Best Friends, after wrongly ripping the Houston SPCA via Change.org, has disaster on own watch
HOUSTON, Texas––Best Friends Animal Society efforts to rehome dogs and cats collected after Hurricane Harvey have reportedly stalled, with 455 animals remaining at a temporary shelter at NRG Arena in Houston as of October 1, 2017, and an adoption event originally scheduled for October 14, 2017 indefinitely postponed, while veterinarians and staff work to quell possibly the biggest distemper outbreak at any U.S. animal shelter in more than 25 years.
Houston SPCA returns 200 animals to homes
A month after Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston with nearly 52 inches of rain, damaging 136,000 homes in Harris County alone and indefinitely displacing at least 60,000 Houstonians, the Houston SPCA had returned more than 200 animals to their homes.
The Houston Humane Society had already held a fee-waived adoption event for dogs and cats who had not been reclaimed, cohosted by the North Shore Animal League America, of Port Washington, New York. A week earlier the Houston Humane Society held a free microchip and vaccination clinic that attracted so many people with their pets that some reportedly waited in line for more than five hours.
The Houston Humane Society post-Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, and those of the American SPCA, were additionally bolstered by surprise donations of $25,000 from U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania. How the Trumps picked their donation priorities is unclear. While the Houston Humane Society and ASPCA commitments to Hurricane Harvey relief were not small, at least three other animal charities, including the Houston SPCA, invested more.
Best Friends returns just 29
Meanwhile, as September 2017 ended, the Best Friends Animal Society had returned just 29 animals displaced by Hurricane Harvey to their homes, and had sent 130 animals by van to Santa Barbara for adoption, reported Joy Sewing of the Houston Chronicle.
“California Houston PetSet arranged the transport of the pets, who had been staying with area rescue groups before Hurricane Harvey,” Sewing said.
That was before the distemper outbreak.
Distemper appeared at the NRG Arena, on the Best Friends Animal Society’s watch, about three weeks after the Best Friends Animal Society on September 3, 2017 posted a Change.org petition wrongly accusing the Houston SPCA of neglecting animal health at the Ford Park temporary shelter in Beaumont, Texas.
35% of dogs either infected or exposed
Having sought unsuccessfully to take over the contract to temporary house displaced animals in Beaumont, the Best Friends Animal Society set up the NRG Arena temporary shelter in collaboration with the Harris County Public Health department, Houston PetSet, Austin Pets Alive, and Houston Pets Alive.
By September 22, 2017, reported Pooja Lodhia of KTRK, ABC TV 13, “About 35% of dogs at NRG Arena’s makeshift Hurricane Harvey shelter are now confirmed or suspected to have distemper,” and had been put into quarantine.
“The number one factor in disease in shelter animals is always going to be how stressed they are,” said Best Friends Animal Society veterinarian Erin Katribe. “The flood and the hurricane itself were very, very stressful for all of them and then being housed in an environment that’s nothing like they’re used to” brought additional stress.
“Had distemper before they arrived”
Narrated Lodhia, “Among the 400 dogs at NRG arena, 120 are suspected to have distemper. Another 20 are confirmed to have the virus.
“We think it was dogs who had distemper before they arrived,” Katribe told Lodhia. “They were just not showing signs yet.”
Distemper now rare at U.S. shelters
The last distemper outbreak of note at a U.S. animal shelter, as best ANIMALS 24-7 has been able to discover through file-searching, caused the Lancaster County SPCA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to euthanize 14 dogs in May 2015.
The last distemper outbreak to jeopardize almost as many dogs as the outbreak at the NRG Arena hit the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association in West Virginia in December 2012. The Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association was quarantined for three weeks. Four dogs were euthanized, 40 were cleared for adoption, and 52 were held for observation throughout the quarantine period, according to Zack Harold of the Charleston Daily Mail.
The most recent reported distemper outbreak at a Texas shelter killed seven of 22 lions, tigers, and leopards who tested positive for the viral disease at the In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue & Education Center in Wylie, Texas in 2013.
Another of the other early media stars of the Hurricane Harvey relief effort was an organization called GrassRoots Rescue Operated With Love, GRROWL for short, based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“It’s been helping to clear shelters in Texas for the past year by driving vans there filling them with dogs, and bringing them back to northeast Indiana,” enthused Corinne Rose of WPTA-21 in Fort Wayne on August 30, 2017.
Following Hurricane Harvey, Rose reported, “The group will take shelter necessities to Texas, then bring back as many dogs as possible” to be rehomed locally. These were to be dogs already in shelters when the hurricane hit. Transporting them opened space for dogs displaced by the hurricane.
“GRROWL did this same thing after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,” Rose said, offering no verification.
