A Dog's Life

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A pack of dogs roams the premises. Nearly all are large, many of them pit bulls and chows. Watching them are the caged dogs, 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. Most bark and snarl at the so-called trustees allowed to run the yard.

It is a dank day, not unlike many in Houston as winter melds into spring. Thanks to recent rain, many dogs are standing in muck. 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.

The cat house can be identified from across the yard by its smell. Inside it about 30 cats move freely; this is a no-cage building. It seems many of them spend their days marking their territory.

This is Mr. K's Halfway House for Hounds and Kitties, Too. It is a no-kill facility in an industrial area out on Jackrabbit Road. They try to keep it down to 100 dogs, but lately it's been running 130 to 150, with 30 cats. The Houston SPCA is turning away dogs; the city has more than it can handle. Independents such as Mr. K's increasingly fill the gaps.

Strapped for cash and constantly making appeals for dog and cat food, materials and money — even with the support of the Houston Young Lawyers Association — the 501(c)(3) nonprofit continues to try to save the world on a shoestring, surviving on donations and adoption fees.

"If anybody like the SPCA would come in here, probably 75 to 90 percent of these dogs they would euthanize," says Jackie McNew, who operates the facility with daughter Wilma Rowe.

That's the key issue for its ardent supporters. Mr. K's does not kill. McNew proclaims, "We take the unadoptable and make them adoptable." But many of the dogs aren't adoptable after quite a while there and remain caged at Mr. K's night and day — such as a pit bull named George Foreman who can't be persuaded not to try to kill other animals. Even if unadoptable, no animal is euthanized.

Notable, admirable in several ways. But some area animal lovers call Mr. K's a travesty of what an animal shelter should be, believing that its founders/owners are overwhelmed collectors of animals who don't find homes for many dogs and who don't know when to say no to new ones. And that the well-meaning and sometimes powerful people who are Mr. K's supporters are shoveling money at the organization when perhaps they should be shoveling poop.

Even McNew readily admits, "We look like hobo junction right now." But their efforts seem stalled on how to get out of that situation.

Other questions arise:

Critics say Mr. K's leaves Harris County community service workers stranded outside its locked gates when the owners show up late. And when the workers enter, which time is being recorded on daily logs turned in to the county: the time they arrived, or the time they actually began work? Either way, someone is getting shorted.

And why did some of this much-needed wall material donated to build dog kennels end up being used to build horse stables on private property in Montgomery County? And why was some of it sold off? And did community service workers on loan put up fencing and stables and a round pen on that private property — property leased by Leslie Van Biljon, the head of adoption operations for Mr. K's?

The Harris County Probation Department doesn't want to talk about how its workers were apparently employed another county over; director Paul Donnelly didn't return repeated calls from the Houston Press after one of his subordinates began tackling the questions, then moved the matter on up the food chain to him.

Possible shenanigans aside, a trip or two to Mr. K's certainly causes a person to ponder some basic questions. To wit:

Is life in a cage in a dump better than no life at all?

Mr. K's, named after an Australian shepherd mix that was an early rescue by Wilma Rowe, is an oft-told story. Standing in a small office on the property at 9203 Jackrabbit Road, McNew recites it, beginning with the grooming shop on 11th Street in the Heights six years ago. Her choice of words matches almost exactly a laminated newspaper story hanging on the wall behind her.

Mr. K's did not get a reputation as a good neighbor. Complaints prompted its move to a place on White Oak Drive, where residents of a neighboring apartment complex said they didn't want it either. Moves followed to the Spring area off FM 1960, then to Tomball, where the dogs' barking landed Mr. K's in court.

With 100 dogs on her hands and faced with imminent eviction, Wilma Rowe saw a For Lease sign on the 2.6-acre Jackrabbit property in Cy-Fair. She negotiated the rent down to $1,276. By now they were down to 50 dogs. They got some donations, bought kennels and set up shop in February 2002.

