UPDATE! Horrific and heartless

UPDATE! Horrific and heartless

The search for a lost cat named Jack in the city of Port Arthur led to the discovery of inhumane practices and mistreatment of animals by employees of the animal control department there, an investigation by The Examiner has found.

When Fran Christian realized her 13-year-old cat, Jack, had somehow escaped her apartment July 1, she immediately began a door-to-door search for her beloved pet. In addition to speaking with her neighbors, she contacted the Port Arthur Animal Control to see if they might have captured her feline friend, but she was given a resounding “No” by employees there. But as the search for Jack continued, she learned animal control had indeed picked up her cat after it ran inside another person’s home it likely thought to be its own.

Christian said when she spoke with that homeowner, she was told an animal control officer attempted six times to sedate her cat with a dart but kept missing. When he finally hit Jack in the paw, the animal went down and he put it in his truck and left.

Having heard that story, Christian went to animal control and asked about Jack and was told the department had not captured her cat. But she knew that wasn’t true and dialed a phone number the woman said she called when Jack ran inside her home. That’s when the phone rang inside the building. Christian said an animal control officer finally confirmed her cat was captured but the animal had escaped as the officer was trying to get it out of his truck.

“How can a sedated animal escape?” Christian asked. “It makes no sense but they tell me that my cat is ‘at-large’ like he is a criminal or something.”

Christian said she contacted Mayor Bobbie Prince’s office, which directed her to Lawrence Baker, the director of Port Arthur’s Community Services Department, who oversees animal control. She said Baker was rude to her but said he would find out about her cat – and he told her the same story she received from animal control – Jack was at-large.

So, every night since Jack allegedly broke out of the pound, Christian and her sister have walked the streets of downtown Port Arthur calling for Jack in hopes that he will come out from where he is supposedly hiding.

She said she had been to the shelter many times and each time she noticed a foul odor from the area where the animal control trucks were parked behind the building, but she thought the department might be using dead fish to trap cats and other animals.

On Tuesday, July 12, at about 9:45 p.m., Christian said the gate was unlocked so she and her sister went inside the fenced-in area behind the building. She said she didn’t find Jack but what she discovered was gruesome and disturbing. Since she had already contacted The Examiner seeking help in dealing with animal control, she called the reporter and asked what to do.

“I couldn’t look at it,” Christian said. “It made me sick to my stomach.”

When the reporter arrived about 30 minutes later, he was immediately overcome with the stench of rotting animals. Christian and her sister directed him to a dark blue pickup truck parked near a wooden fence that was the source of the odor. When he looked in the bed of the truck, he observed the skeletal remains of at least four cats, two dogs and other animals that were covered in maggots and flies. As he walked around the truck, he could also see where the bodily fluids of the animals were leaking through the rusty truck bed and dripping onto the ground.

Since the group was inside the fenced area, they looked around and also found at least six small cats and a dog locked in cages without food or water that were crying out. One of the kittens had been put into the cage with an extension cord wrapped around its neck. And in the bed of another truck, they found a live raccoon that had been caught in a trap and placed next to a caged baby kitten no more than a few weeks old. Neither of those animals had been provided food or water and both were less than 10 feet from the pile of dead, rotting animal carcasses in the other truck.

At that point, the reporter went to the Port Arthur Police Department and spoke Sgt. S.L. Davis asking him to check on the animals that were still alive. When Davis arrived at animal control, he appeared shocked at what he saw and said the animals were being treated cruelly. He contacted police dispatchers and asked them to contact Baker.Before leaving, Davis told the newspaper that Baker was sending his senior animal control officer – Ervin Thomas – to the scene in order to take care of the problem.The Examiner obtained a copy of a memorandum Sgt. Davis wrote early Wednesday morning to PAPD Major Raymond Clark, which states, “I advised him (Baker) that someone would need to come out and at least take care of the live animals tonight as it was cruel for them to be left in that type of state.”

When Thomas arrived at the animal control office, the reporter began asking him questions about how more than a half-dozen cats and a dog could be left without food or water or how the baby kitten and the raccoon could be locked in the bed of a pickup truck.

His reply was the animals in the cages were “animals that people come and drop off when we aren’t here.”

But the next day Baker told the newspaper the gate is supposed to be locked, which would prevent such a practice. He told the newspaper he was upset because he wasn’t aware the department hadn’t replaced a $5 lock that was broken. But somehow Thomas found a working lock when he chained the gate closed to keep the reporter out of the fenced area.

Thomas continued explaining that the animals were put into the cages by people who didn’t want them and they had done so by entering the fenced area, opening the cages and putting the animals inside all between the time officers left for the day at 5 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. when Christian and her sister contacted the newspaper.“Exactly; they can drop off animals at any time,” he said. “Hey, we come here all the time and we may have (sic) full, full of stuff.”

