As Hurricane Harvey made landfall on south Texas August 26, the owners of Tall Tails Animal Rescue in Chambers County left 122 dogs at home and drove to a movie theater in Baytown, 30 miles away.
Kevin Miller, the founder, told the Houston Press there was no reason to believe the storm would reach his half-acre in Hankamer, about 50 miles east of Houston. But when it did, one day later, Miller and his girlfriend, Kat Tschirgi, who also runs the nonprofit with him, says they did what they could to keep the animals secure before departing, leaving many of the animals behind in hopes of finding someone with a boat so they could return.
They were able to get dozens of dogs out in time, but 51 dogs were left inside the home, some of them in crates, with nowhere to go as the water rose outside, not quite making it inside. Yet.
Miller and Tschirgi put out pleas on Facebook, and, at a pavilion that acted as a staging ground for people and animals who were being rescued, they were offered help.
As a result of that plea the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office assisted in the rescue effort, but subsequently criticized Miller’s handling of the evacuation saying he appeared more interested in collecting donations than in saving the animals.
Ultimately, all of the dogs except one and many of the pigs were saved by good samaritans, a network of animal rescuers and the sheriff's office. Water did get into the house but by the time any recording was made of it, the dogs had been removed.
Now, while Miller and Tschirgi are crowdfunding on $92,000 on YouCaring.com to rebuild their home and operation, some of the rescuers are alleging that conditions at Miller’s dog shelter were deplorable, claiming there were too many crated dogs for that small a house. Meanwhile, Miller's attorney has issued cease-and-desist letters to clamp down the criticism.
The first rescue effort was made August 28, when a handful of rescuers were able to stack 20 crated dogs onto two boats. At the time, the water was approximately two to three feet high, but hadn't made it inside. But, as Cynthia Wilbur told the Press, the water was rising, it was raining heavily and they didn't want to just leave dogs in crates to drown.
Miller himself told the Press that the helpers let the dogs out over his objection — he was afraid the loose animals would attack each other, and he believed they would be safe inside the house overnight. (According to Miller, some of the dogs got into a fight and one was killed before the second rescue effort).
Wilbur of Dallas, and Michael Fertitta and Megan Bean of Silsbee, all claim that Miller undercounted the number of dogs they'd be rescuing. They claim he said it wouldn't make any difference if the dogs were let out of the cages because "they're going to drown anyway" — an accusation Miller adamantly denies. When asked why three strangers would level such a serious allegation, he said he had no idea.
Wilbur, Fertitta and Bean also claimed the inside of the house was squalid, reeking of urine, with room after room full of crated dogs – many more than Miller originally told them.
Bean, who is not in animal rescue, said the sight of the dogs made her cry, because she wasn't used to seeing animals in such condition. She also said the house "stunk so bad....it burnt your nose....That wasn't from one day, I can tell you that."
Wilbur, who said it took her 11 hours to drive in from Dallas to try to help rescue animals, told the Press the inside of the barely furnished house "was deplorable."
While the rescuers stacked crate after crate onto the boats, steady rain was making the water rise to the point where they wouldn't be able to get out, so they had to leave some dogs behind, Wilbur and the other rescuers said.
Wilbur added, "There was all these dogs in crates, all over the house...And I said, 'What are you going to do with the rest of these dogs? We need to do something.' He goes, 'We're going to leave them in the crates.'”
Wilbur said she could hear dogs barking in another room — the bedroom — and asked about them.
According to Wilbur, Miller said "'You can't let that dog out, he'll rip you apart.' And I opened the bedroom door, and it wasn't just a dog, there was another five dogs in there."
She began "piling crates on the back deck for the dogs, in case the water rose, so they could have something to stand on.”
Fertitta, who owned one of the two boats used in the rescue, said Miller told him and the other rescuers that were only 20 dogs on the property.
"What really pissed us off was he said he had 20 dogs that needed to come out of there,” Fertitta said. "If he said there were [more] dogs, maybe we could've got other boats to go with us to get them all."
Once Fertitta saw the inside of the house, he said, "It was the most disgusting place you have ever been in."
He added, "Kevin picked the dogs he wanted to take....He would say, 'Take this one, this one, this one....'"
But Miller said, "I have no idea who these people are that said that, or why they would say it," adding that saying "they're going to drown anyway" is "the most ridiculous thing any animal rescuer would ever say, in my opinion."
Miller and Tschirgi deny all claims of animal abandonment, saying accusers are on a "witchhunt."
