20/20 v. SPCA of Texas, part the second

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I continued to follow the SPCA story yesterday. I was amazed by the volume of response on the ABC message board; concerned about what needed to be done if 20/20’s allegations were true; equally concerned about the damage that this could do to the SPCA; and amazed that no local media were publishing anything on the story yet.

TeslaaIt seemed to me that a lot of the question hinged on the opinion of the undercover veterinarian, Dr. Gaylon TeSlaa. He’s a practicing vet in Chatsworth, CA and was easily findable via a Google Search.

I emailed him yesterday afternoon to ask him to respond to the pictures posted on the SPCA site yesterday and asked how he came to be on the show. He responded last night  (unedited; ellipses are his):

Mike:

I would be happy to respond.  First, my name was given to ABC
(apparently) because I have been a real sucker for helping out a host of rescue organizations in the Los Angeles area since early in the 90’s. It would be no exaggeration to state I have allowed myself to donate my services (and goods) to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.   I have been sympathetic to the cause of animal welfare, and the health and well being of animals in need. What happens to people who show themselves to be charitable toward worthy causes?   Everyone comes knocking on their door, that’s what!   If someone objectively looked at my history, I doubt that they could really question either my motives or credibility.

But then, objectivity is often lost where it comes to "hot button" issues!   What has been happening over the past decade or so in California is that increasingly there has been war waged between municipal departments of animal control (and affiliated humane societies and SPCA’s) and private rescue groups.  Lines get blurred quickly when private rescuers start to resemble (or become) "collectors", etc.  To make a long story short, more and more there have been municipal DAR’s (Departments of Animal Control) usurping police power and weilding this power aggressively.  I have seen some pretty disturbing stuff.

I have also seen some pretty disturbing treatment and care of animals, and I cannot stress enough that DAR’s, Humane societies, and SPCA’s serve a vital and necessary function.  My view is that however many well intentioned and well meaning people are involved in this aspect of our society, the ladder to successful advancement is still connected with production numbers and impressive statistics…therefore driving some of the people with dreams of advancement and acclaim to step on as many bodies as it takes to achieve their objectives.

I looked at the photos posted on the SPCA website you mentioned.  My part in this venture did not take me to the locations shown there…I only went on the one raid and visited one other home (which was that woman’s – Pamela’s – mother).  The photos from these other sites are clearly NOT representative of what I saw on the raid I went on.   I believe my comments in the piece speak for themselves.   However, I can say that having been present when Mr. Garcia was getting the judge’s signature for the raid, I can tell you that the general strategy is to depict everything in the worst possible light.  Get a picture of an animal behind a chain link fence with a pathetic expression and a few close-ups on some unscooped poop (which I got plenty of AT the SPCA as well), and you can pull at anyone’s heart strings!

I was MOST shocked and appalled at their not being a veterinarian involved at any point in the process.   I believe (because I could find no evidence to the contrary) that this SPCA is actually having technicians or unlicensed veterinarians performing spays and neuters.  I asked an awful lot of questions before coming to that conclusion.   On the other hand, the facility is absolutley beauuuuuutiful!   It was a close second (on the shock and appalling scale) that there is such a lack of due process…minimal to no warnings, pre-emptive inspections, no coaching or advice on how to meet standards…it was just a really sad and depressing experience which I was only willing to be involved with to debunk the notion that anyone involved in that business/industry is immune from criticism, questioning of motives, or errors in judgement.

I hope that helps.

Dr T

The SPCA site posted photos from the Pam Chenault case, the raid that Dr. TeSlaa was on, on Monday afternoon.

April and I have done a little bit of volunteer rescue work,helping to transport dogs that had been surrendered to foster or permanent homes.  I’ve seen that there are stark philosophical divides between many SPCA’s, rescue groups, and breeders.  These are very emotionally charged issues among folks who care about animals.

I fear that means that there won’t be any easy answers here — someone should certainly do a more thorough investigation of what’s going on with the SPCA. And Stossel has some questions to answer about the errors and inconsistencies claimed by the SPCA.

