What Happened at Spindletop?
The pit bull refuge once had a good reputation. Then something went wrong.
by Carrie Allan
Teri Williams is “not a T-shirt kind of gal,” so her husband ends up wearing most of the shirts she’s acquired over her years of donating to animal welfare groups. He was wearing one in church, promoting American Bulldog Rescue, on Mother’s Day 2012 when someone noticed it and told him about a bulldog running loose.
That’s how the Texas couple ended up at a local golf course, where the dog had been spotted repeatedly. Once they got close, Williams could see that he wasn’t an American bulldog. He was a pit bull—timid and skinny and in need of help. “The pro shop said they were calling the pound on him the next day,” says Williams. “He got right in the car, and on the way home he was just exhausted.”
The couple connected with the dog, but weren’t in a position to keep him; they had a rescued pooch with some dog-aggression issues. But they wanted to make sure that the dog—who they’d named Driver—found a good home, so Williams started calling and emailing people she knew, looking for a foster home or a rescue that could take him.
She came up empty-handed. “Even with all our connections, there was just nobody who had room. And that’s how we heard about Spindletop.”
On recommendations from other rescuers—Williams says she talked to no fewer than nine people who had nothing bad to say about the place—she called the director of Spindletop, and they talked several times. Everything sounded good, though the services offered were expensive: $750 to take Driver for three months of boarding, medication, neutering, and finding him a home.
So Williams and her husband made the hour’s drive from their home in Houston to Willis, Texas. When they got to Spindletop, it looked great. They were told they could come back and see Driver anytime. Williams saw nothing to make her think the place was anything but what it seemed: a safe refuge for dogs who sometime seem to get nothing but bad breaks.
A Long Slide
Spindletop once had a good reputation, says Chris Schindler, manager of animal fighting investigations at The HSUS. Its director, Leah Purcell, was seen as a pioneer—one of the few rescues taking pit bulls at all, and “difficult” pit bulls at that. If the pit bull advocacy movement has founders, she might have been considered one of them. She made a case for victims of dogfighting back when many groups—including The HSUS—felt that placing the seized animals was too risky. She took pit bulls rescued after Katrina. She stood up for Michael Vick’s dogs. She was known to find homes, often quickly, for dogs whose behavior was a challenge.
But in July 2012, the Montgomery County Constable’s office, which runs animal control for the county, got a tip from a Spindletop employee. The whistleblower reported that, in one of the buildings on the property, 38 dogs had died of heat stroke when the air conditioning failed. Officers got permission to enter a building at the front of the property, and the video they took there was enough to get a warrant. The HSUS, Animal Farm Foundation, and other animal welfare groups came in to assist. And while the video had provided them a glimpse of what they were to find, it was only once they got into the other buildings on the property that they saw how far Spindletop had fallen.
“The ammonia [in one structure] was worse than any cat hoarding house I’ve ever been in,” Schindler says. “We couldn’t even process dogs inside. We had to process on the porch, go in, grab a dog. You could not breathe, and everyone’s eyes were bloodshot.” The air inside was so bad that one of the accompanying staff who’d entered without a respirator immediately ran out again and threw up.
Rescuers found dogs malnourished and sick and lying in accumulated vomit, urine, and feces. Dogs who were supposedly being altered had instead had pups. They found the grave that the whistleblower helped dig for the dogs who’d died. All in all, they removed nearly 300 live dogs, mostly from crates and cages that had not been opened in a long time.
Shadows of a Doubt
Williams says was no sign of any of this when she dropped Driver off. Schindler concurs. He heard dozens of stories like Williams’ in the days after the raid: Rescuers who brought dogs to Spindletop saw and heard nothing that caused them alarm. Dogs were admitted in an area of the property that was expensively landscaped and clean. In total, Schindler estimates that there were eight or nine buildings on the property, which extended much farther than most visitors realized. You would never have known that some of the buildings—which looked like places that might hold farm equipment—were wall-to-wall with crated dogs.
