted of 15. The remaining dogs were returned to Acker.
By then, according to a 2013 animal control office's affidavit, the Town of Monroe's animal control division had racked up “91 pages of calls for service and/or complaints involving Acker and his rescue [including] complaints of sick and injured animals sold, poor property/kennel conditions, poor adoption practices and excessive adoption fees,” among others. (Monroe Animal Control Officer Ed Risko declined to comment for this story).
Despite the negative publicity, Acker soldiered on, even after his 2016 conviction, when Judge Denise Markle ordered him to leave the Monroe house within 30 days and have no further contact with the animals.
That conviction centered on 17 dogs Acker had warehoused in a commercial kennel before they were transferred to the Bethlehem barn. The kennel's owners eventually told Acker to remove the dogs.
The owners later described the conditions to an animal control officer: Stacked in cramped transport crates, three high, for as long as 24 hours, the dogs often urinated and defecated into their empty food and water bowls.
Some were covered in feces “due to the long-term confinement and lack of crate space,” Officer Todd Curry wrote in his arrest warrant application for Acker. The owners told Curry that some of the dogs suffered from diarrhea, worms, skin rash, hair loss, and other conditions.
An SPCA employee dispatched from Monroe to attend to the dogs told Curry that Acker only wanted her going for brief daily visits because he didn't want to pay any overtime. According to the warrant, the employee went to Fernandez with her concern, but, “to the best of her knowledge, no treatment was ever provided.”
After his 2016 conviction, Acker remained free on bond pending his appeal. Despite Judge Markle’s order, Acker continued to reside at the shelter for months. After he failed to appear for a November 2017 hearing, Markle issued a bench warrant.
His departure left the property in a precarious situation: in January 2018, the Bank of New York Mellon sued Acker and the entity that owned the property — Animal Adoption Network Real Estate, LLC — for back mortgage payments and interest, which swelled to $912,000 by August 2019.
Assistant State's Attorney Matt Kalthoff, who prosecuted the case, said that, because Acker was only convicted of a misdemeanor, the state has little power to retrieve him.
“I don't think it was necessarily just a scam,” said Kalthoff, who grew up on the west side of Houston, and who recently adopted a dog that had been transported from Houston to Connecticut.
“I know that there is an urgent need [for those dogs],” Kalthoff says. “There's shades of gray, right? There are times when you look at the efforts that were made by the SPCA [of Connecticut], and you say...? But for somebody making an effort to...bring these dogs to Connecticut and help them find a home...who knows what kind of shelter they would be in, in another part of the country.”
But, he adds, “And then...you'd deal with Fred. And there was just never any real effort to conform to the basic standards that are required of somebody in that position.”
Looking back on the dog seizures, animal control officer Umstead told the Press that Fernandez "was the one that was probably on the scene more than [Acker] was....She can talk a good talk, she can tell you all you want to hear. He's pulling the strings, still.”
When told that an animal rescue in Houston was sending animals to the SPCA of Connecticut, Umstead opined, “I wouldn't send a flea down to that place....This is what blows my mind, is that you've got all these rescues in the south, that think, 'Oh, everybody in New England is great, and we're going to ship all these truckloads of dogs up there,' and they have no clue who they're sending [them] to.”
Clearly, Mr. K's Doesn't Like to be Questioned
Almost from the beginning, Garrett and Mr. K’s Spokesperson Rocky Fiore greeted questions about dogs' destinations with hostility.
After agreeing to provide documents and photographs showing where her dogs go, Garrett twice canceled meetings before pawning the Press off on Fiore, who lives in New York and whose profanity-laden emails included schoolyard taunts and all-caps attacks. He also had the peculiar notion that subject of a news piece must first grant permission to be named in a story.
When told that the Press did not need Garrett's blessing, the spokesperson fired off a furious Fiorian fusillade: “Oh and I dont need YOUR permission to tell the WORLD what a loser piece of shit you are.”
Fiore, whose alter-ego Demonboy is a red-wigged, leather-clad, face-painted incubus fronting an eponymous “horror-rock” band, explained that he is an “International Public Figure and Entertainer,” and then threatened to leverage that celebrity.
