On a Tuesday morning in a former performance hall in the Heights, a few hundred dogs and cats are getting ready for a 19-hour drive to Colorado. Former residents of the city's continually overcrowded pound, BARC, the animals were pulled and placed in foster homes by a rescue group called Rescued Pets Movement.
The group formed in 2013 and has transported more than 4,300 homeless animals to a network of rescue groups in Colorado, a state that imported more than 17,000 dogs from across the country in 2013. (A small number of animals are transferred to rescue groups in Utah and Wyoming as well.) The animals are loaded into four new vans tricked out with climate-control systems to keep the animals comfortable on their long journey. One of the group's co-founders, Cindy Perini, says each vehicle is personally financed by an individual board member.
Fosters line up at the front desk of the building, which used to house Third Coast Comedy and Houston Danceworks and is the future home of the Jack C. Alexander Clinic, made possible in large part by a donation from Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. A BARC veterinarian gives the animals a final once-over before the fosters walk into the staging area, where the animals are tagged with the names and contact information for the rescue groups that will be receiving them.
No one can say with certainty what will happen to all of this shipment's animals, nor can every other animal transferred to the groups be accounted for. Word of their fates relies on how often the groups update RPM -- the groups are encouraged to submit "foster report cards" -- and RPM points to numbers the Colorado groups have to turn in to the state Department of Agriculture every year. But not every group knows how to fill out the forms, so relying on those numbers is a shaky proposition.
It's no matter, though, because neither Mayor Annise Parker nor BARC Director Greg Damianoff appears to be concerned where the animals wind up, as long as they're not Houston's problem anymore. The City Council is also on board, allocating $265,000 to RPM in 2014.
The Press learned quickly that asking questions about Houston dumping thousands of animals on another state is a bit of a sore spot. Neither Parker nor Damianoff would talk to us for this story, and BARC delayed the release of public records for 14 days. We had asked for the names of groups RPM partners with -- information we believe the public has the right to see, since the public is footing part of the bill.
Fortunately, RPM co-founders Perini and Laura Carlock provided the names of its partners as well as the number of animals placed with each rescue. But in the meantime, there appears to be a problem: City officials seem more interested in getting as many animals as possible out of Texas, rather than working on a long-term solution to dealing with the estimated 1.2 million stray animals roaming Houston.
While Parker and Damianoff have lauded the sparkling new adoption center slated to open this spring, this still seems to be a window-dressing approach to the problem. Transparency and accountability still do not seem to apply to BARC, a historically mismanaged facility whose revolving door of directors have ostracized and banned volunteers who have dared to criticize or question its operations.
Once upon a time, there was a city agency named the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, and it was a freaking house of horrors.
It took in roughly 25,000 animals a year and was housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, whose director seemed only vaguely aware of that arrangement, and staffed in part with a veterinarian who regularly botched routine feline spay procedures. Another veterinarian was fired after he complained that automatic cage cleaners accidentally washed an average of six puppies a month down the drain, a problem that officials claimed had been resolved in 1993.
As we reported in 2002, that vet, Sam Levingston, also told then-BARC director John Nix that dogs "unloaded from the trucks were jerked to the ground so roughly he heard pelvic bones crack" and that "unruly dogs...were drowned in flea dip and labeled 'dead on arrival.'" Levingston also complained about animal control trucks not being properly air-conditioned, resulting in a lot of dead dogs. He would go on to win a $1.2 million whistleblower suit against the city.
Back then, the Houston Chronicle's Bill Murphy regularly covered BARC, and those in animal rescue who feared for animals at BARC had someone to turn to. The glut of bad ink prompted then-mayor Bill White to do what politicians do when they want to be perceived as forceful and effective: He convened a "task force" that produced a report on how to improve BARC. It was summarily ignored, and White washed his hands of it.
But things continued to get so bad that even the most apathetic officials could no longer play ostrich. One animal control officer -- a registered sex offender who had raped an 11-year-old -- was accused of slamming dogs' heads in doors and of binding them with rope and dragging them around. Another animal control officer enjoyed her lunch while eight dogs overheated to death in her truck. (The truck's driver said only six died and that BARC later euthanized two, which a BARC spokesperson denied.) Around the same time, news broke that BARC's chief veterinarian had had her license suspended in New Jersey after accidentally killing three dogs during surgery.
Kent Robertson, BARC's then-director who hired that vet, quit in 2008 after two years at the helm. Robertson's replacement, poached from Florida, lasted three months. In late 2009, White pulled BARC out from under the auspices of Health and Human Services and stuck it in a department called Administration and Regulatory Affairs, where it remained under the watchful eye of Alfred Moran, whose position as board member of a private prison company called Cornell Companies made him just the kind of dude you want overseeing the care and well-being of defenseless puppies. (Fortunately for the city, Murphy left the Chron in 2009, and BARC and Parker can now depend on the paper not to scratch beneath the surface.)
