Wafer-thin puppies – recently seized from a decrepit puppy mill – whimper from within their pens. Moca, a seven-year-old mare who is nearly 200 pounds under her normal weight, stands in the corner, her hooves are abscessed and curled up like elven shoes. Moca's five-day-old foal stands miraculously by her side.
In another section of the shelter, roughly 100 cats fill the room with their distraught meowing, while a pride of weakened lion cubs lies in the shade. Such is the scene at the Houston SPCA in Texas. But this is not a scene of hopelessness. Instead, it is one of promise. These are the lucky ones – the animals that were rescued from cruel and uncaring hands and who now have a fighting chance.
Houston's Abused Animals Find Hope
Founded in 1924, the Houston SPCA is Houston's first and largest animal protection organization and shelter. Besides the usual fare of shelter programs such as housing unwanted animals, they also spay and neuter animals free of charge for financially-disadvantaged pet owners, and sponsor educational programs for new ones. Shelter volunteers bring animals to senior homes as therapy, help get people through the grief of losing a pet and take care of the pets of battered women while they pick up the pieces of their lives.
Cruelty – An All Too Common Problem
But it's the SPCA's cruelty investigation program that stands out as it is their specialty. Unfortunately, cruelty cases are all too familiar at the shelter. With six cruelty investigators on staff, the association probably handles about 4,000 cases a year. Their cases are not just limited to dogs and cats, but also to many livestock animals and exotics as well.
"A very exciting component of the program, begun in 2000, is the training of Houston Police Department police officers in animal cruelty recognition," states Patty Mercer, shelter executive director. By the end of this year, more than 5,000 officers will have undergone at least four hours of animal cruelty investigation training.
In Texas, animal cruelty is a class A misdemeanor. Upon the third offense, it becomes a felony. "We are very aggressive in the way we pursue these cases. We have a really great partnership with area law enforcement including the county attorney's office and district attorney's office both in Harris County and the contiguous counties," notes Mercer. They also have good support from the Houston Young Lawyers Association, whose animal welfare committee provides additional legal support for the cruelty cases.
The Houston SPCA recently handled one case involving 14 exotic cats (tigers, African lions, leopards and others) and a wolf from Crockett, Texas, about 150 miles from Houston. "Frequently, we are called by law enforcement outside of our service area," says Mercer. "We feel a real obligation to respond if there is no agency there that can do so." In the Crockett case, police had entered the suspect's property on an unrelated warrant and they found these exotic cats. Houston SPCA seized all the animals and were given custody of them.
The shelter is now working to try to find appropriate sanctuary placements for them. It's not easy to find these either. In the past, the Houston SPCA had to build a $10,000 enclosure for big cats, which took its toll on revenues. And the number of exotic cat cases is continuing to grow. "For the first time ever, we are doing a zoo placement, two three-month-old African lion cubs with the Oakland, Calif., zoo," exclaims Mercer. It's not that easy to place exotic cats in zoos, since they prefer purebred cats and seized animals could have mixed bloodlines.
Often in Texas, mountain lions, African lions, leopards, servals, Bengal tigers and bobcats are seized. "It's a huge problem here," says Mercer. In the past three years Houston SPCA has handled 46 big cats.
"We are fortunate enough to have a few staff members that have a zoology background, which has been invaluable. We've limited the care of these animals to only these few trained staff members. Zoos also have provided medical supplies and food from their commissaries. Food needs at the shelter vary since any wild animals, including wallabies, come through Houston SPCA doors.
To make a donation to the Houston SPCA or to inquire about a program, log onto www.houstonspca.org or call 713-869-7722.