I’ll confess that I thought I would "get to the bottom of this." But that will take a lot of reporting by someone, whether that’s a paid professional or a lot of citizens who care enough about the animals involved to take a reasonably objective look at it. I’d love to do it myself, but we’re not in a phase where I have the time to devote. In the meantime, if someone looks into it, there are the two key issues I see:

  • Stossel says, "Garcia led an effort to get Texas politicians to pass a law saying once
    a Justice of the Peace approves one of the SPCA’s confiscations, an
    owner can’t do anything about it."
    That leaves it unclear as to whether or not a bill actually passed. It looks like HB 1963 is the bill in question. It includes language stipulating that in an animal neglect case "The decision of the county court or county court at
    law may not be further appealed."
    It died in committee. Unless similar language was buried in another bill I couldn’t find, it’s a non-issue until the next legislative session.
    The bill sounds like a horrible idea (if not unconstitutional) to me, but I’d be interested in hearing the arguments of its supporters.  (See update below)
       
  • I don’t know what standard procedures are at spay-neuter clinic, but Dr. TeSlaa’s allegations about local procedures bear further investigation. Are they true? Is that SOP in other jurisdictions? Is it a financial issue?

This is a clear example of a local issue that needs to be investigated locally. That’s not John Stossel’s responsibility — it’s ours.


UPDATE 10 AM 6/6/05: Proving Dan Gillmor’s adage that your readers always know more than you do, I received an email from Ben Nise, a rescue volunteer and SPCA donor clarifying the state of law on appeal of seizure of an animal. Further proving it, and the fact that a "half-baked" post written at 7:00 in the AM sometimes misses the point, he re-emailed me with some clarifications that I missed in the original thread. Here’s the state of things:

The original law allowing these SPCA seizures was passed in 2003, and allows appeal in general situations, but only to the county court of law in which the justice or municipal court that made the initial ruling is located. However, it prohibits any appeal in certain cases:

§ 821.025.  APPEAL.  (a)  An owner of an animal ordered
sold at public
auction as provided in this subchapter may appeal the

order to a county
court or county court at law in the county in which

the justice or municipal
court is located.  As a condition of

perfecting an appeal, the owner must
file an appeal bond in an

amount determined by the justice or municipal
court to be adequate

to cover the estimated expenses incurred in housing and
caring for

the impounded animal during the appeal process.  The decision of
the

county court or county court at law may not be further appealed. 
An

owner may not appeal an
order:

(1)  to give the animal to a nonprofit animal
shelter,

pound, or society for the protection of animals; 
or

(2)  to humanely destroy the
animal.                                          

(b)  While
an appeal under this section is pending, the

animal may not
be:   

(1)  sold or given away as provided by Sections 821.023

and 821.024;  or   
(2)  destroyed, except under circumstances which
would

require the humane destruction of the animal to prevent undue pain

to or suffering of the animal.

This strikes me as patently wrong. But it’s the state of the law, meaning that it is a legislative problem, not an SPCA problem. They’re not depriving an animal owner of due process — the law is doing that. (Garcia did speak in favor of the bill.)

The new HB 1963 that failed actually would have undone this situation, allowing appeals, but capping them at the county court level.

Nise also provided the Committee Report on the 2003 bill that outlines the pro and con positions.I’ve copied it in the continuation. HB 1963 never got far enough to publish a report.


UPDATE 6/9/05: The SPCA responds.

Texas Bill Analysis, 2003 Regular Session, House Bill 1119

March 31, 2003

Texas House Research Organization

78th Legislature, 2003 Regular Session

HB 1119

Goodman

(CSHB 1119 by Miller)

SUBJECT:

Allowing peace officers to seize cruelly treated animals.

COMMITTEE:

Agriculture and Livestock — committee substitute recommended

VOTE:

4 ayes — Hardcastle, B. Brown, Burnam, Swinford

0 nays

3 absent — Miller, D. Jones, Laney

WITNESSES:

For — Dave Garcia, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas  (Collin County Animal Control); Kent M. Robertson, City of Dallas Animal Control Division; Patti Stepp, Texas Animal Control Association and Brazos Animal Shelter; Skip Trimble, Texas Humane Legislation Network

Against — None

On — Sharon Brooks, Travis County Attorney’s Office

BACKGROUND:

Health and Safety Code, Ch. 821, subsection B sets forth guidelines for the disposition of cruelly treated animals in a civil proceeding. Cruel treatment is defined as torture, serious overwork, abandonment, deprivation of necessary food, care, or shelter, cruel confinement, or causing an animal to fight with another animal.

A county sheriff, constable, or deputy constable who suspects cruel treatment of an animal can apply for a warrant from a justice or municipal court, then seize and impound the animal. If a county court rules against the animal’s owner, the animal can be sold at public auction, given to a shelter, or humanely destroyed. Auction proceeds are given to the owner after auction and impoundment costs are paid. The owner may appeal the court’s order to sell an animal at auction. Specific direction is given in the code for the disposition of cruelly treated farm livestock.

