Rather Than Fix the Problem, Houston Officials Ship Stray Animals Off to Other States

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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.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow