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

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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."

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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