A nationally respected animal rescue group says the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has not guaranteed the future safety of displaced animals it is caring for in Beaumont's Ford Center in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
In its September 3 petition, Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society says HSPCA President Patti Mercer declined the organization's offer to help, and has also refused to put in writing a guarantee that it will ensure a 30-day hold "for the animals of Beaumont to be reunited with their owners."
The petition claims that, while Mercer said her organization would enforce a 30-day hold, it would not commit to that — and other requests — in writing.
These requests include:
"Proactive pursuit of families and reunion of all pets displaced by Harvey
A clear, transparent operation that offers an appropriate standard of care
A guarantee for a positive outcome for all animals rescued. In other words, that all the animals in Beaumont are either reunited with their families; adopted into a loving home; or are transferred to an agency who will guarantee a no-kill outcome
Sharing of raw data so that the above points can be audited and confirmed by interested parties."
Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista told the Houston Press Wednesday he's still waiting to hear from Mercer and the HSPCA.
Battista said his organization's concern was to help guarantee a "long-term commitment, not just by [the HSPCA], but by all animal welfare organizations that go into these disasters and take on the responsibility of handling someone's beloved family pet, to ensure that they do everything possible to get that pet back to that family, and failing that to make sure that this [pet] will land safely somewhere."
He said that, too often, animals displaced after disasters wind up in a kill shelter's general population after the initial publicity dies down, and face a questionable fate.
"That's not fair to these animals, or to the people who have been separated from them," he said.
The Best Friends petition also claims that, because of HSPCA's "history of a lack of transparency around consistent reporting regarding the outcomes for the animals entering their care...We advised [Mercer] that her personal word in writing to us would do more to allay the public’s concerns than a press release, but again Ms. Mercer declined. Without this in writing, Best Friends does not feel comfortable with what is happening in Beaumont, or anywhere else the Houston SPCA is rescuing pets."
HSPCA spokeswoman Julie Kuenstle declined to answer questions, opting only to deny rumors — which were not started by, nor shared by, Best Friends — that the nonprofit was immediately euthanizing displaced pit bulls.
While Kuenstle would not address Best Friends' actual allegations, she did provide press releases stating that the HSPCA is teaming with the Petco Foundation and Finding Rover to provide CSI-like "facial recognition technology" that allows pet owners to search for their missing animals by uploading a photo.
"This is the first time in history that photos of 'found' animals arriving at shelters [will] automatically be loaded into a database which will continually search for a match," according to the statement.
While a noble venture, the system is not without hiccups: We uploaded a picture of a random beagle and got "matches" for beagles, dachshunds, pit bulls, poodles, an Australian cattle dog and other assorted mutts. We got similarly mixed results when we uploaded a photo of that rascally St. Bernard from the Beethoven series.
Petco Foundation Executive Director Suzanne Kogut clarified to the Press that it has not teamed solely with the HSPCA and has provided supplies and money to many rescue organizations to aid in the relief effort.
"We've reached out to all groups — Houston SPCA, Best Friends, telling them about this technology," Kogut said. "[The HSPCA] put out the press release about it, but that's really what our involvement is." She added, "We actually...provide support to help people save pets, that's what we do....Everything that we do is to try to save more animals."
Except, that is, to make sure if a bunch of animals are going to be alive after 30 days.
The HSPCA also said it was teaming with Adopt-a-Pet.com for an online foster-finder application called FosterAHurricanePet.org.
But Kuenstle, the HSPCA spokeswoman, avoided one of Best Friends' most serious concerns: Will any unclaimed animals wind up at high-kill shelters, where a 30-day hold is not enforced? The evasiveness is par for the course — the HSPCA has for years refused to provide the Press with intake and euthanasia statistics, as well as answer questions about the fates of certain animals it has purported to rescue.
Tara Yurkshat, the organization's vice president of animal welfare, declined to tell the Press if a Plott Hound overheated and died after a highly publicized October 2014 animal seizure in Santa Fe.
The dog, Bella, had been placed in the care of a man who allegedly became too ill to care for roughly 100 dogs on his property. When Susan Culver, who placed the dog in the man's care, inquired about Bella's status, she was allegedly told by HSPCA staff that the dog had died. Yurkshat would neither confirm nor deny that allegation.
The HSPCA is also unusual among animal rescue organizations in its refusal to make pit bulls available for adoption. In 2008, HSPCA's then-spokeswoman, Meera Nandlal, told us that pit bulls "are bred from a long line of fighting dogs to be aggressive."
As insipid as that position is, it was a remarkable and refreshing bit of candor from an organization whose flacks have long been less than transparent. Fortunately for the HSPCA, the Houston Chronicle and other local media haven't been interested in asking tough questions.
This allows the HSPCA to continue to rake in significant donations — $10.8 million in 2015, according to IRS filings — without having to disclose the fates of the animals in its care.
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The HSPCA provides "services for more than 50,000 animals each year, including dogs and cats, horses and farm animals, native wildlife, and exotic species," according to its IRS filings. Programs include "sheltering, adoptions [not pit bulls, of course], cruelty investigations, 24-hour injured animal rescue ambulance," and disaster relief, among others. The nonprofit claims to be "the only welfare organization in the United States with the ability to care for all species of animals on one central campus."
With credentials like that, we would hope accountability should follow.
HSPCA President Patti Mercer, salaried at $216,007, with $35,300 in estimated additional compensation, should be completely transparent about intake and euthanization. Or, if not her, than Yurkshat, salaried at $126,466, with $8,556 in additional compensation. Julie Kuenstle, the HPSCA's mouthpiece, should be willing to answer questions as well.
The organization also spent more than $570,000 on direct mail campaigns and "fundraising consulting" in 2015. There are local animal rescues who work just as tirelessly, with no compensation, with no capital at their command, who are transparent. There's no reason HSPCA should be any different.