20/20 vs. SPCA factcheck — ABC screwed the pooch

UPDATE 6/5/08

I met the producer of this piece at a conference, and after a conversation with her — in which we still disagree over many of the fundamental issues raised below — I did realize that there were a couple characterizations below that were not 100% fair. I’ve removed those and noted where the missing copy is with brackets and/or ellipses.

UPDATED 6/22/05

As time has gone by and more information has come out, I’ve formed my opinion of the validity of the 20/20 report. Unfortunately, no one from ABC has responded to my calls and emails, nor do they look to be likely to do so, given the experience of others folowing this story. So for now their report will have to stand on its own merits.

I have been in contact with Claire Schwarz, an attorney for the SPCA of Texas and hoped to speak to James Bias, the President of the organization. I didn’t have my questions together before the weekend though, and he’s out of town.

I still have enough from other sources to fill in most of the gaps. I’m going to leave outstanding questions I have in italics, and will edit to add the answers when and if I get responses.

In the continuation, you’ll find a list of every fact about the Texas SPCA presented by 20/20 on its website and my assessment of its validity. (NJ folks will have to let their local upstart prelaunch news organization fend for them.) I’ll also hit some of the general points of the investigation.

Lines in bold come from the ABC report as posted on their website. Again, italicized sections are questions that are still outstanding. I know that a lot of people have been crossposting my stuff to message boards, etc. In this case, I’d like to ask that you post only the link, as this won’t really make sense without the formatting.

We spent a year investigating the SPCA, looking at 50 cases from New
York to California.

When I speak to someone at ABC, I intend to request a list of those cases, their location and resolution. I will also ask if and how the NJ and Texas cases were substantially different from the other cases reviewed.

Some animal owners claimed that
when they became overextended in caring for their animals, an SPCA
accused them of neglect, confiscated their animals and sold them. The SPCAs then keep the money.

At best, this is an oversimplification. The statement leaves out the court proceedings that take place in between. The SPCA provides evidence to law enforcement officials, and that may, in some instances, be the way the cases come to the attention of the officials. But, a judge has to issue a warrant.

So, for the scheme alleged above to take place, there would have to be complicity from both a law enforcement official and a judge, at minimum. I can’t imagine what motivation anyone in either of those two positions would have to engage in such a scheme. The traditional adage in conspiracy is to "follow the money." And absent hard evidence, there just isn’t enough money at play here to justify a three-pronged conspiracy. Also consider that SPCA of Texas covers multiple counties and jurisdictions, which would make such a conspiracy prohibitively difficult.

To take that a step further, the SPCA of Texas has records showing that they made 2,308 investigations last year, leading to 13 seizures.

Sometimes the owners hire lawyers and file appeals, but they rarely
win. Judges usually side with the SPCAs.

I’d like to find out how many times SPCA has gone in front of a judge and the judge has sided with the animal owner. The SPCA is on the winning side 90% of the time. Even if you buy the generalizations, they aren’t dispositive. Does that mean that law enforcement only pursues the worst case?

Dave Garcia has confiscated thousands of animals in several states.
That fact, in and of itself proves neither virtue nor vice. It doesn’t tell us how many of those animals were abused and in need of rescuing. It establishes nothing but the fact that Dave Garcia has been in this business for a while.

He heads rescue operations for the Dallas SPCA, one of the biggest such
organizations in America.

This is a fact that ABC has been chastised on, but it is technically correct. To casual viewers, it made Garcia sound like the President of the organization, rather than Vice President of Operations/Rescue & Investigation. I have no quibble with ABC’s characterization here.

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.

Absolutely true. I’d like to hear Garcia and the SPCA’s philosophy on the appeal issue, and whether they would support legislation to allow animal owners an appeal when their animal is seized.

Under Garcia’s leadership, the Dallas SPCA has seen penalties against animal owners quadruple.

Again, misleading at best. The SPCA can not collect penalties from animal owners. This is a point debated endlessly on many message boards, but I have not seen one scrap of evidence to prove what would be a patently illegal practice. I’ve been unable to find any statistic supporting a four-fold increase in penalties at any level. It is possible that the SPCA has "seen" penalties charged in criminal case quadruple, especially since there are new animal abuse laws with stiffer penalties on the books, but I have not yet been able to find statistics to confirm or deny a claim of a penalty increase. And even if it exists, the money did not go to the SPCA.   