Moran tapped a church buddy, Gerry Fusco, to be BARC's interim director. Fusco was a cypher who was alternately described as a consultant, a change-agent and a "Six Sigma." Fusco's first order of business was to ban volunteers who said anything negative. His second was finding a permanent BARC director. After what we assume was a tireless search throughout the four corners of the Earth, Fusco found his man: a former regional sales manager for 24 Hour Fitness.
The new director, David Atencio, and Moran continued the tradition of silencing complainers. When BARC's African-American Community Involvement Coordinator was demoted and had her salary cut by $10,000, she suspected her race might have been a factor. After she emailed her concerns to Parker, she found herself called into a meeting with Moran -- a meeting that she recorded. Moran told her, "You've escalated this whole thing to the Mayor. I got that call....You and I don't need to get into some sort of a conflict. Because you won't win that." Moran told her that it wasn't "smart" to write Parker, saying, "She's got my back. You don't need to take me on." To illustrate how he and Parker were BFFs, he told the beleaguered employee: "I was with her last night at dinner."
Under Atencio, BARC launched a low-cost vet clinic. After Atencio resigned in 2012, the clinic's manager, Damianoff, took over the reins and continued the tradition of avoiding tough questions. It's a job made especially easy given the lack of local media outlets that even want to ask tough questions of BARC.
As for Parker: Alleged dinners with titans of the private prison industry aside, the mayor has at least tried to drum up more awareness -- and dough -- for BARC than her predecessors. The facility's downhome-soundin' low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic, Fixin' Houston, launched in November 2014. BARC's budget increased from $7.7 million to $8.6 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and City Council approved an additional $2.9 million for 2014-15. (More curiously, a BARC spokesman claimed in January 2013 that the city had "entered into discussions" with an Austin-based low-cost spay-neuter clinic called Emancipet. After two years, that must be one humdinger of a conversation.)
In July 2014, Parker held a press conference to talk about BARC's new adoption center, which looks really pretty in pictures, and to say that the agency was headed in the right direction.
"Frankly, for decades, BARC was a mess," the Chronicle quoted Parker as saying. "Now it is staffed by business-minded people who still have a heart for animals."
The public image of RPM that both the group and BARC want you to see is exemplified by a photo accompanying a November 2013 puff piece in the Chronicle.
In the pic, co-founder Laura Carlock is cradling two puppies who are so adorable as to almost be edible, and she's kissing one of them. It's genius. The article does not say where those puppies are going. It's as if it doesn't matter.
Still, the piece did name two of the rescue groups RPM partners with, a rather remarkable feat given how much of a lid RPM likes to keep on its partners. Carlock and Perini say this is in deference to those rescues, who they fear would be inundated with so many requests from other rescues and individuals to take animals that it'd be hard for them to get any work done.
Although RPM formed only in 2013, Carlock and Perini have been in animal rescue for years. Both are attorneys, but only Carlock practices full time (she specializes in commercial litigation). They co-founded Scout's Honor in 2006, but Perini temporarily relocated to New Mexico, where she started a successful transport program. When she returned to Houston, Scout's Honor started a small-scale transport program, using Perini's contacts.
"It had been so successful for me in New Mexico that, to me, it...didn't make any sense -- the effort that I put in to save one dog, I could save 500," Perini says.
This ultimately led to a philosophical divide, with the majority of Scout's Honor's board wanting to focus on transport and move even more animals to Colorado. Those board members left to form RPM.
With connections to Scout's Honor's donors, and donors elsewhere, RPM has proven to be a fundraising juggernaut. And given the program's expense, it would have to be: RPM's four vans cost $78,000 each, and monthly veterinary bills have run as high as $90,000. The group was especially lucky to have ties, through Carlock's husband, to Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who has donated to animal welfare causes.
Thanks to Alexander's donation, RPM will be able to build its own clinic and boarding facility, named in honor of Alexander's father. Whether Alexander knows where the dogs he's paying to dump in Colorado end up is anyone's guess. (His PR flack, Tracey Hughes, literally refused to even forward our questions to him, instead telling us to speak with Carlock; apparently, if we want to know Leslie Alexander's personal opinion on something, we should ask Carlock.)
Carlock and Perini say having a vet conducting wellness exams and vaccinations in-house will save a fortune, and a planned 53 kennels will allow them to pull even more animals from BARC each month. The facility will also include a grooming area and two quarantine rooms.
