Houston Through The Looking Glass

Houston Through The Looking Glass

Down The Rabbit Hole

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

“So what do they do with them?” I asked.

“They find them homes, I guess.”

Crazy, I thought. How many years have rescues been doing just that, only for the inexorable tide of the summer litters to wash them away. Too many animals, not enough homes.

What a long road I’ve come. And now, positioned in a city on the verge of great change, I am both excited and daunted. And undeterred.

Houston is an amazing city. It is a glorious mix of cultures and fresh ideas, innovation and cutting-edge invention. Anything and everything you could ever need or fancy can be found at any bustling shopping center, any concrete cornucopia of products and services. Our public school system is excellent, the unemployment rate is lower than average, and so is the cost of living. And within this bubble of contemporary metro-topia, one would think a modern approach to the age old problem of animal sheltering would be warmly embraced, right? Sadly, no. Well, not yet.

Historically, there have always been problems with Houston’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, or BARC, and also historically, our city’s leaders have actively chosen not to give a damn. There were many examples through various media outlets documenting animal neglect for years, but perhaps the most publicly critical was a February 2006 lawsuit against the City outlining the abuse and detailing the astronomical killing rates. In all fairness, however, before the No-Kill credo was presented as a viable alternative, the traditional sheltering policies of “catch and kill but a few” reigned supreme. And why not? The wholesale devaluing of animal life was, of course, legitimized by every major “humane” organization out there. And prior to 2006, there were not many voices in Houston offering alternative options to mass destruction.

But by late 2006 the times had changed.

If You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, Any Road Will Take You There

Alice: I’ve had nothing yet, so I can’t take more.

The Hatter: You mean you can’t take less; it’s very easy to take more than nothing.

August 8, 2008, an announcement was made that Kent Robertson, then Bureau Chief of BARC, was stepping down.  Any hum of lament was drowned by deafening sighs of relief. 

But it didn’t start out that way. 

In 2006 when the BARC position came up for grabs, BARC was nothing more than an unsanitary death camp run by inepts. Having gone through the motions and commissioned (then curtly dismissing) an Animal Commission Task Force in late 2005, Mayor Bill White seemed to be taking note of Houston’s new No-Kill advocates. So it was with some fanfare in a May 2006 press release that the Mayor announced;

“Health Director Stephen Williams did an excellent job of finding the best person in the nation [Kent Robertson] to turn around BARC, and help Houston treat animals more humanely.”

Really? The best in the whole nation?

In an effort to reduce the vast amount of killing at BARC, The Woodlands Dog Park had retained the services of Nathan Winograd, author of Redemption: the Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and most prominent member of the No-Kill movement. But to no avail. The required paperwork necessary for Mr. Winograd to complete his assessment was never submitted by either the city or then newly hired candidate; thus professional guidance directly from the forefront of modern shelter practice and policies (at no cost to taxpayers, mind you) was snubbed, and the city relied instead on a long-time, (best in the nation!) old school minion who talked a good No-Kill talk. 

Kent Robertson, who hailed from Dallas, came highly recommended, of course. In fact, some of the praise coming from Big-D was so syrupy and exorbitant; truly, one would think manna sprang from his fingertips and flowers burst into bloom in his wake.

But the real answers always lurk in those pesky numbers, don’t they?

For example, when Robertson began his reign as the Dallas Animal Services Manager in late 2002, the euthanasia rate was a substandard 80%. The year directly following his appointment, however (and every year afterwards until his migration to Houston), the percentage of animals departing by body bag shot up and held steady at an abysmal 82%.  Not exactly what the No-Kill (or just plain civic-minded) citizens of Houston were rallying for.

And all of this information was publicly available and readily accessible to the city of Houston prior to the appointment of Kent Robertson.

Oh, How I Wish I Could Shut Up Like a Telescope!

“Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”– Alice

So exactly what was our city leader’s idea of what the “best [candidate] in the nation” was? Well, let’s examine that by dissecting Kent Robertson’s public statement to the press upon the announcement of his appointment:

·         “…develop, implement and enforce the policies and programs…”

I would be very curious to know what “policies and programs” Mr. Robertson was referring to. He had ample opportunity to speak directly with Nathan Winograd and in a collaborative effort bring BARC to a No-Kill status. Upon Winograd’s arrival and subsequent two day seminar on successful No-Kill sheltering, Robertson was generously invited to attend all eight workshops at no charge to either him or the city. However, Robertson arrived to one workshop late and was a no-show for the remaining seven. Furthermore, not only did Robertson and the city decline to complete the necessary paperwork to finalize Winograd’s assessment, Winograd was informed that his stepping foot into our tax-funded, public facility would be categorically denied.