Rowe has committed her life to the dogs. "I gave up my marriage for Mr. K's," Rowe says. "My husband thinks it's a waste of time because the problem is not getting any better, it's getting worse. He gave me an ultimatum: Either get a divorce or continue what I do."

She's also filed for bankruptcy. She supposedly lives on kennel grounds in a small house next to the puppy compound. Mr. K's was cut off by its original dog food supplier after falling behind in its accounts. Katy veterinarian Greg Wood at the Animal Clinic at Kelliwood provides free exams and deeply discounted medical services for the shelter and seems to be a great guy. But even he cut them off after they ran up $2,500 in unpaid bills. Wood reinstated his services after they cut their balance in half. Located miles from the shelter, he rarely makes it out there. They bring their animals to him. Many of their adoptions also operate off-site.

To support herself and her mother, Rowe works for Hug a Pet, a pet-sitting service. No one is paid at Mr. K's, although McNew says that if they get ahead they do take a little salary.

Critics of Mr. K's declined to have their names used for this column, saying they are afraid of retaliation from Leslie Van Biljon or that they would have difficulty continuing to operate in the relatively tight-knit rescue community. All say they believe Rowe and McNew started with the best intentions, but that they do a lousy job. Some say they have hesitated for months or even years to say anything critical of Mr. K's, afraid that by doing so they will tarnish the reputation of all area dog rescuers and shelters. Several want Mr. K's called to accounting on its finances; others say the dogs aren't cared for properly, that they occasionally go without food.

Rowe concedes that someone hasn't always been there to let in the community service workers on time, and that there have been a few occasions where they've been left out for an hour or two. She welcomes the help of the Houston Young Lawyers Association, which is trying to settle Mr. K's debts, get it better organized and help it find a permanent home. In fact, this search provides an excuse for less-than-optimum conditions now. Why put in a slab if you're just going to pull out of there in a short while? Van Biljon says.

The outdoor dog kennels are hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Before they reach the promised land, the dogs will have to continue to tough it out.

Leslie Van Biljon is alternately described as very charming and manipulative and vindictive. "She's one of those kind you don't mess with 'cause she'll screw up your life," says one acquaintance. From South Africa, Van Biljon is a stay-at-home wife and mother who has immersed herself in animal rescue and joined Mr. K's a little more than two years ago.

She has leased land in Montgomery County, where she has brought in horses — the exact number fluctuates — to do horse rescue, she says. Their stables were constructed from the wall material that was donated to Mr. K's by local architect Mo Nasr. (Nasr did not return calls to the Press.)

Wilma Rowe says there were no irregularities. Both she and Van Biljon say Mr. K's is applying to have a sort of branch location on this Montgomery County property. There are five dogs from Mr. K's living there now, she says.

Rowe and Van Biljon confirm that some of the donated highway barrier material was resold but say they used the funds to pay vet bills for Mr. K's. "Anytime we have extra stuff, we can sell it," Rowe says.

Asked about the use of probationers on Van Biljon's land, Rowe at first denied their presence, then explained it as "community service workers who are also volunteers and are doing it on their own time." Van Biljon says Mr. K's has applied to be able to bring community service workers out.

There are a lot of people willing to say they don't like Biljon, although again, not necessarily to her face, saying she has a bad temper.

On March 29, Trey Arnold, an officer with the Animal Abuse squad of the Montgomery County Constable's Office, came out to investigate a report that Van Biljon had beat a recalcitrant horse in the head. Arnold says he cannot talk about the case, other than to confirm that it is under investigation.

Van Biljon says there is always infighting in the local rescue community and that her detractors are just pursuing a vendetta against her.

Harris County Animal Control stopped sending animals to Mr. K's about two years ago, according to Colleen Hodges, agency spokeswoman. It didn't meet the county's standards of care, she says. But the county has no authority over animal shelters; it can only decide to which facilities it will send animals.

The number of rescue groups — or placement groups, as many prefer to be called now — has grown exponentially, to more than 200 in the Houston area, Hodges says. "They come, they go. They get mad at each other. You don't know who you're sending your animals to. It may turn out to be 50 dogs crammed in someone's garage.