Tschirgi posted a video on the property August 28, apparently shortly before the rescuers arrived, in which the water appears to be at least one foot high, and crated dogs and cats (who apparently all made it out later) can be seen on the deck. At the end of the roughly minute-long video, Tschirgi is already raising the issue of money, saying, "We're obviously going to need some donations to get back."
The donation issue was raised again when the Chambers County shaeriff's Facebook page posted a comment describing deputies' rescue of the remaining 31 dogs the following day. In a highly unusual public attack by an elected official against a private citizen who is not under investigation, the post claimed that "Miller appeared to care more about receiving PayPal donations than he did about the dogs or his imperiled neighbors, waiting to be rescued."
Shortly after the comment was posted, the Press was unable to reach a representative of the sheriff's office. But Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told the Press September 18 that he couldn't comment on Tall Tails because he had received a cease-and-desist demand from Miller's attorney. (The controversial post is still up, however).
Wilbur also received a cease-and-demand letter, dated September 1, shortly after all the dogs — but not all the pigs — on the Tall Tails property were rescued. The letter claims that Wilbur was spread "false information" and also demands that Wilbur return four pigs she rescued from his property. (The attorney, Courtney Gahm-Oldham, did not respond to multiple requests for comment). Wilbur has not yet returned the pigs.
About ten days later, Miller and Tschirgi posted a YouCaring fundraising page seeking $92,000.
When asked how he found the time to hire a lawyer to issue demand letters in the midst of a rushed rescue effort in which his animals were rescued by strangers and first responders, Miller said he couldn't comment on it.
Meanwhile, the Tall Tails YouCaring page repeats a claim made by Miller and Tschirgi that dams north of the property were either opened or breached, which exacerbated the flooding on the property, catching them by surprise.
The couple has never identified the name or location of the supposed dam openings, and Tschirgi told the Press via Facebook sheriff's deputies told the couple "they had opened the flood gates in the 'dam' and they were going to open a 'reservoir'....Kevin thinks they said livingston, but honestly doesnt remember [sic]."
The Chambers County Emergency Management's Facebook page on September 1 addressed the dam rumor, saying, "THAT RUMOR IS FALSE! Please advise anyone that posts or repeats that rumor that they are WRONG and that it's an awful thing to spread that kind of misinformation in an area that just suffered flooding!"
This is the first major public relations problem for Tall Tails, which is an assumed name for the Animal Safety League of Northeast Harris County, incorporated in 2012 by animal welfare advocate Rhonda Heffernan and two other advocates who were dealing with a spate of dog killings in Crosby.
Heffernan told the Press that Miller volunteered for the group as a trapper of stray dogs, and she spoke highly of his efforts, saying, "He saved quite a few of them."
After Heffernan moved, the nonprofit was transferred to Miller, who became president, and placed his pre-existing nonprofit, Tall Tails Boarding and Grooming, underneath the auspices of the Animal Safety League. Miller told the Press that the current entity covers expenses through donations and boarding fees.
The organization's 2015 federal tax filing shows that $78,905 in gifts, grants, and contributions in 2014 and 2015, and also drew roughly $51,300 in "program service revenue" in 2015. Miller also drew a $15,600 salary in 2015.
"I'm approved to receive a salary only if we're able to cover it out of boarding," Miller said.
As for a Facebook screenshot showing that the couple was at the movies in Baytown August 26, and not evacuating all of the 140 dogs, pigs, cats, and other animals, Miller said, "We're in an area that, as long as anyone in the area has ever lived there has never flooded. And we've been through some pretty torrential downpours in the past, and never expected there would be any flooding of any kind on our property. So yeah...we went and watched a movie the day before."
He said he spoke with residents in his subdivision who had been there "for generations and generations...and I confirmed that flooding was not an issue....We weren't overly concerned with flooding, but we had evacuation plans in place should it flood."
Miller also repeated the "floodgates" rumor, saying, "We never in a million years would have expected that, you know, after they opened the floodgates north of us that we'd get over a foot and a half of water overnight."
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While Miller has demanded that Wilbur return four pigs, he seemed to be unaware that his partner rescue in New York, Second Chance Rescue, had posted a Facebook comment September 15 saying another rescuer was transporting some of the Tall Tail dogs to Second Chance.
Kay Wladorek, who lives outside Fort Worth, confirmed with the Press that some of the Tall Tails dogs were driven from Dallas to New York September 16.
When asked about the transport, Miller said, "I would have to look at our spreadsheet and see which dogs went where...I don't know if Kay transported dogs to Second Chance. I really don't know the logistics of it all."
When asked if that meant it was possible that some of his dogs could have been taken to New York without his knowledge, Miller said, "No, we would know. Between Kat and myself, we know where the majority of the dogs went."