“You can say, ‘Do your homework’—but there were people who were absolutely devastated because they felt like they did do their homework,” says Stacey Coleman, executive director of Animal Farm Foundation, who helped people who had left dogs at Spindletop reclaim the animals after the raid. Many rescuers did check up on the place before leaving animals there, did ask questions, did follow up. Schindler says some were told elaborate stories about where their dogs now were—either safely nearby on the property or safely adopted.
After Williams dropped Driver off, she says, she planned to go back and see him.“But every week we called and tried to make arrangements, and every week she wouldn’t call me back until the weekend was over,” Williams recalls. After a while, she grew concerned, she says, and told her husband that if it happened one more time, they needed to go back and get Driver.
That was the weekend before the raid. Next thing she knew, Spindletop was on the evening news.
When they got Driver back after the bust, Williams says, he was filthy and skinny. His nails were horribly overgrown, he had yet to be neutered, and his lungs showed signs of new scarring—possibly from the ammonia fumes onsite.
He had been there only a few months; other dogs had been there for years—including, Schindler notes, one very old girl from the group Purcell had taken after Katrina back in 2005.
For the people who’d sent dogs to Spindletop, that was one of the most painful elements: Many of the animals had already been through rough stuff. Their rescuers had pulled them from overcrowded shelters. They’d been saved from dogfighters or neglect or cruelty, or from the flooded city of New Orleans. And people had sought a safe place for them. To confront the conditions they’d been living in—and dying in—was heartbreaking.
For Coleman, the saddest cases weren’t the experienced rescuers, but those random Good Samaritans who had at some point found a stray or injured pit bull and tried to do the right thing. They were devastated, Coleman says, and many who came to reclaim animals were “untrusting of what animal welfare and animal rescue were.” She couldn’t really blame them, she says. With hundreds of dogs to sort out and few records to help, the situation was already difficult. No one was sure which dogs had been among the 38 who died in the overheated building. Coleman had to have a lot of heart-to-heart talks to promise the reclaim process would be transparent.
When Teri Williams went to the hearing that would decide the dogs’ disposition, it was her first time meeting rescuers she’d “worked with online, through Facebook, for months and years,” she says. “Some had lost their dogs and knew they’d been among the ones who’d died. … There was a lot of anger, but just an overwhelming sense of betrayal, in that you thought you’d done the best thing for these animals, and yet look what you had turned them over to. There was a woman who had medically fostered a pit bull for eight months just to get her healthy enough to go to Spindletop, only to have her die in that building.”
The strangeness of the Spindletop case makes it difficult to issue caveats: Spindletop looked good, on its website and from outside the property. It had a long history and a decent reputation. And it would be tragic for the case to put a blemish on the world of rescue. “We need to decide whether we want to make progress, or become paralyzed by the fear of ‘What if?’” says Coleman. “So I think we should all learn as many lessons as we can from this experience, but not be afraid to keep pushing to help the animals. … What happened at Spindletop is a very rare instance. Most of the time it goes just fine.”
With much rescue work taking place over great distances, how can rescuers be certain that the foster home or sanctuary or adopter at the end of the line will be a good one? The answer is what it is for everyone in this field: There are no absolute certainties.
But there are some ways to make it safer. For example, The HSUS has handled dozens of dogfighting busts over the past five years, and the animals seized from those raids have gone to partnering rescues and shelters around the country. But none of them ever went to Spindletop. Schindler says that the director called him a few years back to ask about taking in some dogs from a huge, eight-state dogfighting bust The HSUS had worked on. “I told her that we don’t place dogs unless we can visit the property, and then she never called me back,” he says.
No, Schindler acknowledges, given how many rescued animals are transported across state lines and across the country these days, it’s probably not realistic to think that every rescue group can visit the facility of every group it works with. But those networks moving animals around the country are a great resource. If you can’t go to a place and see it with your own eyes, make sure someone you trust can.
What You Can Do
- Stand up for pits: Advocate for sensible dangerous-dog policies that hold owners responsible for the actions, not the breed, of their dogs.
- Don’t assume a dog will be difficult just because it’s a pit bull. And don’t allow fear to push you to make a placement you’re not confident about.