“Next time you attempt to go up again ME think twice I have Millions of fans around the world that will surely take Offense to your sadistic un proffesional behavior [sic],” Fiore wrote in his inimitable style. “You didnt do your research on me buddy now you will suffer the consciences you have brought upon yourself [sic].” (Garrett and Fiore alleged that, as part of the Press's “witch hunt,” it was spreading rumors about Mr. K's animals going to laboratories.)
It was only after repeated requests for photos showing where the animals went that a handful popped up on Mr. K's Facebook page, showing smiling people with dogs, but lacking helpful context. (A close inspection of the photographs reveals that some were taken inside the SPCA of Connecticut).
But not all of Mr. K's animals were passed directly to new owners – some of the dogs pictured on the group's Facebook page were also posted on Petharbor.com and Adopt-a-Pet, nationwide services for shelters wanting more exposure for adoptable animals.
Non-profits that normally collect less than $50,000 annually, like Mr. K’s, are only required to file bare-bones online “postcards” with the IRS. Those filings don’t include financials or board of directors lists, but some organizations are willing to disclose that information to the public. (The longform 990s, posted on Guidestar.org, show that the rescue received between $17,945-$19,331 in grants and contributions for the years 2011-2013, but was left with only between $501-$1,055 after expenses.)
Also, in a somewhat confusingly structured regulation, the Texas Business Organizations Code allows the Secretary of State to request periodic filings from nonprofits “not more than once every four years.”
Those filings must include a list of the current board of directors, as well as the organization’s current address. Nothing precludes nonprofits from filing more often, but Mr. K’s hasn’t filed a report since 2005, according to Secretary of State records.
Failure to file a timely report leads to forfeiture, but the Secretary of State’s online database does not indicate that Mr. K’s was ever forfeited; nor does it indicate if the Secretary of State requested a current report. When asked to clarify whether a nonprofit is able to conduct business without filing a report in 15 years, Secretary of State Spokesperson Stephen Chang only referred the Press to the statute.
The overall obfuscation makes it difficult to track down current board members to ask even the most banal questions.
Take Garrett's sister Shirley Valdez, who was listed as a member of the board of directors on the organization's longform tax filings from 2011-2013, before Mr. K’s only filed postcards. Valdez, who was also listed as a primary contact for several recent Mr. K's fundraisers, didn't want to verify if she was still on the board. After saying the Press could not “prove” she was on the board, she said, “Quit harassing me. I have no comment....go screw yourself. Goodbye.”
Eventually, Mr. K's retained a lawyer, Shawn Williamson, who assured the Press that Mr. K's was not sending animals to “some nightmare facility.”
When asked about the SPCA of Connecticut's track record, Williamson brushed it off as being in the past. When asked why Mr. K’s was bringing animals to Connecticut without an import license, he said he'd have to look into it.
Williamson also had no explanation for how Garrett, with the aid of a Canadian compatriot, exploited what appears to be a loophole in the Harris County Animal Shelter’s rescue-approval policy.
Before a rescue group is able to pull an animal from the shelter, it first must be screened and approved.
In order to be approved, rescues must provide documentation showing they can meet the minimum for medical care, housing, and diet, among other factors. Once approved, a rescue may designate a person to pick up an animal it has placed on hold.
The policy states that an approved group may not transfer an animal to an unapproved group. However, that appears to have happened with Mr. K’s (unapproved) and its partner in Canada (approved).
In researching this story, the Press tried to track the movements of several dogs from Mr. K’s. One of them was included in a photo that Fiore provided to the Press and which also appeared on Mr. K’s Facebook page as having found a happy home.
The dog, Dawn, was distinctive because she suffered from a skin condition that left a trail of black scabs down her snout and her muzzle pink and raw. In September 2019, she was inching toward euthanasia.
In late September 2019, Dawn was listed as an “urgent” case on the Facebook page of a group of volunteers at the Harris County Animal Shelter who highlight needy cases. On October 4, 2019, the group posted that Dawn had been rescued by an outfit called Black Dog Rescue Society of British Columbia.
That organization’s Facebook page included a photo of Dawn, along with a comment that the dog was “safe with black dog rescue [sic].” The photo shows Garrett’s hand cradling Dawn’s snout.
