Last month, Almita Flores of Houston found a gorgeous yellow lab. She says she posted flyers in her neighborhood as well as a notice on Craigslist, but never heard from anyone claiming to be the owner. After two weeks, she says, the dog -- who she decided to call Max -- got out of her gate, only to return with a five-inch gash, two deep holes in his hind legs, and swollen genitals. Naturally, Flores panicked.
Feeling overwhelmed and not thinking clearly, Flores posted on Craigslist again, asking for help on what to do for Max, rather than taking Max to an emergency vet. Flores said she got a lot of emails, but only one phone call -- from a woman she says who claimed to run an animal rescue. So this is how Max wound up in the hands of a woman named Michele Dow, and how no one -- not Flores, not the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, not Waller County Animal Control -- can even say if Max is still alive.
There's really no way to quickly capture the way law enforcement and a supposed animal cruelty investigative organization appear to have dropped the ball, so please bear with us.
Flores tells Hair Balls she drove out to the home Dow rents in Pattison, just outside Brookshire. She described the setting as an overgrown shack with "dogs all over the place," trash, and a golden retriever "with two deep holes on his back." She says Dow told her "another dog had bitten him."
Why Flores didn't get out of Dodge at that point is a maddening mystery, for which she's kicking herself.
"My god it was a mess," Flores explained in an email. "She went to the back of her home and brought back a dirty muddy water hose." Flores wrote that Dow "stuck the water hose into his wounds" and that Max "whined in pain."
When Flores went to her car to get a blanket, she wrote, Dow took Max in the home. Inside, Flores wrote, were dogs stacked in cages all over the kitchen and dining room. Flores said she was taking Max and splitting.
According to Flores, Dow "began raising her voice saying that I was selfish and that I probably could not afford to take care of the dog and that she needed to keep the lab over night." She said the dog needed more "therapy," according to Flores.
The more Dow rambled, the more Flores -- stuck out in the middle of nowhere -- freaked out. So she left. And then she lied. She called Dow and told her she had just heard from the owner, so she'd need to come back and get Max. No sale.
The more Flores called, begging to get Max, the more angry Dow grew. Flores sent us the transcript of the texts Dow allegedly sent her. In one, Dow allegedly threatened to call INS. (See, Flores is Hispanic, so she must be undocumented, get it? That's how rational, responsible people act -- they threaten to "call INS" on people who express concern when other people ram hoses into fresh, gaping wounds). Dow changed her number that night. Because again, that's what rational, responsible people with nothing to hide do. Fortunately, we were able to find another number for Dow. When we explained that we just wanted to check up on Max, we got the boot.
"This woman is truly a psychopath," Dow said of Flores.
When we told her we found multiple instances of her claiming to have a no-kill non-profit online, she said, "You only came across one [reference], so let's keep it real." She said that she was looking into starting a 501c3 at one point, but "The last step is $1,500, which is why I haven't had it."
Before she hung up on us, she told us, "This lady's a nut. Why don't you talk to her and you'll probably have a great story."
It seemed like pretty strong words from a woman who continued to post messages on her former veterinarian's online obituary memorial for years, updating a dead woman with stories of all the animals she's acquired -- at one point totaling 51.
She also wrote that "my cpa has made me a 501c not for profit corporation! and i am QUITE good at getting donations! $$$.....so as i said the place is a zoo...."
Which is odd, because, as previously noted, Dow told us she never had a 501c3. So what exactly were these "donations"? And if she was so good at getting "$$$," why couldn't she afford the $1,500 incorporation fee? Were those "donations" used to satisfy an old student loan (plus interest) of $21,998.06 that the U.S. Department of Education had to sue her to recover, according to federal court records? We don't know, because Dow wouldn't answer questions. (Strangely, Dow told her dead veterinarian at one point that "we moved to Mississippi last summer so i can finish law school....").
On another website, Dow posted a comment saying she had 21 dogs and 13 cats, and that she runs "a small not for profit no-kill shelter."