The women say they were able to get support from BARC because they approached Damianoff with a concrete business plan.
"We made it easy for [BARC] because we did all the work," Perini says.
And it's true: When a city pound can depend on a single group to swoop in and haul off hundreds of dogs a month to another state, and those dogs become someone else's problem, it's a boon for the live-release rate. The numbers look awesome.
What's often difficult, Carlock and Perini say, is getting people in Houston to wrap their heads around the concept that there can actually be a demand for rescue animals in another state. But RPM is hardly the only rescue transporting animals to other states.
No organization has transported more shelter animals than Rescue Waggin', a program of PetSmart Charities. Since 2004, Rescue Waggin' has transported more than 80,000 dogs to 70 shelters around the country. But transport is just one component of the program, says Karen Walsh, PetSmart Charities' field program manager. Rescue Waggin' experts work with the source shelters -- mostly in the South, where animal overpopulation is a bigger problem -- in a mentoring capacity. They want to help source shelters work with the community to expand awareness of, and participation in, low-cost and free sterilization programs.
"We're trying to cut off the spigot in the source shelter town rather than just move animals around," Walsh says, adding, "There's lots of people transporting dogs, but not as many people that are actually working with resources to try to change what's happening where those dogs are coming from."
Most of the dogs are transported to shelters in the North, where animal control facilities have been "working on this problem more diligently, for a longer period of time, than we have in the South," Walsh says. "And so they're just ahead of us. There's no reason why we can't do what they're doing. They've just done it first."
In 2012, a coalition of local rescue groups calling themselves Unity for a Solution lobbied city officials to expand spay-neuter initiatives in Houston. The coalition issued a scathing press release in 2013, claiming that "under Parker's administration, the city of Houston has attempted to control overpopulation by focusing on adoptions and euthanasia, a strategy that has failed to reduce the numbers of homeless and unwanted animals throughout the city."
But Unity for a Solution's campaign imploded almost as quickly as it began, and the coalition isn't making as much noise as it once did. Despite that, BARC moved forward with an initiative called Healty Pets, Healthy Streets. Salise Shuttlesworth, executive director of Friends For Life, a no-kill shelter, partners with BARC's vets to spay and neuter cats in targeted areas. Since 2013, the program, "Fix Houston," has spayed and neutered 476 cats, preventing approximately 7,200 births.
It's a broader approach than the city's arrangement with SNAP's mobile clinic, which only offers free spay-neuter services to clients who can show proof of participation in a public assistance program and only accepts a maximum of 24 cats and dogs at a time. Qualifying residents are chosen from a lottery held at 6:30 a.m. on surgery day.
Under Fix Houston, everyone qualifies -- there's no lottery, there are no barriers to service.
"I really couldn't be happier," Shuttlesworth says. "This has never happened before. We've had shelters since 1924 in Houston, and there has never been a public-private partnership with the City of Houston to bring free spay and neuter services."
Still, Unity's members seem split over how effective the initiative is.
Barrio Dogs Director Gloria Zenteno, one of Unity's most vocal collaborators, told the Press that the Healthy Pets initiative is "a project that's similar to what we've proposed" but that it's "still very limited in its approach."
Zenteno also told us, "We just would like to see more energy -- and money -- going toward the root of the problem. To me, kind of shipping our animals out of state is kind of a bad reflection on the city of Houston. I mean, we should take more ownership of that problem. It's kind of embarrassing that we have to ship our animals out of state."
Another Unity member, ADORE Director Angela Madeksho, told us that ADORE supports RPM.
"They've saved thousands of innocent souls, and they have helped some of the Unity partners save dogs," she said in an email. "This problem is just much bigger and Unity is looking for more support from both the city and the community in regard to low cost vetting, spay/neuter and education."
Carlock and Perini say they want to see traditional rescues succeed as well and would be willing to help craft a business plan, but Perini also says that some individuals and rescue groups just "sit on the sidelines and bitch about what's wrong" without ever proposing a concrete plan.
The women say there's room -- even necessity -- for both traditional and transport rescue groups in Houston.
"Spay-neuter is going to get you there long-term," Perini says, adding, "in the interim, though, the animals today matter, too."
Bottom line, Perini says, is this: "There is no reason an adoptable puppy or kitten should be dying in this city. It's just not acceptable -- not when other places want them."
Jan McHugh-Smith, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado Springs, believes in animal transport as well, even though her agency, which acts as the regional animal control authority, has seen what can happen when it goes wrong. And in February 2014, things went wrong with an RPM partner.
That month, responding to a complaint, the Humane Society's animal control team seized nine dogs from the home of Joann Roof, who ran New Hope Rescue in Colorado Springs.