The SPCA invites television crews along on their raids confiscating
animals. Such broadcasts spur the public to make big donations — a
total of $6 million in 2003 to the Dallas SPCA — which helps pay
Garcia’s $80,000 annual salary.

The SPCA has had TV crews on raids, including crews from WFAA, the Belo-owned ABC affiliate that aired the 20/20 program in Dallas.

The mention of Garcia’s salary, and connecting it to the SPCA’s revenue, implies that it is a large amount of money. I don’t buy that — Having run businesses in the $4-6 million revenue range, I’d say that’s about right for a senior manager. Further, one of the few posters on the ABC message board who bothered to bring some new information (as opposed to mindless screaming) to any side of this argument did comparable salary research and found:

The Director Field Services working in Dallas, TX PMSA, Texas now earns an average salary of $98,399.
Half of those in this position would earn between $64,894 and $197,565
(the 17th and 67th percentiles). These numbers are derived from real,
area specific, survey data.

When benefits and bonuses are added to this salary, the average total compensation for this position would be $125,095

One of those raids occurred at Renee Moore’s dog kennel, with TV reporters stating 120 dogs lived in deplorable conditions.
True. (Unfortunately, WFAA’s video link is dead.) Interestingly, the 20/20 report made no mention of this nugget (emphasis mine):

…The constable and SPCA got a court order and to seize the dogs and a horse, which was 400 pounds underweight.

The average weight of a horse is 1,000 pounds.

But Moore’s dogs are show dogs.

Does this mean they are AKC registered? Is there evidence of this?

Some of them were thin, she said,
because they were nursing large litters of puppies. Vets and breeders
told us it can be normal for a dog’s ribs to show when a dog is nursing
lots of puppies.

See pictures on SPCA site. I have not seen anyone related to this case or with any evidence dispute the validity of these photos. I have also heard that dogs nursing large litters can be gaunt. However, at least one of the thin dogs pictured is a puppy and therefore clearly not nursing (at least as the nurse-er.)

As to the other pictures, this is where it gets sticky. I’m appalled by them. But we’re city dwellers who completely spoil our dogs — they swim in a pool every day; live inside; and usually sleep in the bed with us. By my standards, the dogs photographed are being abused.

BUT, not everyone treats dogs as "pets." I can certainly see that there are people who have dogs as livestock, to be raised and bought and sold. In that context, they are like pigs or chickens or cows on a farm. I imagine that most chickens and pigs and cows (all of which I will have consumed at meals today), live in conditions not much better than what we see here. Does that mean that chicken farms should be raided too, or that these sort of "dog farms" should also be perfectly legal? That’s a matter of one’s point of view and the current state of the law.

This, I think, is why there is such a divide of opinion on this matter. If you believe dogs are "pets," then the seizure is appropriate. If you believe dogs are farm animals and a product to be bought and sold, than it’s potentially unfair, but legal under the current state of the law.

"Cruel treatment" is a matter of community standards. By my standards, these dogs were treated cruelly. I presume that by Renee Moore’s standards, they were not. I don’t know which of us is right, but I suspect that mainstream opinion would be that they were not being treated well.

To be clear, this is not an issue of being a breeder versus a pet owner. We got our younger dog from a breeder who had an impeccable kennel. I’d board my dogs there any time. Heck– I’d sleep there.

Another thing I keep coming back to (emphasis mine):

2,308 investigations.
13 seizures.

Admittedly, the logic here is not airtight, but I look at those numbers, and they feel right– if not skewed towards fewer seizures than I would expect. That says that less than half a percent of the people formally suspected of mistreating their animals see their animals seized. Does this prove that Renee’s dogs should have been seized? No. But it really belies the idea of a seizure program run amok.

Take it a step further:

Of the 11,507 animals seen during investigations, a total of 1,098 animals—or nine percent–were removed by court order.

So, .5% of the cases meant 9% of the animals. You mean that those with more animals, took poorer care of them? I buy it.

But the SPCA took custody of all of Renee’s dogs, including
award-winners — worth up to $600 each.

