Houston Humane Society then and now; $15 neutering vs. 93% euthanasia rate

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1993:

In September 1980, Houston Humane Society
board president Sherry Ferguson drafted a 12-page report to
her fellow board members. Opened in February 1963, HHS
was in every sort of trouble: badly overcrowded because of
a no-kill policy, financially shaky because of weak admin-
istration, and struggling to adopt out 700 animals a year.
By comparison, the Houston SPCA was adopting out
15,000 a year, and Citizens for Animal Protection, a group
founded to reform HHS, was adopting out 2,500 even
though it had no shelter.
That wasn’t the worst of it. HHS had no neutering
requirement for animals who were adopted out. When there
wasn’t space for newcomers, people who tried to surrender
animals were turned away––so many came at night and sim-
ply abandoned the animals on the property, alongside a
busy secondary highway. Many were killed by traffic
before staff arrived in the morning. Vermin infestations
were so severe that Ferguson said she wondered if HHS had
become a shelter for rats.

“There are dead roaches, roach droppings, and
rodent feces in all the drawers and cabinets,” she wrote.
“The records in the file cabinets are in disarray and have
been eaten by rodents.” But the rodents weren’t all to blame
for missing information. HHS hadn’t kept any records per-
taining to puppies until 1975, and didn’t keep records on
adult dogs until 1978. It was anyone’s guess how long some
of the 250 dogs on the premises had been there. Housed six
or seven to a run, the dogs often fought; some were badly
injured, and sometimes, some were killed.
A single elderly longtime staffer who lived on the
premises served as shelter manager, bookkeeper, and sec-
retary, handicapped by poor vision. There was no money to
hire anyone else. “We have no education department, no
cruelty investigator, and no animal rescue service,”
Ferguson noted. Numerous programs advertised in appeal
letters also didn’t exist. A pet cemetery founded to help
finance HHS was instead losing money because of upkeep
costs, which were high in part because workers were oblig-
ed to dig graves with broken hand tools. Trying to hold
labor costs down, the management had hired half a dozen
undocumented immigrants from Mexico, none of whom
either spoke English or had discernable training in animal
“The men sleep on the floor in the office, cook in
a makeshift kitchen with holes in the floor, and bathe in a
shed outside with the garden hose,” Ferguson stated.
“We’re supposed to be a humane agency, and if living
accommodations are part of the working arrangement, we
should provide proper humane accommodations.”
No labor records were kept, no Social Security
payments were made, and there were no health insurance
benefits. For at least two years HHS didn’t even have
vehicular liability insurance.
Finally, Ferguson wrote, “the buildings are
beyond repair and not worth keeping except to clean up and
paint for an interim period. Visitors to the pet cemetery
pass by trash piles, lean-to sheds, and a clothes line with
workers’ wash usually hanging on it.”
The trash piles included both feces from the shel-
ter and the carcasses of any animals who died on the
premises––even though they could have been buried in the
pet cemetery.
Ferguson was just new enough to think she could
do something about a situation that others had begun to con-
sider hopeless. “I began working at HHS as a volunteer
with no experience in January 1980,” Ferguson recalls. “I
became a member of the board of directors in February
1980, and was elected president of the board in August
1980. I served in that position until July 1984. At that time
I temporarily took over as executive director,” an appoint-
ment that soon became permanent.
Today, as ANIMAL PEOPLE affirmed on a
recent visit, HHS is in most respects a model shelter. An
immaculate modern building includes a state-of-the-art cat
facility as well as spacious dog runs. The energetic, cheer-
ful and multilingual 20-person HHS staff includes shelter
director Edward Perez, whom Ferguson hired as a teenaged
kennel attendant only days after becoming executive direc-
tor; assistant shelter director Juan Acevado, who similarly
worked his way up from kennel attendent; administrator
Donna Hammond, who began with HHS as a volunteer even
before Ferguson became involved; computer technician
Dianne Carroll; executive assistant Elten Simmang, a for-
mer language instructor; and fulltime public relations direc-
tor Jennifer Albert.
Thirteen years ago, HHS had only one sheltering
agreement with the surrounding communities. Today it
serves the south side of Houston plus five Houston suburbs.
It is a recognized major part of Houston’s unusually exten-
sive shelter network, which was necessitated by rapid pop-
ulation growth and urban expansion during the past two
decades: Houston today occupies more land than any other
city in the United States. The Harris County pound shares
coverage of the outlying part of the city with both HHS and
CAP, which now operates two shelters on the northern and
western sides of town. The Houston SPCA and Houston
pound still serve the central city, while a fourth organiza-
tion, Special Pals, runs a no-kill shelter.
HHS is no longer a no-kill. In fact, HHS has a
euthanasia rate ranging between 93% and 97%, one of the
highest of any shelter in the U.S.––and while adoptions are
up nationally, the HHS adoption rate is markedly down
despite Ferguson’s ambition, as of her 1980 report to the