Hazy paper trail
IRS records accessible through Guidestar.org show no trace of GRROWL.
But Rob Joesbury of the Fort Wayne News Sentinel reported on September 1, 2005 that Christi Pelz, recently identified as a principal in GRROWL, “has operated the Pet Jamboree All Breed Rescue for five years, took in animals for years before that,” and was en route to bring “at least 75 animals left homeless by Katrina back from a shelter in Dothan, Alabama.”
IRS records accessible through Guidestar.org also show no trace of Pet Jamboree All Breed Rescue.
Apparent lack of IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit status appears, however, to be the least of the issues now surrounding GRROWL.
120 dogs left; 83 arrived
“On September 15, 2017,” reported Jamie Duffy of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, “120 dogs left an animal shelter in Abilene, Texas,” later identified as Rescue the Animals SPCA, “bound for Fort Wayne,” on a journey that should normally have taken less than 18 hours, if done nonstop.
“Eighty-three dogs arrived at about 11 p.m. on September 16, 2017,” Duffy continued, 22 hours after they were expected, “according to a petition [filed by] the Allen County prosecutor in Allen Superior Court.
“What happened to the other 37 dogs has not been answered,” Duffy said.
Prosecutor seeks $4,284 bond
“The prosecutor’s office is asking a judge to order GRROWL, an animal rescue organization, and Christi Pelz, also known as Christi Henry, to post bond to pay $4,284 for medical, housing and vaccinations for six dogs rescued by [Fort Wayne] Animal Care & Control. The other dogs were taken by volunteers,” Duffy continued.
The dogs, mostly pit bulls according to more than 35 photos and a videotape of their arrival, chiefly taken by veterinary technician Melissa Saylor, were allegedly transported “in a windowless, unventilated box truck with no air conditioning,” Duffy wrote, “with temperatures between 100 and 140 degrees inside. The dogs also lacked food and water, the prosecutor’s petition said.
“A Chihuahua had to be put down on September 20, 2017 after contracting a highly contagious viral intestinal illness called parvo, the affidavit said.”
Met by 260 Disaster Relief Team
Pelz/Henry, wrote Duffy, “told the Allen County Sheriff’s Department that she was in the box truck as it traveled from Oklahoma City, where the dogs were sent to receive veterinary care, including a veterinary certificate and vaccines for travel to Fort Wayne.”
At the drop-off point the GRROWL truck met two air-conditioned cargo vans, Duffy said, from “the newly formed 260 Disaster Relief Team, organized by Joshua Braden, 25, an Army veteran and maintenance technician at Steel Dynamics.”
The 260 Disaster Relief team had arrived earlier, Duffy said, “with more than 40 dogs his team picked up in Laredo, Texas.”
The rental van used by GRROWL had a supposedly air-conditioned cab with a walk-through door from the cab to the cargo area, according to photos taken at the rendezvous point, but many of the animals––both dogs and cats, the photos indicated––were in plastic carriers stacked in a manner that inhibited air flow, even had the cab air conditioning been properly working.
Braden, Duffy continued, “held a temperature gauge to the back of the truck as the door was opened. He said it registered 121.3 degrees as he handed the gauge over to a sheriff’s deputy.”
“I just felt the heat pouring out,” Braden told Duffy.
Added Duffy, “He took a photo of the fan in the truck that had not been turned on, nor did it have a power inverter to make it work, he said.”
According to Braden, “If the dogs ate, they threw up immediately. They wouldn’t drink water and if they did, they drank it like they hadn’t had water in like forever.”
Braden’s complaints were affirmed by many other witnesses, mostly in Facebook postings but also in statements to media and affidavits collected by law enforcement.
“Veterinary technician Melissa Saylor,” whom Pelz/Henry alleged on Facebook is a former GRROWL volunteer, “was not happy with how the dogs were transported or the condition the dogs were in when they arrived,” reported Kaitor Kposowa of WANE, NewsChannel 15 in Fort Wayne.
“Really angry, really upset”
“I’m really angry,” Saylor told Kposowa. “I’m really upset. Six of the dogs were taken away immediately by the [Allen County] sheriff’s department to get emergency medical attention, meaning their lives were in imminent danger.”
Erica Garner of the Abilene, Texas television stations KTAB and KRBC “reached out to the Allen County Sheriff’s Office and learned all six dogs seized from the truck are now in good condition, and all other dogs were in good health upon arrival,” Garner reported on September 18, 2017.
“There is a rumor circulating that a puppy was stolen from the trailer when it arrived in Indiana and later passed away,” Garner added, “but the Allen County Sheriff’s Office and Paul Washburn say they have been unable to substantiate this claim,” which was nonetheless incorporated into the Fort Wayne prosecutor’s affidavit filed two days later.