Out of curiosity, I’d like to see a list of the awards won, and what evidence, outside of Renee’s statements there is to support the value of the dogs. However, this point is completely irrelevant to the question at hand. If the dog was cruelly treated, and was to be seized under the law, its value and pedigree are irrelevant. If the dog was properly treated, and seized unreasonably, the value is still irrelevant.

After the radio, her vet wrote
that while "housing and sanitation needed improvement" and suggested a
cutback in the number of animals, he also said "Moore does care about
and care for her animals no starvation was evident."

That may be, but the opinion of an independent vet would be more credible. The vet may well be giving his honest opinion, but there is an appearence of potential bias here. If Moore was taking proper care of her animals, she had to be a pretty good client for that vet.

A judge upheld the

True. The case went to US District Court.

The Moore’s court case was:
Renee Moore, Randall Moore, and Moore’s Precious Puppies v. Tracey Garner et
, CA6: 04CV079, U.S. District Court, EDTx, Tyler

Tracey Garner is Justice of the Peace, Precinct 4, Place 1, Van Zandt County, Texas. And neither the SPCA nor David Garcia appears in the "et al." Claire Schwarz tells me that SPCA and Moore were named in this suit, although they don’t appear in the Pacer listing.

Download PacerMoore.doc

Unable to afford a lawyer, Renee wrote her own lawsuit charging the
SPCA with stealing, but the suit was dismissed.

This is unfortunate. Had she been able to afford a lawyer, that lawyer almost certainly would have told her that she was suing the wrong party. Regardless of the SPCA’s motivations here, they were clearly within the law.

Renee’s livelihood was
destroyed. She and her husband were forced to sell their home and move
into a trailer.

There are two ways of looking at this — One is that the seizure was legal and justified, and that the consequences to the Moores are irrelevant to the decision. If my livelihood is based on producing a news product, and I do something illegal that causes that company to go out of business, then I have no one to blame but myself.

The other way to look at it is that Renee was adequately caring for her animals and they shouldn’t have been taken. That’s a matter to be addressed in the legislature and the judiciary. But not with the SPCA.

Garcia didn’t know that our cameraman was a veterinarian, Dr. Gaylon TeSlaa.

I’m going to start far afield here, so follow me for a bit. It eventually gets to "the sting":

Claire Schwarz, attorney for the SPCA, told me that 20/20 got the SPCA of Texas to agree to the filmed raid because they portrayed their investigation as an expose on "puppy mills." The SPCA’s site seems to indicate the same.

I intend to ask ABC about this if someone returns my call or emails. While I certainly wouldn’t have expected them to say "We’re doing an expose’ on you — mind if we film?," IF the SPCA’s characterization is correct, this is clearly dirty pool on the part of ABC.

Then, there’s Dr. TeSlaa. I completely reject any arguments that he was unqualified to assess the well-being of the animals because he is not licensed in Texas. An American vet is an American vet.

Much has been made on message boards about his Desperate Housewives-meets ER-meets The Practice television treatment and pilot screenplay. I know only a little about television, but from what I do, it is preposterous to think that a news program producer could do anything to help sell a fictional screenplay at the network. I don’t think anyone involved is dumb enough to believe it could. So that’s a red herring.

Dr. TeSlaa has not responded to any of my emails since Sunday.

The other prominent conspiracy theory floating around the internet goes like this: The segment producer  is allegedly in league with folks who breed dogs for a living (pergoratively called "puppy milers.") She supposedly worked with them to get this report produced.

There is also unsubstantiated scuttlebutt that the story was being
challenged by ABC brass and that the producer had to fight very hard to get
the segment on air.

Evidence presented for this theory amounts to this email being widely circulated around the Internet:

"This was sent to me by the lady
instigated the 20/20 report on confiscations
of animals, including
raids and thefts by
Dave Garcia and the SPCA in Texas. Please take
minute to write, if it is only a few short
sentences telling ABC that
John Stossel
did an excellent job of reporting the truth.
It is our chance
to take the initiative for a
change. PLEASE write immediately!


Karen Strange

Subject: We have 1 wk to ride the
tidal wave.
We blindsided the ARs. Let’s go get them!