At that point the reporter asked if a video camera pointing toward the back fence was functioning and Thomas said it was; however, the reporter was later told by Baker the camera system “hadn’t worked in some time.”

When asked about the dead animals in the truck, Thomas said, “That is our landfill truck. The animals that we euthanize, they go to the landfill.”

But Thomas changed his story when asked why the animals were just left to rot in the truck.

“Those animals are already dead,” he said. “These are animals we picked up dead off the road. That is the landfill truck. We air that truck up (the truck had a flat tire) every time we get ready to move it.”

He didn’t have an answer when asked about another animal carcass that was found rotting in an alcove area next to the rear door of the animal control building. That animal had obviously been there for a while as the concrete was stained from where the animal had decayed.

At that point, Thomas accused the reporter, who was standing in the alley behind the facility, of trespassing and he called the police.

“You know you are trespassing,” he said. “You don’t have anything. It don’t mean nothing, whatever you are trying to do.”

A short time later, Sgt. Davis returned to the facility and told Thomas there was nothing he could do to stop the reporter from taking photos because no laws were being broken. He also indicated the same in his memo to Odom.

“I was called back over by Mr. Thomas who was upset that (the reporter) was taking pictures,” Davis wrote. “I explained to Thomas that as long as (he) did not interfere with him doing his job, there was nothing I could do about (him) taking pictures. I left the scene. I just wanted to advise you of this, as I am sure it will be in The Examiner next week.”

It took Thomas more than 20 minutes to stop talking on his cell phone before he gave food and water to the animals in the cages. An hour later, he finally did the same for the caged kitten in the pickup, but he did so only after he positioned the truck so the reporter couldn’t get a photo of him putting a cord around its neck and dragging it out.Thomas is no stranger to controversy or to The Examiner. In February 2008, the newspaper exposed how he used a .22 caliber rifle to kill what he said was a viscous 13-inch tall dachshund. That incident led to a policy change regarding the use of firearms by animal control officers.

After hearing the chain of events and being shown a number of photos, Baker said he was extremely concerned. He promised a “full investigation” and that he would get to the bottom of the matter.

“First, I would like to thank you for bringing this issue to my attention,” he said. “We are concerned that all of the animals are taken care of properly. That is why last night when I got the call, I am very upset that the gate was open and that based on the information that was given to me that things weren’t done properly. We are looking into that matter to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. He said the lock they were using was broken and they hadn’t replaced it. I have addressed that and we are in the process of getting a lock so that won’t be the case anymore.

“I am trying to find out where the animals came from and how they got there. Once I get that information, I will have a better feel for what happened, how it happened and we will put whatever precautions or safeguards in to avoid that from happening in the future.”

Baker said proper protocol is that animals are to be placed in bags and put into a freezer until they are transported to the landfill. But he said he was told the freezer was too full to hold the large yellow Labrador that was seen decaying in the back of the pickup. However, a photo taken that evening shows the freezer contained only a couple of animals and would have easily contained the Labrador and the other animal remains.

“Usually we freeze them overnight and bring them to the landfill, but yesterday the landfill was closed because of the rain,” Baker said. It was not immediately known if the landfill was closed on Tuesday.

Port Arthur City Manager Steve Fitzgibbons said there was no excuse for the animals being treated the way they were. He said the supervisor who works at the animal control office has been out since Friday, and he wants to know if she was aware of the conditions.

“Why would they leave dead animals on that truck for very long? Just the stench would be terrible,” he said. “I don’t have all the information at this time. We have a lot to look at but in any event this should not have been the case. We need to find out what we can find out regardless of whether it was before she (the supervisor) was out on Friday. It shouldn’t have happened but it would be interesting to see how long these practices and procedures have been happening.

“That is a serious, serious issue. The animals that are dead are dead, but when it comes to those that are alive, they need to be treated in a humane manner.”

The situation also struck a nerve with a Port Arthur City Councilmember, who reached out to the newspaper after hearing about the conditions at the animal control department.

“It isn’t right, and we are going to make sure it is addressed,” said Councilman John Beard. “I will not tolerate this.”

Councilman Bob Williamson was also angry over the matter and sent the following e-mail around noon Wednesday.

“I wanted to personally thank you for investigating this incident and bringing your discovery to our attention,” he wrote. “You have obviously uncovered intolerable conditions and you rescued some animals from a terrible fate. I also extend my thanks to that person who alerted you. This news is indeed troubling. I intend to be certain that we identify all those who are responsible for this and hold them accountable. I also intend to be certain that we pursue a permanent remedy with all speed.”

Christian said she feels some comfort knowing the city appears to be taking the issue seriously but she is still grieving over the loss of her pet. She said she doesn’t believe Jack escaped and fears animal control officers are lying to her about his fate. She said she is afraid her friend of 13-years was euthanized and throw in among the rotting corpses of other animals tossed in the back of the truck at animal control.