It's after-hours on November 15 at the municipal pound in the country's fourth largest city and a caged German shepherd named Koda is slowly chewing off his left hind paw.
Five-year-old Koda’s tan hair is accented by a swatch of black across his back, and a gross discoloration of the paw, which has become necrotic, with rotten tissue Koda will bite and tug on until it slips off like a glove, turning much of the lower leg into a pulpy stump of exposed metatarsal bone. Veterinarians at an emergency animal hospital would later amputate the entire leg.
Five days earlier, a Houston animal control officer, armed with a warrant, had seized Koda from his owner’s home following an October incident where the 85-pound dog bit a woman’s hand and forearm, leaving some serious gashes.
City prosecutors sought a court order to have Koda put down, and his owner appealed. On Monday a municipal court judge will hold a pro-forma hearing reminding everyone that a stay of execution is in place. Meanwhile, the bite victim has filed a $2 million dollar lawsuit against Koda’s owner, as well as her apartment building.
But in the city’s push to have Koda destroyed, there seems to be little interest in figuring out just how an animal in the city’s care can be allowed to severely self-mutilate. There are no overnight personnel to monitor animals at BARC that might offer clues.
The incident with Koda is the latest controversy at BARC, a shelter plagued over the decades by mayoral and department-wide neglect, populated by vets who’ve butchered or accidentally killed animals during routine surgeries, and vets who’ve blown the whistle and been ostracized or fired.
Both a BARC veterinarian and the shelter’s director, Greg Damianoff, speculated that Koda’s paw may have gotten tangled up in bedding provided by his owner. However, there is no clear understanding of what happened.
How does a dog with four legs leave its owner’s home and wind up one leg short while in the City of Houston’s care?
Here’s how: According to an October 22 police report, 26-year-old Morgan Webre was walking Koda on Malone Street, near the Rice Military area, when he bit a passer-by named Melissa Nance.
The report states that Nance, 41, “was out for a walk and observed a dog chacing [sic] a squirrel and being pulled by a female. The dog was barking up a tree at the squirrel and [as] she was walking by, the dog bit the complainant. She said the dog was going wild and grabbed onto her arm. The dog bit her on the right wrist. The dog then grabbed a hold and would not let go for a short moment.”
Webre told the Press that her dog has no history of aggression, and that he bit Nance because he had been startled. She said Koda was on a leash, and in a timeline she wrote for court, she believed Koda had been focused on a squirrel in a tree and had not noticed Nance approaching.
Nance said something — Webre wrote that she didn’t remember exactly what was said, only that “it was a general, good-natured comment” — catching Koda off-guard, and because Nance was close to Webre, Koda “acted out of defense and bit [Nance] on her right wrist. It was a quick bite and he let go.”
Nance was treated at a nearby hospital, and, according to the lawyer she hired to sue Webre and Webre’s apartment complex, she suffered two severed tendons and has no feeling in her right hand. The lawsuit claims that Webre “tried to flee the scene of the incident;” Webre says she wanted to put Koda in her car, parked nearby, to de-escalate the situation.
Nance’s attorney, George Edwards, claims the incident was hardly a “quick bite,” describing his client’s wounds as severe. Photos filed with the lawsuit show several gashes on her wrist.
“She was an extremely active person, so, pretty much had her life flipped upside down because of this incident,” Edwards told the Press.
So just how active was Nance? It turns out that, of all the people in Houston who Koda could have bitten, he chose a woman who was, according to Edwards, planning to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. (The lawsuit alleges that Nance “was an endurance athlete who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her training.”)
Nance declined to discuss the case with the Press.
Like Edwards, BARC Director Damianoff also described Koda as “viciously” attacking Nance. However, according to Webre and her attorney, Jessica Milligan, animal control officers seemed largely unconcerned about Koda immediately following the incident, allowing him to stay at home for the mandatory ten-day rabies quarantine.
Webre says she was ultimately told by BARC personnel that a victim of a bite has ten days from the incident to notify the shelter, otherwise BARC closes the case.
Damianoff confirmed the ten-day window. However, Damianoff could not explain why BARC seized Koda after Nance apparently missed the deadline by nine days — and eight days after she filed her $2 million lawsuit. For that, he referred the Press to the city’s legal department.
Damianoff also had no explanation as to how and why a dog in the city’s care was able to gnaw most of his paw off without anyone noticing.
“Dogs and cats and other animals...do things that we don’t understand all the time,” he said. Added Damianoff, “I’ve been around animals my entire life….I don’t pretend to know what animals think and do.”
The best guess Damianoff could offer for Koda’s behavior was that it was, indirectly, Webre’s fault. He told the Press that Webre visited BARC and “actually insisted, if you will, that we use the bedding that she brought….From what I’ve been told by my staff and the vets that were there the first thing in the morning [was] that the dog’s leg was wrapped around the blanket.”
And to Make Matters Worse ...Webre said Damianoff notified her on a Sunday that Koda was injured, and asked if she wanted him taken to an emergency animal hospital, because a BARC veterinarian wouldn’t be available until Monday.
Webre asked them to take Koda to Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists, and Webre met the transport truck there.
She wrote: “BARC let Koda hop down onto the ground out of their truck, bone and wound exposed, with no bandaging, and walked him into the animal hospital, letting him walk on his exposed leg.”
Webre said she was told that she was responsible for the cost of the surgery — roughly $5,000-$6,000 — because she asked Koda to be treated outside of BARC.
“The fact that they were not willing to pay for the surgery if it occurred outside of BARC was not mentioned by [Damianoff] when he offered to take Koda to the vet of our choice,” Webre wrote.
Although vets at Gulf Coast wanted Koda to recover at their facility, where he would receive around-the-clock care, BARC personnel insisted that Koda be returned to BARC.
Staff at Gulf Coast provided Webre with statements regarding Koda’s temperament.
Veterinarian Taylor Willis wrote,“While in our care, Koda showed no overt signs of aggression or signs of danger to the staff.” She also wrote that she had recommended “hospitalization overnight with supportive care (pain medications, wound management, and IVF).”
Vet tech Dakota Rochette, in her statement, wrote that Koda “was handled multiple times for exams and for taking vitals, without a muzzle, and was very sweet despite the pain he was in, and never showed aggression.”
For her part, Webre said she feels helpless, unable to do anything for the companion she’s had since he was eight weeks old.
When Koda was seized, Webre said, “I was more sick to my stomach thinking about how scared Koda was, just because he’s never been away from me, and he’s probably terrified….It’s more heartbreaking than anything that I was unable to do anything, because all they [Damianoff and other BARC personnel] were telling me is, ‘the law is the law.’”
This story has been edited for clarity since its original publication.