board, to boost it. HHS took in 16,339 animals in 1992,
including 10,437 who were not in custody of animal control
agencies, but offered fewer than 1,000 for adoption, and of
those, adopted out only 674.
At that, HHS doesn’t have the only high euthana-
sia rate in Houston. The Houston city pound took in 21,856
animals in 1992, returned 842 to their keepers, sold 225 to
research laboratories, and adopted out just 78, for a
euthanasia rate of 95% (96% if the animals used in research
are included in the death toll). Harris County Animal
Control did better in some respects, taking in 21,198 ani-
mals, returning 2,422 to their keepers, adopting out
322––but sold 1,065 to research laboratories. The Harris
County euthanasia rate was either 82% or 87%, depending
upon how the animals used in research are counted.
1990 data collected by the Texas Humane
Information Network indicates that the statewide euthanasia
rate is 78.7%. The 1992 figures from the Houston SPCA
and CAP demonstrate that high euthanasia rates don’t nec-
essarily go with the territory. Receiving 33,090 animals,
the most of any shelter in the Houston vicinity, the Houston
SPCA returned 290 to their keepers and adopted out 7,757,
holding its euthanasia rate to 76%. CAP received 13,903
animals, returned 174 to their keepers, and adopted out
2,967, precisely matching the state average. And even rela-
tively tiny Special Pals dwarfts the HHS adoption figures,
placing 2,592 of 2,733 animals received in 1992.
Ferguson defends the high HHS euthanasia rate
and low HHS adoption rate by pointing out that, “HHS
accepts all animals, regardless of their health, age, tem-
perament, size, and breed. Because of this policy, our
euthanasia rate is high. We feel very strongly,” she adds,
“that we are serving those very unfortunate animals in the
most humane way. We detest having to destroy those we
care so deeply for, but also believe that every potential
adopter is not necessarily the best alternative.”
The five-page HHS adoption application is unusu-
ally stringent, requiring answers to a minimum of 101 ques-
tions––from two to five times as many as most reputable
shelters ask. Only 46% of all applications filed are eventu-
ally approved. Adoptions also involve a return visit.
$15 Neutering
But HHS is trying to cut the euthanasia rate in
other ways. An in-house clinic opened in 1990 not only
neuters all animals adopted out, but also neuters any dog or
cat for just $15, one of the lowest rates in Texas. The facil-
ity runs at a substantial deficit, since the average actual cost
per surgery is about $40. This includes the salaries of a vet-
erinarian, two veterinary technicians, an administrative
assistant, and the cleaning staff. The neutering clinic is
open four days per week. Animals are neutered as young as
eight weeks of age.
“Our original working plan,” says Ferguson, “was
to follow guidelines approved by the Houston veterinary
community. We wanted a cordial relationship with the vet-
erinarians, who were afraid we were trying to take their
business away from them, so we accepted their demands
that we would only operate on the animals of people who
showed proof of needing some type of financial aid.”
During 1990, HHS neutered 1,347 animals, at $10 each.
“After the first year and a half,” Ferguson contin-
ues, “we felt that the entire public’s needs were not being
met because of the restrictions. In 1991 Houston was not
faring well economically, and as a result, many individuals
were either earning less money because of salary freezes, or
simply lost their jobs. There were also many kind citizens
who were trying to help with the pet overpopulation prob-
lem, but just could not afford a private clinic. These were
the people we needed to reach: those not on financial aid,
but not financially well off. So, we opened our clinic up to
any and every pet owner. All folks need to do is call and
schedule a surgery time.”
HHS neutered 3,081 animals in 1991, and 5,451 in
1992, still at $10 apiece. Rising costs forced a rate increase
to $15 at the beginning of 1993.
Breed Rescue
“Taking our sterilization and proper home message
even further,” Ferguson says, “HHS is supporting and help-
ing to establish the All Breed Rescue Association. Through
this group we intend to open and expand communication
with breeders, and work with them on neutering programs,
improved pet placements, and other animal welfare issues.
To be perfectly honest,” she adds, “I have felt much better
working on this project than I have in the past several years
working with some humane groups,” several of which are
sharply critical of the HHS euthanasia rate and adoption
screening practices.
Formed in early 1992 by Susan Ingersoll-Cloer and
Brandy Nunciato, ABRA initially included six breed rescue
groups. Within six months, 42 groups belonged. The
ABRA goal is to incorporate a rescue group for each of the
134 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club.
A contact telephone number (717-342-3078) is funded by
the AstroWorld Series of Dog Shows, one of the major
events on the U.S. breed exhibition calendar.
HHS released 24 dogs to nine breed rescue groups
in 1992––a modest but encouraging start, according to
Ingersoll-Cloer. “Rescue work is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-
day-a-week job,” she states. “No organization standing
alone can do it all and best serve the animals. However, by
working together with various animal control organizations
and private shelters, we really can make a difference.”
––Merritt Clifton
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