An inspector found Roof's house to be cluttered with "trash and debris," and observed "animal wastes in enclosures and many other areas" of the house. The New Hope volunteer who filed the complaint alleged that two of the three dogs she received from Roof "were in terrible condition," but that Roof told her, "I would have to deal until they were adopted because we are not [going to] pay $50...for a vet check."
The volunteer wrote that she also received "a mama with puppies with worms. I have not been given worm medication." She also wrote that Roof wanted the puppies spayed in a trailer belonging to a friend of Roof's, as opposed to a veterinary clinic. The volunteer wrote that she found this objectionable, not least because "a few of my friends dog died their last week [sic]."
Roof was charged with animal cruelty -- she recently pleaded no contest and received six months deferred adjudication -- and the Humane Society found homes for the dogs. But the Humane Society also reached out to media in Houston, stating, "The animals in New Hope Rescue's care were transferred from BARC in Houston through Rescued Pets Movement." The Humane Society "is now investigating Colorado Springs foster homes affiliated with New Hope Rescue, as it is believed BARC and RPM have transferred as many as hundreds of animals from Texas." And while the Humane Society felt that transport programs were an important part of rescue, it's the source shelter's responsibility "to ensure animals are moved to a facility where they will receive appropriate care and support."
RPM responded with a statement on its website, pointing out that New Hope was licensed by the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act program (PACFA), which Colorado officials tout "as the most 'inclusive and comprehensive' animal welfare program in the nation."
The statement then proceeded to mischaracterize the complaint as a disagreement over "an alleged failure to do [heartworm] treatment on a nursing mother that had only been in Colorado for ten days and was still adjusting to her new surroundings," rather than concern about dogs living in shit-smeared cages.
RPM also claimed, "The mother and puppies at issue in the New Hope matter had no other option except for RPM's transport program. BARC contacted us, informed us that no other rescue group could take the family, and stated they would be euthanized by the end of the day. We literally were the last hope for this family of a mother and her seven puppies. We then contacted our Colorado rescue colleagues, and New Hope stepped up to help this mother and puppies, heartworms and all."
Fosters can go south for a number of reasons. It's an occupational hazard that every rescue could face. But instead of accepting responsibility for placing dogs in what turned out to be a bad home -- taking its lumps and moving on -- RPM lashed out at everyone else: The group chastised the Humane Society for refusing to return the dogs and for having expensive adoption fees; RPM also accused other rescue advocates who "have jumped on board to question our practices without investigation" and lamented that "we have had to waste significant time and energy to respond to baseless, uninformed allegations and supposition."
RPM also took the opportunity to play its favorite card: If you in any way question RPM's practices, you are branded a dog-killer. By describing the Humane Society's investigation as a controversy over transporting heartworm-positive dogs, RPM claimed it was "being forced to suspend assisting heartworm-positive dogs. In just the past two days, we have had to decline to help three families of mothers and nursing puppies" who were heartworm-positive. RPM alleged that those dogs were euthanized and that they "could have had a chance at rescue and life but for the position that heartworm-positive dogs are per say 'unhealthy.'"
When a KHOU reporter showed Damianoff a photo from the New Hope home, the BARC director said, "Photographs are one thing. Animals do go to the bathroom and animals do, you know -- you got puppies in a cage, they're gonna do their business. So that's basically what you saw in that photo." He also added, "We're not dealing with New Hope anymore." The Humane Society's McHugh-Smith says she still believes in animal transport -- her shelters regularly take in animals from New Mexico -- but "the partnership there is really key, because both agencies have to believe in each other."
"I believe in transferring -- I think responsible groups...can do a good job and can save lives," she says.
Carlock stated in an email to the Press that "we communicate with the Colorado groups on an almost daily basis" and that RPM keeps track "of adoption and kill rates of our rescue partners, and ensure[s] that all have save rates of at least 90% (which qualifies an organization as 'no kill')."
The "adoption and kill rates" RPM bases its figures on do not translate into exact numbers of how many RPM-transported dogs live and die. They are predicated on the numbers the Colorado groups have to turn in every year, per PACFA requirements. Therefore, it's important that the groups actually know how to fill out the forms.
Our attempt to get exact numbers from an RPM partner called Farfel's Farm Rescue really threw a wrench into the narrative presented by both groups.
In a June 2014 email to its volunteers, RPM included a letter from Farfel's co-founder Sandy Calvin, who wrote of placing "almost 450 dogs" the previous year. But the PACFA numbers RPM relies on -- and has continually directed the Press to -- do not reflect Calvin's claim. Farfel's PACFA statistics do not show how many dogs the group adopted out -- the field in that form is blank. It shows only that two dogs were euthanized, one died and that the group had a "year-end inventory" of 350.
