With a history of mismanagement, reckless disregard and outright abuse under its belt, the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care has its work cut out for it when it comes to righting wrongs.
Houston's devoted and vocal animal rescue community has been integral in instituting a change in command -- and hopefully, attitude -- at the beleaguered agency, and the latest war over the future of a severely injured dog has brought this issue to light.
Earlier this week, animal control officers brought in a roughly year-old dog with severe eye trauma: the photo is brutal. The bloody eyes protrude 75-percent from the sockets. It's enough to make you angry, disgusted and depressed in one fell swoop. BARC posted a nationwide plea for fosters/adoptive homes, and the vet staff concluded that the damage was so severe that the eyes were just not salvageable. Surgery to remove the dog's eyes is set for Friday.
But advocates across the city raised an estimated $2,000 to have the dog examined by an opthalmologist, and for the dog to be given x-rays or an MRI -- equipment that BARC sadly lacks. They say that no decision should be made without exhausting all efforts to see if the eyes can be saved, or to determine the full extent of the damage. (BARC spokesman Chris Newport says officers and vets are not sure what caused the injury, but they think the dog may have been hit by a car).
"We understand the amount of care and attention that folks in the community have..." Newport told Hair Balls. He said he understands the skepticism that these advocates have toward BARC.
But he adds that this is a new vet staff, and says they have given the dog the proper care and attention, and did not jump lightly to the decision of such radical surgery: "This isn't a situation where the animal is being left on the loading dock for indeterminate amounts of times like used to happen."
He says the vet staff concluded that too much time had lapsed between the injury and the time the dog reached BARC for the eyes to be saved. He said the staff believes that surgery is the most humane course of action, and that the added stress of further testing would harm the dog for no medically valid reason.
But Bett Sundemeyer of No Kill Houston e-mailed city officials this week, asking why BARC vets refuse to allow the dog to be examined by a private vet at no cost to the city.
"It is absolutely absurd and inhumane to make her sit at BARC for even one more minute, waiting to have her eyes removed when people are begging to take her and give her proper care," Sundemeyer wrote. "...How can BARC even consider operating on this dog without so much as an x-ray?"
After follow-up care in Houston, the dog will go to the home of Pablo Baccim, Jr., and his wife Valerie, members of the nationwide Blind Dog Rescue Alliance, who live in Alabama.
"In this situation, I see both sides," Pablo Baccim Jr., told Hair Balls. He believes that, if an outside vet could look at the dog in a timely fashion, then what's the harm? On the other hand, he has experience with dogs who have lost their eyes, and they've been able to live happy lives. He says he and his wife are currently raising a dog who received a shotgun blast point-blank in the face. Another dog, who the couple rescued from a drug dealer's compound in Oregon, was attacked by other other dogs and lost its eyes after an infection set in. Baccim, a former Houston resident, said he's aware of BARC's reputation and understands the shadow the current leadership is living under.
"I've heard all the horrible stories," he says. "People get a reputation they deserve." However, he says that, based on the picture he saw, "I think this is too late" to save the eyes. "I think it would've been too late from the moment of the trauma...."
He says that there's just as much a chance the dog will remain with the couple as be adopted out.
"We're what's called foster failures," Baccim says. "Dogs come to our home and we fall in love. We're human beings."
Given BARC's history, this will not be the last time that the decisions of the new vet staff will be called into question. But Hair Balls believes it's important to keep in mind that none of these vets (that we're aware of) have the sorry history of the infamous Dr. O, and we need to give this new team a chance to show that they might actually be capable of properly caring for animals.
They've got a tough road ahead of them, and skepticism is surely in order. But they are also going to have to make judgment calls, and they're the ones in the trenches. It's not a pretty job. We need to see how similar problems are addressed in the future, and then determine if there's a pattern of neglect, or just of tough decisions not everyone is going to agree on.
The city has just released an official statement. Here it is:
We appreciate the amount of concern expressed by the community for one of our most recent future pets, who has been dubbed Keiko by the employees of BARC.
On the afternoon of March 15, 2010, BARC Animal Control Officers delivered a female pit bull mix dog that had suffered severe head trauma. The animal was immediately assessed by BARC veterinary staff, who determined that the dog's eyes and optic nerve suffered irreparable damage as a result of the trauma. The veterinarian administered pain medication to comfort and stabilize the animal. This was successful.
On Tuesday morning, March 16, 2010, BARC Chief Veterinarian Dr. M'Risa Mendelsohn, DVM examined the dog and determined that surgery would allow the dog to be successfully fostered and ultimately live a healthy life. All four veterinarians at BARC concur that the damage to the eyes and optical nerve is irreversible. The animal is in stable condition and exhibiting normal behavior and has been playful with our staff.
BARC staff issued a plea to its foster/rescue network, including the Blind Dog Rescue Alliance, to locate a foster willing to provide a home and the ongoing veterinary care required for the animal to recover fully and to be rehabilitated. A willing foster with previous experience rehabilitating blind dogs was identified by Tuesday afternoon, and the surgery is scheduled for this Friday, March 19, 2010. The animal will be transferred into foster care after it recovers from surgery over the weekend.
The animal, which is approximately one year old, will continue to be administered pain medication and to be observed for neurological damage. BARC veterinary staff report that the dog has not expressed symptoms of neurological damage at this juncture.
BARC's medical team responded promptly to stabilize this seriously injured animal, immediately evaluated the medical options that would provide the best chance for it to lead a healthy life, and we fully support the decisions made by this team. BARC staff also took the proactive step to reach out to a nationwide network of fosters to locate a future home for this animal.
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