We have to
write letters. Snail mail.
That’s what will get 20/20 to do more
ups. We are trying to put one together right
now to air in 6 months
or so. The Executives
are impressed by SNAIL MAIL. Please get this
out and ask everyone on
every list to write.

John Stossel
% ABC –
147 Columbus Avenue
New York, New York 10023

Ask them to
thank John, ABC and the
producer for RISKING her life to go
against these Domestic Terrorists and
expose them. She needs a larger budget
to do
the next story. She had to carry the camera
along with the vet
having a camera.
That’s wrong. It was a great piece, but
could have been
so much better if she’d had a
larger budget.

Go to www.abcnews.com and
read and write
on the message board for John Stossel. It’s
There’s over 40
pages already. The ARs are trying to get him
fired. They
need to be put in their place.
When you get to the website Click 20/20
the top Then Click John Stossel Message
Board. You have to register to
write o= n it.

We have one week to ride this tidal wave
and get our
side of the story out to the
State legislators and politicians. So
we’ve Blindsided the ARs. They never even
suspected this. We did not
promote just for
that reason. So NOW WE NEED
EVERYONE"S help please. Also,
write to Orin
Hatch at the Senate Judiciary Committee and
demand these
organizations have
their non profit 501(c)3 status yanked for

Senator Orin Hatch
Senate Judiciary Committee

Call the Texas State Assembly, the
Governor’s office as well as
ours in
California with Outrage or whateer state you
are in!

Go for
it this is our chance to make change.
We’ve fired the first round. We have
organize and work together. I can’t do it


I emailed Karen Strange to see if the email was real, and if she could put me in touch with "Marge." This is the response I received:

Hello Mike,
I will forward your request to Marge and if she
wishes, she may contact you.
I read the article on the website. Very
interesting. The root of this problem has been brewing for many years and will
not be solved in our lifetime. The animal rights versus animal owner wars are
heating up, and for once, the 20/20 segment exposed what is happening and gave
our side the advantage, if only for a short time. The issue of taking one’s
animals without just compensation was solved by hanging in the old days. In
modern times, it is rewarded and the owner has no Constitutional rights.
Somewhere along the line, legislators have allowed laws to be written that the
common man cannot afford to challenge in a court of law. That is not how it
should be. Theft in the name of rescue has became a national plague and our side
is fighting back.
Thank you for your interest in this important
Karen Strange, President & Registered

I have not heard from "Marge."

The only bit of evidence I see that remotely supports such theories is that online message board postings that make it clear that groups who were not directly involved in the story, but were sympathetic to its final tone were aware of it more than a month ago, and thought that it was to air on several different occasions before it did.

(A side note: In an earlier post, I referenced the above message board. It has existed since September 2004 and is dedicated to the activities of Dave Garcia. Since I linked to it,  it has gone silent. A few days later, the group was removed from Yahoo!)

I intend to ask ABC about this whenever a contact is made. But absent any evidence, I find the theories as a whole VERY far-fetched. The producer in question is a seasoned investigative producer whose career goes back to early days on Walter Cronkite’s staff. I would be very surprised if someone like her would stake a pretty celebrated career on the agenda of an interest group that surrounded dog breeding. Not impossible, but frankly bloody unlikely.

But, nothing gives creedence to conspiracy like silence and evasion. I emailed the producer on Tuesday afternoon with questions. Getting no response, I re-sent the email with a read receipt on Thursday. I got the following response that night (number edited):

Hi, Mike…I stopped in the
office tonight and received your messages.  I’ve been out on personal
matters and won’t be back until Tuesday.  In the meantime, please
contact our press person Jeffrey Schneider at 212-xxx-xxxx regarding
your request.

Thanks so much for your interest,

A common response, based on an article on Best Friends News:

So we called 20/20 ourselves, with a few questions for them, and
reached the producer of the segment … She had a
one-sentence reply for us:


One can only wonder what kind of a field day [she] and Stossel would have if the SPCA of Texas had said that to them!   

[She] did refer us to Jeffrey Schneider in their public relations
department, but his assistant transferred us to Alyssa Apple, a
publicist. Apple replied that she had to refer it all back to the
producer … and could we send the questions in an
e-mail. We are still waiting for a response.