And, although it seems somewhat redundant to even mention it… I’m afraid I must; why would Robertson say he would have to “develop” a No-Kill program when there is, and was, a proven model already in existence?

·          “… that will make Houston a no-kill city…”

What was Robertson’s idea of “No-Kill,” and how did he intend to accomplish this? Well, typically one could assume that the measure of any ventures success is to find the truth in the numbers, however if the numbers are reported on a shaky premise, the connotation of the word “truth” becomes tainted. With no mandated reporting protocol established for our new director, the absolute meaning of a number became skewed. In the veritable Wonderland of BARC, under the direction of Robertson, the numbers six or eight or twelve became one.  For example, when a mother came in with, or gave birth to, a litter and was neither reclaimed, rescued nor adopted, the whole family would, of course, be killed. On the official paper, however, instead of truthfully reporting the deaths as multiples, it was reported as singular. Hence, 6 or 8 or 12 = 1.

To complicate the figures even further, it was soon discovered after Robertson’s hasty departure that 1,200 animals (yes, 1,200—that’s not a typo) are currently unaccounted for. Of course, the ad hoc Director, Vincent Medley,  a Robertson flunky from Dallas, has gone so far as to blame fosters for the numbers fudge. I guess it has a twisted kind of logic; since BARC doesn’t actually know what happened to these animals, they don’t have to report the MIA’s in their euth stats. So 1,200 just became zero. Quantum physics guru Stephen Hawking would be impressed.

As you can see, the fundamental basis of reporting had been, always was*, and still is, entirely perverted.

*It is also interesting to note here, that when the Mayor’s Task Force reported (and published) the fact that Houston destroyed a staggering 80,000 animals per annum, it seems no small coincidence that the following year the total number of intakes reported by BARC was only 26,243. The “Truth in Numbers” scam for the purpose of CYA seems to be a common vein amongst our Bureau Chiefs.

·         “…encourage compassionate and responsible behavior toward animals…”

This one is just too easy. I wondered when I read this line how compassionate Robertson was before he came to Houston. What I found was definitely not encouraging. In February of 2006, just months before hi s move to Houston, Kent Robertson was informed that a colony of feral cats had been entombed under an apartment complex. Instead of helping the would-be rescuer retrieve the cats, he forbade her to tunnel an escape route, and said he would “help her” on Monday. This was on a Friday. On Monday, the good citizen was informed that if she returned to the property, she would promptly be arrested. Now that’s compassion. 

As far as responsible behavior goes, a good, responsible leader should always strive to lead by example. So in 2007 when a Houston resident’s pet came missing, the owner searched and found her on BARC’s website. After informing the shelter she would be coming to claim her lost pet, she was told which cage to go to upon her arrival. Sadly, the cage was empty, and her beloved pet had been destroyed. Wearing a collar with tags, no less. In a video newsfeed, Robertson sounded less than responsible and more than confused.  

·          “…through public outreach and education…”

When trying to find any mention of education or community outreach programs spearheaded by Kent Robertson during his tenure at BARC…one veritably hears crickets. The silence from BARC and its Director in regards to anything even resembling a proactive approach to ownership responsibility or pet education speaks volumes. Chirp! Chirp!

·         “…and reposition BARC…”

This is something Robertson failed utterly. He should have taken this snippet of his glowing speech more literally than he meant it. BARC is positioned in one of the most out of the way, inaccessible, traffic-clogged areas of Houston. It’s dilapidated, gloomy, and smells like a bucket of ass. Not once did Robertson try to rally the community together to help relocate BARC, and not once did he initiate a single fundraiser to get the process started. This was absolutely a mistake. Riding on the wave of excitement, news coverage, and positive public image, Robertson could have made a huge impact to his “No-Kill goals” by galvanizing the community into a collective, powerful force. In the beginning, Robertson’s popularity could have generated enormous contributions of money towards a new location, volunteer hours, and foster homes. He completely blew it. The Cheez Whiz Kid strikes again!

·         “…a recognized state and national leader in the field.”

Technically, this one is true. When it comes to comprehensive, indiscriminate killing of our healthy and adoptable pets…Houston is definitely a national leader. Good job, ol’ boy! Pip! Pip!

So, was Kent Robertson the best in the nation? Hardly. Was he better than anyone else thus far? Probably. Should the city of Houston have been more diligent or sincere? Oh, you betcha.

Off With Her Head!

“Sentence first—verdict afterward.” -The Queen

This isn’t a Kent Robertson bash-fest. No, really it’s not. 