- Know your placement partners. “We don’t deal in reputations,” says Coleman. If we’re going to work with an organization, we get to know that organization.” Be transparent about your own practices, and ask your partners to do the same. They should be able to visit you. You should be able to visit them.
- If you see something, say something. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you notice practices that are unhealthy or unsafe for the animals. Bring your concerns to the group involved; there could be a legitimate reason for the practice, or it may just require a little education. If things still don’t change, report the behavior to authorities (police department, local SPCA). Just as good rescues save lives, bad rescues can cost them—both directly, and by driving shelters’ fear of collaborating with an irresponsible group.
- Read the thought-provoking blog post How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary," in which a rescuer talks about Spindletop and her own experiences with Tiger Ranch.
- Don't lose faith. While no shelter, rescue, or sanctuary is perfect, and there will likely always be cases where people lose their way, the vast majority of animal welfare groups are striving to do the right thing. And animal welfare advocates can only succeed by working together. The animals are worth it.
He contrasts the tightly managed experiences rescuers had at Spindletop—greeted at the front of the property, but never allowed farther in—with his own experiences partnering with Animal Farm Foundation. “I know that if I were driving through New York and wanted to stop by and check out their place, there would be no problem. I know I would be welcomed and could see all of it.”
It’s yet another way that organizational collaboration saves lives: If groups in a community are working together, if they’ve put aside differences to develop relationships that promote transparency, imagine the difference it could make. Imagine the peace of mind you might feel if, before handing off a dog to be transported to a place several states away, you could talk to the local shelter or animal control agency and have a rescue coordinator tell you, “Yes, I have been to their facility; I’ve seen how they care for their animals with my own eyes, and they are doing it right.”
The “Pit Problem” is a Human Problem
Coleman and Schindler both note that, given Spindletop’s reputation for taking “difficult” dogs, they went into the site expecting to deal with placement challenges. They were surprised by how many dogs were “just lovely,” says Coleman.
“What we found out as we went along is that many people took dogs to Spindletop because they assumed there was a problem with the dog,” she says, recalling one man who’d found a female pit and been told it would be unwise to keep her since he had another female dog at home. “So he did the ‘right’ thing and found the dog a place at Spindletop. … He never let the two dogs meet because he’d been told not to.”
It suggests an ongoing problem with people making assumptions about dogs who’ve been labeled pit bulls, she says:
“We need to look at the dogs in front of us, and not the dogs we were warned about.”
It’s one of the most troubling elements of the Spindletop case. In some communities, a pit bull who enters an animal shelter has little chance of adoption. Some adopters are afraid of them. Some shelters are afraid to place them, lest they end up with people who may exploit the breed. Some jurisdictions have breed-specific laws preventing their ownership and placement. Some insurance companies won’t cover them. For pit bulls, the world often looks like a stacked deck, and options can seem scant.
Coleman says that the response to the Spindletop bust shows that animal rescuers don’t have to feel desperate for good placement for pits. “The single most important thing we’ve learned from this is that this notion that it’s difficult to place pit bull dogs or to find rescues or shelters to help is maybe not as accurate as we thought,” she says. “Because here we had 300 dogs, and in about six weeks, all but 18 of the dogs had a place to go. That’s phenomenal.”
Williams says Driver is doing great now. He’s back to his beautiful white and chocolate coloring and has gained weight in the foster care of a woman who’s had 30 years of experience as a veterinary nurse. “We just saw him Sunday, and he looked amazing. He plays with toys now—we never saw him play before, ever, and he looked really, really good,” she says.
But, she says, the future is still uncertain. “We’re still desperately looking for someone to give him a forever home. The situation was bad for him before, and now it’s that bad and add 300 more pit bulls out there also looking for homes.”
She thinks people’s fear about what will happen to pit bulls at shelters played a part in what happened at Spindletop, and may have kept some from speaking out earlier about problems they may have witnessed, or questionable encounters they’d had at the place.
“I see that as one of the big reasons [Spindletop was] able to do this for so long, because this breed is not given a fair shake so much of the time,” says Williams. “And people know it.” That’s why some people who find pit bulls will not take the dog to a shelter, but just open the door and let the dog run loose, she says—“because they think there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll make it.”
Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine