While Caroline Wedding has only been running the Marion County Humane Society for about three years, she has already been on plenty of animal-cruelty raids, and has helped find better homes for hundreds of dogs, cats and exotic birds. Still, she thinks it's unlikely she will ever come across something like what she encountered last Wednesday, when she accompanied multiple East Texas law enforcement agencies on a raid that will go down in East Texas infamy.
"If you would have told me a few years ago that today I'd be feeding tigers, cougars, and leopards, I never would have believed you," she tells Hair Balls.
And those are far from the only critters now in her charge. In all, 141 animals were seized when authorities from agencies ranging from everything from the Waskom Police Department Reserves to the Texas Animal Health Commission to the U.S Marshals Office converged on the rural compound of new-in-town former circus performer Barbara Hoffman.
The cat trainer moved two weeks previously to the outskirts of Jefferson, Texas, after being asked by Hidalgo County authorities to take her beleaguered menagerie away from Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley. In both places, it was her stated intent to open a sanctuary for the animals, though she had no paperwork to back that intention. "She had no permits. None from our county and none from any other county she had lived in," Wedding tells Hair Balls.
Wedding read Hair Balls the inventory of Hoffman's menagerie: "Dogs, cats, horses, Shetland ponies, mini-horses...and then we start into the turtles, parrots, sugargliders, doves, pigeons, Guinea pigs, wallabies, snakes, iguanas, different small reptiles, a tarantula, a coatimundi -- I think I'm pronouncing that correct, and right now the state is determining if it is endangered..."
And that's not all...
"Uh, we also have a monkey -- a crested macaque. She also had opossums, a raccoon or two, and then it goes to chickens, turkeys, ducks and a rabbit.
"Did I mention she had a wallaby?"
You did, we tell her, but you forgot about the big cats. "Well, those are so obvious. Here's the inventory of those: We have four tigers, and she had two cats she was calling 'panthers,' but that we think are really black spotted leopards. We also have just a regular leopard. Then we have what she is calling a Florida cougar, but we are not sure that's what it really is."
Wedding says the big cats had borderline health issues and were stored in cages that were much too small. Numerous witnesses to the scene described the conditions as filthy and reeking of animal waste. People on the scene spoke of ammonia vapors strong enough to burn your nose.
Wedding says that over a third of the smaller animals were stored in tiny pet-carrier type cages in the very same RV in which Hoffman and business partner Fred Lulling slept. She tells Hair Balls that Hoffman and Lulling shared that cramped living space with a total of 51 animals -- including 12 cats, 8 turtles, four boa constrictors, a tarantula, 13 birds, several sugar-gliders and Guinea pigs, not to mention the wallaby and the macaque.
"When you've got 50 small animals in a camper trailer that smells like 18 years of rotting urine, you're not taking care of your animals," said Marion County District Attorney William Gleason.
All of the animals were seized, and right now Hoffman and Lulling are in jail, charged with animal cruelty. According to Gleason, Hoffman can be cited for a Class C misdemeanor for not following regulations and sued by Marion County for fines up to $2,000 per day per animal.
For her part, Hoffman, who describes herself as "an ex-circus superstar," purported to be stunned by the raid.
"What happened to the welcome wagon lady? You know the one that brings you the brownies and say, 'Hey you wanna join the chamber? You want to be my friend?" Ms. Hoffman asked, in front of several law officers and a reporter from the Marshall News Messenger.
But Barbara Hoffman shouldn't have been so surprised. This was not the first time she had run afoul of the authorities in her superstar circus career.
Far from it.
But that's another installment of Hair Balls...
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.