And while the non-existent shelter may have been no-kill, it apparently wasn't no-injury. Dow's tales on the obituary website are riddled with anecdotes about injured animals. There was Turbo, who "cut his face, and had to get doggie plastic surgery (lol)," and there was Fetch who "got sassy" with Barney, so Barney "kicked his ass," so Dow had to lay out some "$$$." She also wrote that "I really do wish that u could meet my new kids! i lost 5 last year but with you being up there i feel like they are safe and doing just fine!"
We also wonder how much of the 501c3 hold-up was due to "$$$" and how much was due to not passing a screening. Dow wrote at one point that "i had my 1st screening done by an investigator...it is one of the steps in becoming a full 501 c 3...tax deductible...no-kill/not for profit animal shelter...i passed with flying colors! they have to do a series of on-site investigations to be sure i am not a collector/hoarder." So back to Flores -- you know, the one who's "nuts": she called the Waller County Sheriff's Office asking for assistance. The Sheriff's Office call notes state that Flores "was dog sitting and the dog was injured while in her care, she continually lied to the rescue lady...to cover up the first lie. Eventually, Flores attempted to be honest with Dow, Dow took the dog to the vet and advised she would willingly release the dog to the rightful owner, not trusting Flores would do the right thing for the dog."
(The "vet" isn't named -- so we don't know if it's the vet who passed away, or the one in Mississippi, where Dow sometimes goes to law school. It certainly isn't Companion Animal Hospital of Waller, because Dow had a falling out with the vets there. See, one of the vets is apparently a "mental nut" who accused Dow of being an animal "collector." Sensing a pattern yet?).
And here's what Captian Brian Cantrell of the Sheriff's Office told us: "We have made calls to [Dow's home] and we are under the understanding, kind of by both parties, that the dog was a voluntary surrender....Ms. Dow to our understanding has paid some vet bills to treat that dog. I also know that the [Houston] SPCA has gone out there and confirmed the welfare of the dog, and made sure the dog was OK. I also know our animal control was made aware of it....Our animal control did call [Houston] SPCA to confirm...they followed up on it....We want to make sure the dog's OK. We have an obligation to do that."
Sure. But there's obligation and there's air-quotes obligation.
The HSPCA investigator who Cantrell told us visually examined the dog told Flores in emails that she could not gain access to the inside of Dow's home in order to see the dog. (In true HSPCA fashion, Flores' initial animal cruelty complaint generated an automated reply stating that HSPCA takes "animal cruelty seriously," followed by a hit-up for a donation).
Here's an email from investigator Liz Pavlicek: "I have already been out to the property and left a notice. I was unable to make contact with anyone and have not received a call yet. I will need some sort of proof that there is an injured dog there. Do you or anyone else have any photos of other evidence? I did see one yellow Lab running around that did not appear injured but I am not sure if that is the dog you are referring to."
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Pavlicek later followed up with, "I spoke to the veterinarian myself so at this point I cannot pursue anything further. If you can get proof of any dirty conditions at the property where the dogs are kept then I can speak to law enforcement about taking further action."
We hope it's true that Dow has a veterinarian, and that this is the person the investigator spoke with, but color us skeptical. The bottom line is: contrary to what Cantrell told us, in none of her emails to Flores does Pavlicek ever say she personally examined the dog.
Part of our problem is that the HSPCA has been historically uncooperative with the Houston Press whenever we've sought information for stories. This may be a function of the Press not routinely busting out the kneepads for them, as certain other publications are wont to do. (Sidenote: We have similar problems, by the way, with the Houston Humane Society, who will only speak to us through a lawyer -- who rarely returns calls -- because we had the audacity to write about a lawsuit one of their employees filed against the shelter director. In fact, it's been a generally accepted local media practice to scrutinize the dickens out of government-run shelters while giving passes to HHS and HSPCA).
We hope Max is OK. And he might be. Dow really might be a miracle-worker, out there in her home in the country, where she has apparently been in custody of up to 51 animals at a time without any discernible source of income. We'd love to call her back and see if she'd send us a picture of Max, but, frankly, we're just too afraid she'll call INS on us.