Ashley Sloboda of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported that the deceased puppy, a Chihuahua, had been taken home for emergency care by veterinary assistant Robin Price.
“It’s great to rescue,” Price told Sloboda, “but no animal should be in a box truck without air conditioning.”
“Working to learn the other dogs’ whereabouts”
Braden speculated that the missing 37 dogs “passed away from the heat or something happened, because they were in Oklahoma City and a vet confirmed there were 120 dogs on that truck.”
Sloboda of the Journal Gazette wrote on September 19, 2017 that according to Allen County Sheriffis Department captain Steve Stone, “Authorities are working to learn the other dogs’ whereabouts, and have identified the locations of some,” but those locations and the condition of the dogs were not disclosed.
The allegations against GRROWL were also partially affirmed by Katie Wilson, director of Lennoxs Legacy Rescue in Decatur, Indiana, who told Sloboda she had received four 4-month-old Chihuahua/Pomeranian puppies from the hot truck, but had not been present for their arrival.
“The pups were tired, hungry and thirsty, Wilson said, adding that those are typical characteristics of recent transports,” Sloboda wrote. “They did not, however, arrive with rabies or health certificates, Wilson said. “She had similar concerns about proper documentation when she accepted 10 dogs––also from Texas––through GRROWL two weeks ago, she said.”
Posted Wilson herself to Facebook, “We had no idea they were being transported in a box truck. The last transport was in an RV. We’ve worked with many reputable transport companies over the years and have never seen them transported in any such way.”
“We will no longer work with any of the rescue groups involved”
Rescue the Animals SPCA president and cofounder Paul Washburn said in a September 18, 2017 media release that Rescue the Animals did not arrange the transport, that GRROWL volunteers had been in Abilene for a week, “and made multiple trips to Indiana with dogs from our area with no problems until the final journey.
“We are shocked and upset,” Washburn said, “because these are people we have worked with for several years,” beginning even before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “who have always done an excellent job. We have never received a complaint about them,” Washburn said, but concluded nonetheless that “We will no longer work with any of the rescue groups directly involved in the transport of these animals.”
Washburn said that while Rescue the Animals usually obtains veterinary transport certificates for animals before they leave Abilene, in this case GRROWL made arrangements for that work to be done in Oklahoma City––after the animals had already crossed from Texas into Oklahoma without certificates.
“We have copies of health certificates from that vet,” Washburn said.
The GRROWL version
Those involved in the GRROWL transport had their own versions of the story.
Posted Sarah Sudduth Schuessler of Natural Disaster Relief Pet Transport from Allen, Indiana on September 16, 2017, at 7:18 p.m., while the rented van was still four hours from Fort Wayne, “This Texas trip has been a wild ride! We stopped in Oklahoma City for vet appointments. The dogs always draw a crowd. While our team was loading dogs, a strange man started releasing dogs out of their cages!!! The awesome team that Donna Bo Banna brought to help grabbed all the loose dogs.”
Donna Bo Banna, a dog rescuer in Blanchard, Oklahoma, whose Facebook name appears to have been taken from the 1964 novelty record hit “The Name Game,” seems to have said nothing about the incident, either on Facebook or anywhere else.
About an hour earlier on September 16, 2017, at 6:10 p.m. from Dennison, Illinois, Schuessler thanked Branden Linnemeier of Fort Wayne “for driving the last leg of our transport!! Wouldn’t have made it without you!”
The Muncie, Indiana Star Press in 2014 identified Linnemeier, a “fire alarm technician at Shambaugh & Sons LP” according to LinkedIn, as “special friend” of Christi Henry.
Christi Henry in a September 17, 2017 posting argued that the GRROWL trucks “are air conditioned,” and that “The trucks and the dogs were inspected on four different occasions/locations by medical professionals and animal control officers,” who each “found our trucks to be perfectly safe for the dogs.”
“Hater” released pit bulls?!
“At one stop,” Henry said, apparently meaning Oklahoma City, “while the dogs were being inspected by a veterinarian and his staff, and also being pottied and watered and fed, a ‘hater’ was attempting to ‘free the dogs’ by opening their cage doors and letting them out to run away.”
Exactly who or what the alleged “hater” supposedly hated, or why, or whether the incident was reported to police, Henry did not say. There seems to be no other report of a number of pit bulls running loose in Oklahoma City during that time frame.
