Update, December 16, 1:30 p.m.: McDowell has posted an open letter to me on her Sanctuary Watch page. I first contacted McDowell December 11, requesting an interview. She never accepted, but kept sending material, so I followed up with more requests for an interview, which were ignored. McDowell also sent me the content of her open letter directly, early Tuesday morning, well after my deadline.
A Seattle-based activist has launched a social media campaign against a Wharton County dog sanctuary, accusing the owners of cruelty and neglect, despite the fact that investigators have called the claims unfounded.
Maggie McDowell, an Amazon employee who gained notoriety in Washington state for helping shut down a dog sanctuary in that state, released photos that appear to show some of the Wharton sanctuary's 300-plus dogs living in cramped pens and suffering from eye and skin conditions. However, Wharton County Sheriff's Officials told the Houston Press that the claims are unsubstantiated, and Smiling Dog Farms has rebutted McDowell's accusations on its Facebook page.
McDowell told the Press that she used a fake name ("Martha Glendale") when she told sanctuary founders Jay Hellerich and Ricky Clements that she wanted to adopt a dog. McDowell subsequently filed a complaint with the Wharton County Sheriff's Office and posted photos and accusations on a Facebook page for an entity called "Sanctuary Watch," which she has described as a private 501c3 that's still being formed.
McDowell appears to be working in tandem with a corporate PetSmart employee in Phoenix named Richard Courtney, who has also volunteered for a group called Animal Rescue Corps. Courtney filed a complaint with the WCSO in September. Courtney told a reserve officer that he and his wife were at Smiling Dog Farms and "noticed some dogs that needed medical attention."
"We've been out to that place numerous times, we have never found any criminal violations," WCSO Lieutenant Raymond Janksy told us Monday. "The dogs are in good health. I don't know if this is personal between the individual that keeps contacting us and the folks out there, or what. But myself, along with three of my other detectives have been out there on several occasions."
Courtney hasn't responded to requests for comment, and McDowell hasn't been forthcoming either, making it difficult to figure out just what is going on at Smiling Dog Farms.
Here's what McDowell says in her open letter to Smiling Dog Farms on her Sanctuary Watch page:
The time has come for you to lay down your sword and to accept the help that you desperately need. In order for you to receive this help, you must open your doors with full transparency.
As previously stated, we have 900 timestamped photographs and video, including some audio recordings of our conversations with you. We have dozens of emails and text messages with Smiling Dog Farms staff and your adoption coordinator, Melody Nichols. We have received dozens of emails that include testimonials about the conditions at Smiling Dog Farms since 2010.
Here we have included a few of our photographs that we took with timestamps so that people can compare to the photographs you posted of these same dogs today on your Facebook page.
Smiling Dog Farms, this is not about people. This is not about winning or losing. This is about the dogs. In your heart of hearts, you know that you are failing them.
("Lay down your sword"? Oy. We want to digress and say that McDowell's allies in the rescue community also give us pause. She's tight with a California-based animal rescue group called Bad Rap, which acquired two pit bulls seized in the 2012 raid of the Spindletop dog sanctuary, which turned out to be anything but a sanctuary. Bad Rap refused to tell us, or anyone else, what became of those dogs. The group's CEO, Donna Reynolds, told us in an email that she suspected we were doing "the bidding" of people who disliked her group.)
McDowell also accused SDF of failing to spay or neuter the animals in their care -- resulting in at least one case of a dog giving birth; of dogs being stressed because they aren't walked or socialized; dogs not receiving adequate medical care; and dogs forced to live in tiny pens.
Here are some of SDF's rebuttals:
Every dog is up to date on shots, including rabies vaccinations. We are at the vet office several times a week. Every single dog at Smiling Dog Farms has been examined by a licensed Texas vet in the last 90 days.
Spay & Neuter: Most of our dogs have been spayed or neutered. The ones who are waiting to be spayed/neutered live alone or with another dog who has been altered. Dogs living at the farm do not have the opportunity to create babies and there have been NO so-called "accidental litters".
Puppies: Some female dogs come to us pregnant. When they deliver puppies here, we work to get the pups into adoption as soon as they are old enough. Since we closed intake completely in September (no exceptions), there will be no new puppies.
