HSPCA and Prosecutors Won't Say How Rescued Dog Died

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The Houston SPCA and Galveston County District Attorney's Office are not revealing the fate of a dog whose former foster believes overheated and died during a highly publicized seizure in Santa Fe last month.

Susan Culver says the dog's death was disclosed at a September court hearing to decide what to do with more than 100 dogs, turtles, and snakes recovered from a home belonging to Joe Granata. However, Culver says HSPCA personnel would not say how the plott hound mix named Bella died -- only that she was not euthanized. The Galveston County Sheriff's Office's seizure inventory listed Bella as being in good condition.

Tara Yurkshat, the HSPCA's vice president of animal welfare, would not discuss Bella with the Houston Press and would not say whether the dog was alive or dead.

Bunny Bennett, who also attended the court hearing -- her husband represented Granata -- says Yurkshat and prosecutor Brent Haynes told her Bella died, but said they didn't know how.

Haynes would not confirm whether the dog died, but he did say that any claims of neglect were "unsubstantiated." However, he did not say how he was able to determine that -- no one from office investigated whether Bella or any other dogs died during transport.

He also said that the Sheriff's paperwork listing Bella as being in good condition was not based on a thorough veterinary examination, but a "basic prioritization" or "triage type of assessment."

Haynes described the seizure as difficult, saying at least a dozen HSPCA personnel were onsite "for almost 12 hours in hot, humid, flea-infested, tick-infested, mosquito-infested conditions, dealing with 142 animals, some of which were feral or semi-feral. They had to load these animals, they had to load them even though some of them were acting feral. They had to get them crated, then they had to transport them approximately 50 miles back to their facility."

He said that, "if an animal dies during that process, it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that it is negligent, and it is even more wrong to jump to the conclusion that it is a crime. It was a difficult, time-consuming, complex process. Not all the animals were cooperative, and not all of these animals were in good condition to begin with."

Haynes also said that "it would be a shame if speculation or conjecture led to the wrong conclusion."

We agree. And a powerful antidote for speculation or conjecture is full disclosure. We cannot fathom why the HSPCA feels it's in the public's best interest not to know.

We're also baffled by Haynes' comments, which suggest that, since animal seizures are laborious, it's understandable if an animal dies in the process. It's preposterous: there is no evidence that the seizure was an emergency or surprise, so we fail to understand how an animal rescue organization, with the words "prevention of cruelty to animals" in its name, can't spend part of an afternoon spitballing how to load animals in a truck without having them die.

Also, we understand the idea that the Sheriff's inventory is an eyeball assessment, but if an animal is 12 hours away from death, we're not sure how it could look "good" to even the most untrained eye.

Culver told us in an email that " the HSPCA was grossly negligent in the way they conducted the seizure down in Santa Fe. After repeated requests, the HSPCA has refused to give me any concrete answers as to how [Bella] died while in their possession....According to Tara Yurkshat of the HSPCA, she wasn't euthanized or put down for any reason, which leads me to believe that something went terribly wrong during the seizure.... I can only surmise that her death was somehow heat-related or she suffocated while in the trailer, either way being a very painful way to die."

She added, "There seems to be no legally-mandated standards as to the manner in which these types of seizures are to be conducted. I am going to be contacting state elected officials to see if laws can be put into place so that the health and welfare of these animals are not jeopardized and that any seizing entity should be held accountable if an otherwise healthy animal dies as a result."

We're all for accountability, which is something that has never been applied to the HSPCA. The organization rakes in millions while assisting law enforcement, yet does not disclose what happens to the animals it takes in.

The HSPCA does not disclose its kill rate; the most recent figure we're aware of, from a 2005 report for a mayoral task force, stated a 65 percent kill rate in 2003. When the HSPCA began unloading less easily adoptable animals to BARC or Harris County Animal Control, the kill rate decreased to 58 percent.

While the task force called the HSPCA "professional and efficient," the report also stated that "The [H]SPCA says that a pet's chance for adoption plummets by 80 percent if it is not adopted in a week, and soon thereafter the [H]SPCA euthanizes these unsuccessful pets to make space for newer candidates."

Of course, this report is nearly a decade old and new policies might be in place. We don't know, because the HSPCA doesn't discuss policy. It's a one-way street: they'll take donors' contributions, they'll take puff-pieces from local media, which has largely seemed uninterested in the organization's lack of transparency; but the HSPCA won't give in return. It won't provide fundamental information we believe should be public.

We didn't have this problem with the Humane Society of the United States, when that organization took custody of nearly 300 dogs in another highly publicized seizure in 2012.

The HSUS worked tirelessly to track down the current and former fosters and owners of those dogs, something that doesn't appear to have happened in the Santa Fe seizure: Representatives of Lucky Dog Rescue tell us the organization spent more than $4,700 trying to recover two dogs from the HSPCA.

Lucky Dog volunteer Mary Elle Arbuckle said she tried to recover the dogs the day of the seizure -- the dogs' microchips had the group's contact information -- but the HSPCA did not want to relinquish the animals. So the rescue wound up having to hire a lawyer and spend thousands to re-rescue its own dogs.

That's a shame, because while $4,700 isn't much to the HSPCA, it's devastating to a grass-roots rescue like Lucky Dog. The group has since set up a fundraising page to try to recover the expenses.

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