"People are donating money, and people don't know what they're donating to."

Concerned, Hodges and some others formed the Texas Animal Release & Placement Alliance, or TARPA. Shelters must adhere to a code of ethics governing shelter, food, medical treatment and adoption placement to receive TARPA certification.

Mr. K's is not TARPA-certified and has never applied to become so, Hodges says.

Hodges also questions the use of teenage community service workers at Mr. K's when some of the dogs are known to be aggressive. Many years ago the county used teen workers but stopped "after one kid got nailed in the face," she says. It's hard to get across to kids that a certain dog is dangerous to be around, she says.

Hodges also doesn't agree with the no-kill policy, not when it leaves dangerous dogs out there, not when a dog spends its life in a cage. While dogs like this are being saved, there are thousands of other dogs being put to death every year who would make good pets. Why shouldn't the resources go to them?

Rowe and McNew say cages are cleaned every day at Mr. K's. Some former volunteers at the facility say no, that cleaning efforts often fall behind. McNew says that Mr. K's got a citation from pollution control but has dealt with that by putting the poop in garbage bags instead of washing it into the ditches. Once a week, McNew says, cages are cleaned with bleach. She says the SPCA and the Humane Society have been out and have given them tips. They never cited them for any wrongdoing, though, she says.

One woman who volunteered there labeled Mr. K's "the Andersonville of supposedly humane shelters."

Attorney Laura Carlock is one of several Mr. K's supporters who called or e-mailed the Press to say she'd heard we might be doing a negative story and she really didn't want to see that happen.

Carlock, who doesn't believe in animal euthanasia except in cases of extreme illness, says she founded Mr. K's 100 Club (members donate $25 a month, which goes for rent and utilities) to help the shelter catch up with rent and vet bills. All the facility needs is a little more organization, she maintains.

According to Carlock, about 100 people are members, which would mean $2,500 a month, in addition to whatever Mr. K's gets for its adoptions ($95 for a dog). Yet Mr. K's sends out weekly, desperate appeals for money. Vet bills, food and medicine suck away the rest of the money.

Carlock insists that life at Mr. K's is better than no life at all. The animals at Mr. K's are in good shape, she says. "They're well fed whether they stand in muck or not. They're well cared for."

Actually, some of the dogs look pretty bad, a few with no hair. Rowe and McNew say it's hereditary mange, that they're doing a service by taking dogs that no one else would want. Dr. Wood says mange is a common problem with dogs in kennels, especially after they've been in there a while. "Kenneling of any dog is stressful," he says. "It's not like an individual home environment sort of thing." Living in a shelter can put too much stress on an animal, which compromises its immune system, he says.

In one e-mail, Jackie McNew appeals for three bags of dog food to get through the next day.

To Mr. K's critics, this is proof that it is not a viable operation. One woman says she used to volunteer, but after responding to several desperate appeals she began to notice that nothing ever changed. It was like a store that was perpetually going out of business. Always there was a crisis.

If people don't have the wherewithal to operate a shelter, they can still be involved in animal rescue, saving one animal at a time, adopting them out to other people. Critics say if you can't operate a shelter right, then you shouldn't have one — find another hobby.

"I don't know what's worse: being on the road or being out there at Mr. K's. It's not a fair life," one woman says.

Why in the world would a shelter, already drastically behind in its ability to pay for too many dogs, take on cats and horses, too?

Just because someone works hard doesn't mean what they're doing is working. However dedicated they are.

Rowe and her supporters remain determined and defiant.

"There's always somebody out there who doesn't like what I do. It would be so easy to kill all the dogs, and I would resume a normal life," Rowe says. "Don't criticize me if you can't walk in my shoes."

"People have kind of put Wilma down for years, and she bounced back every time. We aren't going anywhere," says Van Biljon.

Neither, it appears, are too many of their dogs.

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