Food: Our dogs meals are a high quality, high protein kibble (26 protein, 15 fat) in feeder bins, which allow them to free feed
And also: "Housing: In April, 2014, we sold off the back 20 acres of the farm. A building program was begun to replace housing and move dogs from the back, which we had sold. During construction, we created temporary "tee pee" housing while the new houses were being built. These tee pees were very temporary and are no longer in use by any dogs. "
Hellerich and Clements -- as well as their attorney, John Perches -- haven't responded to numerous requests for comment.
Curiously, McDowell shared emails she obtained via a public record request that detail conversations among her, Hellerich, and Wharton County District Attorney Ross Kurtz, who has been a Smiling Dog Farms ally for years.
In an October 20 email from Hellerich to Kurtz, the former writes that "if a disinterested third party looked at our dogs, i am confident they would be satisfied they are being cared for...but someone like this woman will make her case, regardless of truth...she is looking for ammunition, not the truth."
Based on our reading of these emails -- as well as others McDowell shared with us in what has become a one-way conversation -- we can see where Hellerich's coming from.
But first, let us say this: some of the pictures released by McDowell are troubling -- such as one showing a dog whose nails haven't been trimmed in centuries. There's no excuse for that. There are dogs with goop in their eyes and nasty looking skin conditions. But so far, the only one claiming that these dog aren't receiving any treatment at all is McDowell, whose lack of transparency doesn't inspire confidence.
But also troubling is a complaint that McDowell unearthed, filed with the Houston SPCA by a man who worked at Smiling Dog Farms for three days in 2010. The then-18-year-old told HSPCA investigator Bob McClintock that he had witnessed animal abuse. McClintock referred the complaint to a Wharton County Sheriff's deputy, who reported that the complaint was "unfounded."
The ex-employee emailed McDowell December 8, claiming that in his three days there, he became familiar with something called "the dead pile," which he described as "a great big pile of rotting animals, mostly dogs." We followed up with this ex-employee, who asked that he not be named, and he stuck by his story. He said he never filed a complaint directly with the Wharton County Sheriff's Office because he figured they wouldn't believe him. He also said he didn't have a cell phone at the time with which to photograph the "dead pile" or any other deplorable conditions. (We also want to say this: It's clear that McDowell doesn't have faith in the Wharton County Sheriff's Office ability to spot animal abuse, and we're all for a healthy sense of skepticism. But are we to believe that a WCSO Sheriff's deputy noticed this "dead pile," but, for some reason, made no note of it?)
The ex-employee's complaint can't be dismissed. But we find it strange that he never complained to anyone else about a big pile of dead dogs until McDowell came along.
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In the emails (as on Sanctuary Watch's Facebook page) McDowell has asked Hellerich and Clements to allow a team onsite to inspect the dogs -- a team that McDowell said would include the Humane Society of the United States' Texas Director, a woman from a Colorado rescue group called Coloradog, McDowell, and Courtney, who would be one of the evaluators. It's unclear how Courtney is qualified in that capacity -- he very well could be, but he won't return our calls, and McDowell won't talk. So, we can sort of understand Hellerich's reticence to let folks like that decide the fate of their dogs.
As for Katie Jarl with the Humane Society, here's what she told us when we asked about the situation: "The Humane Society of the United States is aware of the concerns surrounding Smiling Dogs Farms in Wharton County, Texas. While The HSUS has not visited the property, local law enforcement has been on site since these photos were taken in August and have determined there are no violations of the law. The HSUS does not have law enforcement authority and we are unable to investigate or enter the property without an invitation from local law enforcement or the sanctuary owners themselves. The Humane Society of the United States recommends that individuals and groups looking to place animals in a sanctuary ensure that the sanctuary has the necessary resources to care for the number of animals they have."
Frankly, we'd love it if Hellerich allowed HSUS on the property, and if that group took the lead. When the HSUS handled the Spindletop fiasco, Jarl was open and honest with us. Unlike McDowell, she was a straight-shooter, which is a crucial component in making sure animals get the care they need.
For years, Smiling Dog Farms has accepted dogs from BARC and other shelters that were desperate to find homes for the saddest cases. Hellerich and Clements probably never knew how to say "no," and they are now probably in over their heads. They need help -- from legitimate rescue organizations and individuals who are willing to adopt, foster, or donate. Please visit the website for contact information if you're able to help. In the meantime, we'll continue to follow up on McDowell's accusations. And we'll also follow up on her background, because her methods do not sit well with us. They really shouldn't sit well with anyone in the business of finding out the truth.