A Dog's Life

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.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing