As an animal control officer for the past decade, David Brittain is well aware of one of the main rules of the job: Don’t get attached to the animals you pick up. But there was something about the dog that ran in front of his truck at a north Houston intersection that gave him pause.
The tan and white pit bull mix—or is she a Husky-Catahoula mix? No one is quite sure—had clearly seen better days. Her ribs stuck out of her sides. She was missing her right ear. She had two small holes on the both sides of her chest. And her elbows on her front legs were ground down to the bone with small cuts running up her legs, possibly from being tied up and dragged. Brittain believes they were human-inflicted wounds—whether because she served as a bait dog or belonged to someone who abused her.
Brittain flipped on the lights of his white Ford F-150 animal control truck and stepped out to approach her. She turned and walked to him but wouldn’t let Brittain, a man with a linebacker’s build and thin brown hair with tattoos on both arms, pet her. So he improvised. He had just finished lunch at Burn’s Original Barbecue in Acres Homes and had leftovers sitting in the truck. Brittain enticed her with the rib and put a leash around her neck and walked her into a kennel in the back of his truck, where she scarfed down the remaining meat off the bone.
She was timid, but despite her injuries she was sweet and not aggressive, Brittain remembers.
He wasn’t hopeful, though. He’d learned in his 10 years that a dog in her condition was likely going to be put down. Once at BARC, the city of Houston’s animal shelter, a doctor confirmed his fear.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Brittain said.
Acres Homes is among the most populated areas in the city in regards to stray animals, along with neighborhoods in northeast Houston along the Eastex Freeway and throughout the city’s southeast side.
There are no solid numbers for how many strays are in the city, and estimates range from 200,000 to 1.2 million.
Greg Damianoff hesitantly estimates there are between 200,000-250,000 strays in Houston. The executive director of BARC doesn’t shy away from the fact that getting control of the city’s stray overpopulation is going to take a lot of work.
On average, BARC responds to 50,000 calls every year, according to numbers provided by the organization, which includes calls for strays, aggressive animals and cases of animal cruelty.
Damianoff hopes that by BARC providing free to low-cost spay and neutering, along with education in the communities with high population of strays, Houston will one day get control of its overpopulation.
“It just takes time for people to understand that there is a consequence to loose animals on the street,” Damianoff said. “It impacts us all, it impacts the way people perceive our city.”
Too many cats and dogs and not enough homes spurred the creation of Rescued Pets Movement (RPM), a non-profit organization that has taken a completely different approach to combating the stray overpopulation.
Since its inception in September 2013, the organization has rescued and transported more than 20,000 Greater Houston area animals from BARC and the Harris County Animal Shelter. The organization takes them to areas where there’s a high demand for pets, such as Colorado and Wisconsin, and even as far away as Canada.
Laura Carlock, a co-founder and president of RPM, said the organization mainly focuses on Colorado due to the demand created by the state’s strict laws on animals and owners—all pets must be spayed or neutered, for example. There are also strict rules against breeders, and the state’s harsh winters help keep the stray population down.
RPM partnered with BARC to exclusively pull animals from the animal shelter to transport to Colorado. As part of the agreement, BARC pays RPM $75 per animal to help offset transport costs (Carlock said it costs between $225-$250 per animal that’s transported). And thanks to the agreement, BARC has seen its live-release rate increase from 48 percent in September 2013 when RPM started—a number Damianoff called about average—to 84 percent this past February.
Every Thursday, RPM sends a fleet of vans that transport over 100 dogs and cats to Colorado. Once there, the animals are given to state-approved animal care groups that then adopt them out. Sometimes, Carlock said, there’s a line out the door of people waiting to adopt. Most times, she said, all of the RPM pets are adopted out by the time the next week’s group arrives.
Anthony Brown is both an animal control officer for BARC and a driver for RPM and has seen the sadness of a dog that’s near death to the excitement of when it meets its new family hundreds of miles away.
“Picking up a dog that’s been abandoned to actually seeing them being saved, it’s fulfilling,” Brown said. “It makes it worth it. … You know, your work is justified.”
Brittain often doesn’t get to see the fulfilling part of the job, but in the case of the tan and white stray he dropped off at BARC, he received good news: the dog survived and is recovering. The last he saw her, she crawled into his lap in a back room at BARC and put her head on his shoulder. He learned she’s doing so well, in fact, she’s joining 100-plus dogs on the 24-hour journey to Colorado with RPM. He was invited to say a final goodbye.
She has a name now: Sheba—meaning promise in Hebrew, fitting because of the promise Brittain made to give her a second chance. She’s much healthier, too, thanks to the help of BARC, RPM and her foster parent, Jen Leonard, who cared for her for eight days and saw her wounds begin to heal as she put on 10 pounds.
Brittain pulled his white F-150 animal control truck in the RPM parking lot. As he steps out in his black animal control uniform, Sheba turns to look at him and immediately begins wagging her tail.
“She remembers you,” Leonard said.
“Come here,” Brittain said as he squats down and kisses Sheba on the snout. “I’m so glad that you worked out.”
Brittain picks Sheba up and puts her in the cab of his truck as he recounts the day he found her. RPM volunteers and fosters surround the two and thank him for saving her life. Sheba pants, almost smiling, with her one ear raised as she sits shotgun while he tells her story. It’s an emotional time for all involved.
“Are you crying?” Carlock asks Brittain.
“Doing everything I can not to,” Brittain says. “I’ve already been on the verge of it a few times.”
Brittain’s phone rings, a sign it’s time for him to go.
“I’ve got calls to tend to,” he says.
He grabs Sheba’s leash and leads her to the white van that will take her to Colorado, far away from her old neighborhood where she was so gruesomely injured. He takes one more photo with her and says his last goodbye. Leonard picks her up and places her in her wire kennel with her favorite toy—a stuffed brown-spotted cat she grew found of living with Leonard.
Brittain walks slowly back to his truck, starts the engine and backs out of the parking lot, leaving Sheba to go back to helping the stray animals of Houston. A caravan of white vans follow suit, embarking on the journey to Colorado—to Sheba’s new home.