“Mob” of “haters” allegedly “stole several dogs”
“At another stop,” Henry claimed, apparently referring this time to the rendezvous point in Fort Wayne, “a mob of ‘haters’ rushed the truck and tore the door open just as the truck had stopped. They stole several dogs before they could be stopped, as the drivers were distracted by the authorities who were there to inspect our truck. The authorities inspected the truck and the dogs and found nothing to report. But the ‘haters’ claimed that the dogs were being abused and neglected and demanded that they receive immediate medical attention. Since mob mentality had been achieved, the animal control officer had no choice but to transport 7 dogs to the veterinary center for the following reasons:
#1: Nails that are too long for the dog to walk.
#2. Dog refused kibble.
#3. Puppy vomited after being given an entire bowl of canned food twice the size he should have been given and a huge bowl of water.
#4. Dog was limping.
#5. Dog had lacerations on neck that were healing from a previous ingrown collar.
#6. Dog had ticks on him.
#7. 14 year old dog with zero teeth could not hold his tongue in his mouth.
No one criminally charged––yet
“Our operation passed inspection yet again this morning,” Henry said, “as the dogs loaded up to move on to their rescue groups. Unfortunately, some of the dogs who were promised to rescue groups were stolen by the mob of ‘haters.’ One of the dogs who was stolen has already passed away because the thief did not provide the dog with meds and refused to obtain medical care for the puppy after she stole him.”
As of October 3, 2017, no one appears to have been criminally charged in connection to the case––at least not yet.
Harvey aftermath echoes post-Katrina debacle
The early developments, however, were reminiscent of the circumstances under which Baxter County, Arkansas sheriff John Montgomery on October 21, 2005 impounded 477 allegedly neglected dogs from Every Dog Needs A Home (EDNAH), a purported no-kill shelter near Gamaliel, Arkansas, founded by a woman of criminal history named Tammy Hanson.
Most of the dogs were pit bulls sent to Hanson by rescue organizations working out of the Winn-Dixie parking lot rescue center on the outskirts of New Orleans. Among them were Pasado’s Safe Haven, of Sultan, Washington, and the Humane Society of Louisiana, then temporarily operating from the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Mississippi, also serving as rescue headquarters for the Best Friends Animal Society.
A load of pit bulls delivered to EDNAH by two volunteer drivers from the Winn-Dixie center on October 17, 2005 were allegedly still in their transport cases when impounded four days later.
Went from bad conditions to possibly worse
Pasado’s and the Humane Society of Louisiana recovered about half of the pit bulls they had sent to EDNAH. More of the pit bulls turned up on November 30, 2005, when the Kansas Animal Health Department reportedly found about 75 sick cats and 120 starving dogs at the Miami County Humane Society in Paola, Kansas, operated by one Sheila Jones from her home.
The Kansas City television station KMBC disclosed that authorities in Cass County, Missouri, in 2003 found 132 dogs at Hanson’s then-home near Belton, Missouri, but did not press neglect charges because the dogs were “generally healthy.”
Perp had impersonated a medical doctor
In 1994, Sheriff Montgomery confirmed, Hanson was convicted in Cook County, Illinois, of impersonating a medical doctor, using her maiden name, Tammy Doneski. For that offense, Hanson was sentenced to 18 months’ probation, fined $1,000, and ordered to perform 20 days of community service.
As result of the EDNAH fiasco, Tammy Hanson, then 38, and her husband William Hanson, then 41, were eventually convicted of 20 cruelty counts each. Tammy Hanson was also convicted on two counts of stealing animals, and two counts of tampering with physical evidence.
Instead of appearing for sentencing, however, the Hansons fled the courthouse. Tammy Hanson was apprehended in July 2009 in Sutton, Vermont; William Hanson was arrested in October 2009 near Kansas City, Missouri.
Took the money & ran
In a second criminal case arising from poorly monitored animal rescue transport activity after Hurricane Katrina, Donald D. Chambers, then 40, of Amherst, Ohio, was in January 2009 sentenced to serve a year in prison, was fined $1,000, and was ordered to pay $62,124 in restitution to the Best Friends Animal Society, after pleading guilty in October 2008 to defrauding Best Friends.
Chambers acknowledged having taken from Best Friends 28 dogs plus $1,000 apiece for their care and feeding, on the promise to find adoptive homes for them.
Instead, 10 of the dogs were reportedly euthanized at the Lorain County Kennel, one died in a dog fight, one died of untreated heartworms, three others died of unknown causes, six remained unaccounted for, and Best Friends took back three.
Pet custody cases
Most of the other legal actions resulting from the post-Hurricane Katrina animal evacuation effort––among those known to ANIMALS 24-7––were custody disputes over individual animals who were found by rescuers and rehomed while their original families were still looking for them. The last of those cases concluded in 2009. The Best Friends Animal Society alone was reportedly involved in 18 of the cases, mostly as an intervenor, helping to settle 15 of the cases out of court.