When we called Farfel's for an explanation, we were transported to the Twilight Zone.
We called Farfel's and asked for Calvin, but a woman named Becca Orin told us she knew about the group's adoption numbers. She told us the "year-end inventory" of 350 dogs were the dogs that were placed in a "forever home."
She explained that "PACFA likes to do things very confusingly. It's very hard for us to even figure out how to fill it out every year."
Orin said she didn't have exact numbers at the ready for how many RPM dogs Farfel's received and adopted out in 2013, but that she could probably get them. But, she said, "I'll have to talk to RPM and see what they want us to say."
A short while later, we got a call from Farfel's co-founder Jeff Richey, who said Orin was mistaken about the year-end inventory number: That was not how many animals were adopted out. Richey didn't have the number, nor could he explain why the 2013 PACFA report had no record of Farfel's dog adoptions.
He did, however, estimate that probably half of the dogs Farfel's received in 2014 came from RPM. He didn't have the numbers at the ready, but he insisted on telling us the history of Farfel's Farm Rescue and how "we have a reputation in five states now...of being able to place these dogs in homes like no other." Richey couldn't tell us how many RPM dogs his group has adopted out, but he could tell us that the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks very highly of Farfel's. (Go ahead and read that sentence as many times as you want. It will never make sense.)
We were surprised at the lack of concrete numbers, given Carlock's claim that RPM is in almost daily contact with its partners. After we expressed our frustration to Richey that we were more interested in those actual numbers than what the heads of various federal agencies tasked with monitoring climate variability and drafting policies for recreational saltwater anglers felt about Farfel's, the conversation took a turn for the worse.
A short while later, Richey called back to say he checked a few things and that Farfel's received "virtually no RPM dogs" in 2013. He said his group "pretty much began with" RPM in 2014, but those numbers weren't due until mid-March.
"It's probably in the 300-range, I'm guessing," Richey said.
Good enough, we guess.
It's also important to note that the PACFA numbers, unreliable as they may be, apply only to RPM's partners in Colorado -- rescues from Utah and Wyoming also come to Denver to gather RPM's animals. And those states do not have similar reporting requirements.
Moreover, Lindsey Tempest, the head of a Wyoming group that RPM partners with, told the Billings Gazette in 2013, "Our overpopulation problem in Casper is insane."
The paper also reported that 27 dogs and seven cats were "euthanized in 2012 because the Casper city shelter ran out of space." The paper also noted that "another 253 cats were killed because they were feral and less likely to be adopted."
We asked Perini why, if Casper had an overpopulation problem, RPM was placing animals with Tempest's group, Tempest Critter Control.
She explained in an email that puppies and "other highly adoptable dogs" aren't always available with local shelters or rescues. So if those local organizations import puppies, they can create traffic and "help bring attention" to the harder-to-adopt dogs.
Which is a fair point. But in November 2014, Tempest Critter Rescue posted a plea to save two highly adoptable six-month-old lab mixes from a local shelter. Sisters.
"We only have a few hours to tag them for rescue," the post reads. "....They don't deserve to die."
On a recent Facebook post, RPM congratulated BARC -- and technically itself -- on a January 2015 live release rate of 80.6 percent.
"For comparison, their live release rate last year was 71.9% and was 58.8% in January 2013. RPM promised BARC we'd move 500 dogs and cats out of their shelter in January and February. Last month we did 542 and we hope to do the same this month, if not more. Yay, BARC!"
The numbers are impressive. Hundreds of dogs have been saved from death row. Hundreds more will need saving next month. And RPM will transport those to Colorado. Hundreds more will need saving the month after, and the month after that.
RPM will continue to congratulate BARC on those fabulous percentages. And percentages are math -- you just can't argue with them. On paper, those percentages are damned impressive.
On paper, those percentages don't point out the obvious: Those dogs and cats are going to Colorado because no city in Colorado is suffering animal overpopulation like Houston is. Those cities, like the cities that Rescue Waggin' partners with, tackled those problems years ago. And they did not tackle them by sending thousands of animals to Texas or anywhere else.
Through RPM, city officials are claiming to "save" thousands of animals, and they might be, but all officials can say for sure is that RPM has relocated thousands of animals. For some, that's all that matters.
And if Houston's animal overpopulation crisis continues, RPM could probably do this forever. Carlock says she hopes that's not the case. The ultimate sign of success, she says, would be when a program like RPM is no longer needed.
Carlock puts it like this: "All I say is, I'd love to be put out of business."