I got the same runaround by calling Jeffrey, except that I left Alyssa a voicemail which was not returned. Although it seems that she would have told me to do, which was to email my questions to to the producer.

Still, I chalk this up to either fear of litigation or big-media arrogance, not conspiracy. Unless someone coughs up some better evidence.

So the question remains, if you buy the rest of this, why the sting? My early guess (and it’s nothing but a guess) is the most obvious — ratings via shock. My second guess is that the 20/20 staff thought they were really onto something scandalous but didn’t have or take the time to get or refute an airtight story.

Early one morning last September, "20/20" accompanied Garcia as he went
with a police officer to a Justice of the Peace to get the warrant
needed to raid a dog kennel.

Another way to write the same sentence: "Early one morning last September, "20/20" accompanied a police officer as he went with Garcia to a Justice of the Peace to get the warrant needed to raid a dog kennel."

Both sentences are true. They give very different ideas about who’s driving the car.

He claimed the owner didn’t provide adequate food, water and shelter, and showed photos of what he said were filthy kennels.

Here’s some photos.

After a brief informal hearing, Garcia got permission to raid, which
meant he and an armed police officer could go to the kennel without any

Technically, Garcia was a witness in the case, and a vendor providing rescue services. As to warning, Schwarz says:

Further, Deputy Anderson reports that he made a visit to the Chennault
residence some time prior to the September 7, 2004 investigation and he
counseled Chennault on the poor condition of her animals. Even though Chennault participated in the
2004 case, she is still the subject of complaints. The Hopkins County Sheriff’s office reports
that it investigated Chennault on May 31, 2005 and reported that she has
approximately 75 to 100 dogs on the property and that they are in poor
condition. The Hopkins County Attorney reports
she has recently received numerous complaints regarding Chennault. 

Garcia told us to expect to see animals that were urine soaked and fecal stained. "20/20" didn’t see that.
One explanation could be that the situation wasn’t as bad as Garcia claimed. Schwarz has another:

It is important to note that at the time of the
investigation, some 70 dogs were present at the Chennault residence while at
the time of the seizure approximately four days later, only 24 dogs were
present. It can be reasonably inferred
that Chennault removed some 46 dogs to some other location during this time
period. TeSlaa suggests this by his
reference to his visit to Chenault’s mother’s house where presumably Chennault
housed the other 46 dogs. 

TeSlaa said, while there was some neglect because the owner
had been away for four days, it was correctable. Since her being away
was an unusual event, he saw no cruelty and certainly no reason to
confiscate the dogs. But Garcia saw cruelty and said the dogs needed to
be saved.

Based on the above, it’s clear that having had warning, Chennault (whose name I’d been misspelling, picking up from postings elsewhere) had made some effort to clean up. So TeSlaa’s assessment may well have been accurate. But the warrant was based on the evidence from four days prior.

Let me make a semi-clumsy analogy: Someone sees ten pounds of marijuana in your living room. And on that basis, a search warrant is issued. Just because there is only one pound left when the cops arrive doesn’t mean that you’re going to get away clean.

Finally, there is no explanation of how being away was "an unusual event." It may well have been. But I can’t glean that from the 20/20 segment.

"Under Texas state law, these animals have been cruelly treated. The
definition of cruelly treated is having to live in your own feces,
unsanitary conditions, no food or water," said Garcia.

To be literal, the definition is:

"tortured, seriously overworked, unreasonably abandoned, unreasonably
deprived of necessary food, care, or shelter, cruelly confined, or
caused to fight with another animal."

But when people keep animals, there’s routinely feces found in the cages.  "That’s part of having an animal," said TeSlaa.

Fair enough. But that doesn’t address "unreasonably abandoned, unreasonably
deprived of necessary food, care, or shelter, cruelly confined…"

After raiding her kennel, Garcia took the dogs to the SPCA where the workers cited problems like fleas and mange. Not that the technicians are experts. In fact, our vet was the only
veterinarian in sight. "These pets were not abused. They were not in
poor health. None of them were in life-threatening conditions," said

Again, TeSlaa’s opinion here is very likely valid, considering that Chennault had four days to clean up and move dogs to another location.