DIGEST:

CSHB 1119 would allow any peace officer who suspected cruel treatment of an animal to apply for a seizure warrant. The warrant could be obtained from a justice court, a municipal court, or a magistrate.

A court that found an owner guilty of cruelly treating an animal would require the owner to pay all court costs, including costs of investigation and expert witnesses, housing and caring for the animal during impoundment, auction costs in the event of a public sale, and the cost of humanely destroying the animal if so ordered. Proceeds from an animal’s sale would be applied toward the above costs.

The animal’s owner could appeal an order to sell the animal at auction, but only to the county court, and first the owner would have to file a bond in an amount sufficient to house and care for the animal during the appeals process. An owner could not appeal a court’s order to destroy the animal or to give it away to a shelter. While an appeal was pending, an animal could not be sold, nor could it be destroyed unless necessary to prevent the animal from suffering.

Language specific to farm livestock would be deleted from Health and Safety Code, sec. 821.023, which would make the terms of the bill apply equally to domestic animals and livestock.

CSHB 1119 would take effect September 1, 2003.

SUPPORTERS SAY:

By expanding the number of eligible players who could participate in the process of responding to animal abuse, CSHB 1119 would reduce the time it takes to intervene, thus saving the lives of animals who might otherwise die from inhumane treatment. In many localities, the courts close after 5 p.m, making it nearly impossible for officers to access the seizure warrants they need to remove animals from abusive homes. However, many counties have 24-hour magistrates who could issue such warrants. Allowing any peace officer to obtain the warrant is important, because officers on the front lines often discover cruelly treated animals when responding to other emergency calls at night or on weekends. Under this bill, if a peace officer walked into a planned dog fight or a house with 100 cats, something could be done quickly to rescue the mistreated animals.

The bill would help counties and cities recover their costs in cruel treatment proceedings and would put financial responsibility on the owner of the animal, where it belongs. For example, it costs a county an average of $5.00 per day to house, feed and care for a healthy animal in already overcrowded shelters. When 150 dogs are rescued from a puppy mill, and it takes 10 days to get the case heard in court, at $750 per day, the costs add up quickly. These numbers assume that the animals are healthy. In some cases, animals have been so badly abused that rehabilitation expenses can cost the county up to $10,000. Clearly, local taxpayers have an interest in expediting these cases and assessing the financial burden on the responsible
party: the owner.

CSHB 1119 would help cut down on frivolous appeals by owners that drive up costs for local communities and prolong suffering for the animals. Animal owners often will drag out seizure proceedings with multiple appeals while counties and cities are burdened with the custody and care of the animal pending a final judgment. By limiting an owner’s ability to appeal only to the county court and only to a court order to sell an animal at auction, the bill would reduce significantly the number of appeals and the length of the appeals process. A county currently is unable to adopt out a healthy animal or euthanize a sick one until a final judgment is rendered. Boarding animals for a long period of time is not good for the animal and can expose it to other illnesses while in confinement. Keeping an unhealthy animal alive only prolongs suffering for the innocent victim of an owner’s neglect or abuse.

This bill would strike a fair balance between protecting animals, taxpayers, and responsible pet owners. A peace officer would be very unlikely to seize an animal except in a clearly abusive situation. For example, a chained dog does not necessarily constitute cruelty, but a dog that has been chained for two weeks without food and water does. Further, many police dogs are trained with choke chains, so an officer would be unlikely to seize an animal simply because its owner was using a choke chain. In any event, the courts are there to protect all citizens, and a person who felt wrongly accused would be entitled to a fair hearing before a judge.

OPPONENTS SAY:

CSHB 1119 could create a potential burden on some dog owners who may be accused unfairly by police officers of animal abuse. People who keep guard dogs such as Rottweilers or Pit Bulls could be accused of cruelty to their animals simply by keeping the dog chained or closely confined in the owner’s yard. The definition of cruelty is so broad in the statute as to include potentially acceptable behavior by a pet owner, depending on the animal’s breed and function. Other pet owners use tested training or restraint methods such as choke chains that could be considered abusive by some.
Granting police officers the authority to seize animals could lead to overly broad interpretation of the statute and potential intimidation of otherwise responsible dog owners whom police merely wish to harass.

NOTES:

HB 1119 as filed would have expanded the definition of cruel treatment of an animal in Health and Safety Code, sec. 821.021, to include specific descriptions of cruel confinement and necessary care. It also would have extended culpability to an owner who negligently allowed the animal to be cruelly treated.

TX B. An., H.B. 1119, 3/31/2003

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.