Black Dog founder Cindy Archer
Here’s the confusing part: Williamson, the lawyer, and Fiore both told the Press that Mr. K’s had taken the dog to Connecticut. Williamson stated in an email that the dog was “originally to be rescued by and for Blackdog, but ended up going to CT [sic],” which wasn’t as peppy as Fiore’s response: “Listen you piece of shit YES the dog went To Connecticut to a good home [sic].”)
But if Archer transferred the dog to Mr. K’s, she would have violated the Harris County Animal Shelter’s policy.
We tried to straighten this out with all four entities — Mr. K’s, Archer, the SPCA of Connecticut, and HCAS. The replies were clear as mud.
From Archer: “Frankly none of your business.”
From Fernandez: “Whatever, asshole.”
From HCAS Director Michael White: “It is our understanding that the person that reportedly transported the dog to Connecticut also pulls, transports, and works with other rescue groups. At this point, we are not aware of other dogs pulled from Harris County Animal Shelter by Cindy Archer’s rescue group that may have been transported to the Connecticut shelter in question. We are continuing our investigation on this matter.”
White also confirmed that Dawn went directly to an individual adopter, and did not remain in the SPCA of Connecticut. Fortunately, there was a happy ending. But White still would not explain how the dog was transferred to an unapproved group in the first place, then shuttled into Connecticut without an import license.
An HCAS spokesperson declined to clarify one thing: If an approved rescue group can designate anyone they want to pick up a dog, what’s to prevent them from designating someone who runs an unapproved rescue, as long as they don’t disclose it?
Nothing in the shelter’s policy seems to address that possibility. If that’s what happened in this case, White wouldn’t say.
Like parvo, the silence was contagious.
The You-Can-Ask-But-We-Won't-Tell Policy in All its Glory
Before his mistreatment of animals finally caught up with him, Acker was able to clamp down on most critics in part because of his quick-draw legal threats.
That happened in 2014, after Leslie Yager, the founder of the Greenwich Free Press, wrote a series of hard-hitting pieces on the shelter, helping to keep Acker in the spotlight.
But he wasn't able to scare off a woman who visited his shelter in hopes of adopting a kitten on a sweltering summer day in 2016.
The woman, Themis Klarides, was the Republican Minority Leader for Connecticut's House of Representatives. An attorney and former bodybuilder who once served a stint as a ring girl for the WWE, Klarides earned a reputation as an advocate for the vulnerable, volunteering her legal services at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
At the SPCA of Connecticut, Klarides told the Press, she and her sister were concerned by dogs outside “that clearly looked like they were in distress.” The two employees on duty told Klarides that they weren't allowed to come in to see the cats because the owner wasn't there.” (Although the employees may have referred to Acker as the owner, Fernandez had already become, on paper, the shelter’s director).
“We finally convinced them to let us in, and it was just disgusting inside,” Klarides said.
Ultimately, Klarides learned that the reason Acker wasn't onsite because he was in court.
In July 2016, two months before Acker's second round of convictions, Klarides contacted the prosecutor and held a press conference, calling for stricter legislation to crack down on shelters like Acker's.
“The fact that [Acker] got convicted was a huge victory for animal rights in this state,” Klarides said.
“It was like pulling teeth to get him convicted of that, and then you find out that because it was only a misdemeanor, they can't do anything about the fact that he skipped town,” she said, adding that she hopes to introduce more legislation in the state's February session, “using this as an example.”
Of course, Klarides noted, there are already laws in place – they just need to be enforced. It's a frustration shared by Jo-Anne Basile, executive director of Connecticut Votes for Animals, which supported the 2017 legislation spurred on by Klarides and her colleagues.
Under the law, shelters must meet certain standards, and be open to Department of Agriculture inspection.
Basile said that local and state officials have expressed a genuine desire to crack down on troubling shelters, but massive turnover prompted by subsequent elections have seemed to stall efforts – including codifying new shelter regulations.
“It's perplexing to us...given the support that the law had, that it has languished for two and a half years,” Basile told the Press. “In addition that, in this particular case, you've got the importation law that is being violated, and apparently not much is being done.”
That importation law was again violated in December.
“I pray next year that I’ll be a lot better and I will be able to do more networking and transporting, doing what I can to save animals,” Garrett wrote on Mr. K’s Facebook page in December, shortly before another Connecticut run.
As always, the rescue could use donations. Just don’t ask them, or the Harris County Animal Shelter, where the animals are going.