As far as technicians’ opinions, all I can offer is my own experience taking two dogs and two cats to our local vet. We’re on a first-name basis with the techs and they’re quite knowledgable. If one of them told me we were dealing with fleas or mange, I’d believe them.It’s like a nurse saying "Yep, you’ve probably got the flu." And by my standards, untreated fleas or mange mean an irresponsible owner.

When I mentioned there was no vet there during the raid, Garcia replied: "We had vets there." 

But he didn’t. The Texas SPCA later e-mailed us admitting that it didn’t, but said in this case that vets weren’t needed.

The SPCA hasn’t disputed this fact.  What does this prove? Not that the SPCA is wrongfully seizing animals. It’s a mistake — the only clear one I see on the SPCA’s part here. In fact, at worst, I’d chalk it up as a little white lie  .. . I would like to hear Garcia’s explanation, though.

Chennault hired a lawyer and tried to get her animals back, but the
court gave her only two hours to prepare her case.

This is patently false. Schwarz’s answer, which I’ve verified:

The Warrant for Animal Seizure clearly sets out the date of the hearing
on September 16, 2004, 5 days after the warrant was served. Chennault, represented by her counsel, J.
Douglas Froneberger and Ruth Lewman, appeared at the hearing.  After reviewing the investigative evidence,
including a videotape, Chennault and her attorneys agreed to enter into an
order whereby Chennault surrendered her dogs. No criminal charges were filed against Chennault, no monetary damages
were assessed, and no findings or admission of liability or wrongdoing were
adjudicated or found. At no time has the
SPCA of Texas been aware of any formal charges or claims by Chennault that her
rights to due process were violated.

She was advised to
settle and give her dogs to the SPCA. She did.

Advised by whom? Her lawyer?

He said he dismisses most complaints without any confiscation.  Garcia said, "It’s about the welfare of an animal."

Here’s the part 20/20 left out (emphasis mine): 

2,308 investigations.
13 seizures.

Tell that to the 50 people we talked to who lost animals to Garcia and other SPCAs.

50 out of how many investigations? What were the conditions of those animals?

Joe Stuebing is fortunate that he doesn’t keep his horses in Texas,
where he would be under the thumb of the Texas no-appeal rule Garcia
lobbied for.

I’ll agree with this one. Garcia advocated the no-appeal law. And I disagree with it. And I’m writing to my legislators to urge a change in that law. But I can’t knock Garcia and law enforcement officials for following it.

In Texas, Moore could not appeal, and she said she’ll never get over what Garcia and the SPCA did to her.

"I was a dog breeder.  I was a dog shower," said Moore.  "My dogs were my life."

My dogs are like my children. Here’s a picture of my dogs:


Here’s a picture of Pam Chennault’s:


Did I get to hand-pick these pictures to make my point? Yeah. Could someone have gotten a nasty picture of my younger dog’s anal gland absess that cropped up a few weeks ago before we spent $700 on surgery and medicine to rectify it, and used it to shock and awe? I suppose they could.

But that’s exactly what 20/20 did, while accusing the SPCA of the very same thing.

Is the SPCA a perfect organization? No. There’s no such thing. Did they deserve the shellacking they got on ABC? Absolutely not.

Interestingly, ABC leaves mention of the Willams case off their website. Perhaps that’s because it had the most directly verifiable falsehood (emphasis mine):

Garcia took all of her animals and charged her $6,000 for vet and boarding fees.

Until I see a receipt and criminal fraud charges, I say "poppycock."

If ABC can’t provide evidence counter to the above, then I have to ask why they went after the SPCA. Unless they provide a credible answer, we’ll never really know. I doubt that it was a conspiracy — more likely laziness, lack of resources, carelessness or a ratings grab.

And in a way, isn’t that worse? I’d like to know the impact of this shellacking on the SPCA’s donations and services. If my dog is lost and winds up in an SPCA shelter, will it get a shorter time before euthanization because of a lack of funds?

The ABC web site says of John Stossel:

"The most consistently thought-provoking TV reporter of our time" said the Dallas Morning News,Orlando Sentinel said he "has the gift for entertaining while saying something profound."

Tell that to the charitable rescue organization you’ve wrongly damaged and to the animals who will ultimately suffer.

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.