If the trickledown theory is to be believed, poor leadership begets poor management, which begets poor service, which ultimately begets avoidable carcasses. Of course, that’s a trickledown theory in reverse, so should instead be coined the City of Houston’s “Reverse Osmosis” method.

In essence, Robertson’s performance was only as good as his superiors’ expectations, which obviously was lacking. And Robertson’s spiel that got him hired was only as genuine as his supervisors held him accountable for. Again—lacking.

In 2006, Houston officials made every appearance of seeming ready for positive, proactive changes at BARC. Following the recent bad publicity generated by the aforementioned lawsuit, and a highly publicized, vividly detailed account of the horrors seen by Michelle Haberland, a vet tech at BARC, City officials thumped their chests, and vowed to clean up BARC’s act.  And it was all a sham.

Our City’s leaders sold us short long before Kent Robertson ever came into the picture. Unable or unwilling to believe that in a city of over 2-million, enough compassionate, civic-minded people could be found to transform BARC from a bloody death-machine into a source of community pride and commitment. Our city’s animals were nonchalantly sentenced to death on the premise that a few cheap platitudes and well-positioned puppets would diffuse our outrage and pacify our urge for reform. And you know what? It even worked for a while.

God, aren’t we the suckers?


Part II of “Houston Through the Looking Glass” will examine where BARC is today, what Houston’s officials have promised, a look at our options, and the pulse of our city. 

Stay Tuned…

Always “saving things,” Nicole Sica has done freelance and professional speech writing, as well as commercial, private and military real estate management since 1993. Combining her love for animals, enthusiasm for just causes and adoration for the creativity of the written word, her latest project, an online magazine celebrating the spirit of compassionate vision, is slated to go live January 2009.

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3 Responses to “Houston Through The Looking Glass”

  1. It both saddens and comforts me to see that many of the same struggles we are experiencing in Las Cruces, NM, are echoed elsewhere. We, too, have a newly-hired director who spoke of a No Kill goal but is not leading in that direction. As the No Kill advocacy minority in our community, even among aniaml advocates, we feel like we’re in a Twilight Zone right now … where there is no outrage that things like cats deemed “feral” in traps are killed the same day they come in to our shelter and everyone defends the new director under the cloak of , “She’s doing the best she can; it’s an enormously hard job; she’s a vet and surely must know what she is doing; could you do better?” The focus on the irresponsible public seems to excuse our shelter not even following the law or best practices.

    I’m sorry to hear that Houston fell down a rabbit hole as well, and I wish you luck that now that Robertson has gone, your leaders will open their eyes to the possibilities of No Kill and hire someone that will do better. We all know it is a tough job, but surely a progressive city like Houston can do better than an 80% kill rate.

  2. Nicole Sica says:

    Michelle, thank you so much. I do not intend to let this one go–and if I am anything it is tenacious. We are at such an important crossroads, and you’re right–Houston CAN do better. We’ll get there, I know it.
    Several years down the road I will re-read these posts chronicling the progress of this great city–and be amazed at far we have come.

    My sincerest best wishes to you and Las Cruces, Michelle.

  3. L. J. Ashton says:

    I initially happened upon this blog when I googled Kent Robertson (more about that next paragraph). I’m familiar with the February 2006 case of the ferals entombed under the apt. complex, as I was one of the feral caretakers who had been trapping and moving the colony. Vincent Medley was the stapher who finally told us we’d have to wait a week for help.

    Now I can confess we went back to the complex a day later, under dark of night, only to find that the apt. residents had released the remaining cats so we could trap and move them. Which we did.

    This incident was, alas, par for the course for Dallas AC. For the past nine years, I’ve volunteered for a small, cats-only 501C3 rescue group/shelter. For the past four years, the shelter been hassled almost into non-existence by Dallas AC.

    It’s not like we’ve ever been issued as much as a citation during one Animal Control’s shelter visits, and they’ve visited at least eight times. It’s because some of our ex-volunteers, pissed at being “fired” for removing cats and medical records without permission, have been carrying out a vendetta against the group. At least one ex-volunteer is tight with VIncent Medley and other Animal Control staph.

    Over the years, the whole mess escalated into our director being charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. She fought the charges and went to trial in September 2008. The jury found her “not guilty” in literally eight minutes. But guess what? Earlier today, we got a call from - guess who? - our friends at Dallas Animal Control.

    Seems we are not adhering to a new ordinance that limits residences to four-eight pets. Which is nonsense as our shelter is zoned business/commercial. We’re considering hiring an attorney (again). This is harassment.

    If anyone here in Dallas is waiting to see things improve for animals, they need to look elsewhere than the city’s overpaid staff of paper-pushing boys and their vindictive girlfriends. They lost the plot a long time ago.

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