Hundreds of crates were required to transport dogs to a holding facility, where they'll receive medical attention and care.

Willis, Texas – Over 300 dogs, mostly pit bulls, were seized on July 17 from Spindletop Refuge, a rescue facility near Houston, Texas.

Montgomery County, Texas, Animal Control served a warrant at the property early Tuesday morning after complaints alleging deplorable conditions were lodged by former workers and volunteers. Originally believing the facility contained about 100 dogs, County officials were shocked to discover how many animals were actually housed there. The sheer magnitude of the removal effort necessitated bringing in the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for aid. Even with HSUS aid, the rescue that began Tuesday morning took until early Wednesday morning to complete.

Katie Jarl, Texas State Director of HSUS, described conditions at the facility as “absolutely horrible,” and said that “Many (of the dogs) were living in cramped, stacked cages without access to clean water, veterinary care, and certainly without access to any outdoor enrichment.” Jarl’s assessment was that “It’s clearly a hoarding case. Sometimes these people start out with good intentions and it spins out of control.”

The Spindletop property consists of seven acres with five buildings, including a house, barn and two-story boarding kennel. Four of the buildings were used to house dogs, who were contained in crates that were stacked on top of each other. The crates were so full of feces and urine that the dogs were forced to lay in their own waste, and many of the dogs’ feet were urine-scalded. Some of the crates were so small that the dog inside could not even stand or turn around. Many of the crates had non-functioning locks, so were wired shut in such a way to prevent easy opening. Dogs were locked in crates 23-24 hours a day with limited or no access to food or water. Even more disturbing was the discovery of a mass grave on the property; as of press time, the remains of six dogs had been found in the grave, but more are expected to be unearthed – in fact, one worker reported that 38 dogs had recently died due to overheating and were buried on the property.

Ironically, Spindletop Refuge is known nationwide as a rescue facility specializing in boarding, training and placing pit bulls, many who were taken in by the rescue organization when they were in danger of being put down somewhere else. The rescue was started by Leah Purcell in 1985, and gained prominence when Spindletop took in many of the pit bulls confiscated from football player Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring. Spindletop also gave refuge to dogs displaced during Hurricane Katrina. People from all over the country have sent abused, neglected and abandoned dogs to Spindletop and are now concerned for the dogs they entrusted to Spindletop’s care.

Some, like the kindhearted rescuer of pit bulls Stella and Amber, already know that their former charges are lost. Stella and Amber were rescued in Houston last summer after they were found tied to a fence in the blistering heat on leads so short that their feet barely touched the ground. Stella’s ears had been recently cut in an amateur attempt at clipping them and had blood dripping down the sides of her head. Both dogs were thin. After spending several days at the veterinary clinic where one of their rescuers worked, the dogs were placed with Spindletop.

Although the caregivers who interacted with Stella and Amber described them as friendly and good-natured, Spindletop management reported that both dogs were aggressive and unadoptable. But one former employee described Stella as “an amazing dog. She was one of many that I looked forward to working with every day when I came to work.” Unfortunately, this former employee is also the one who reported the deaths of the 38 dogs who died of heat suffocation; he confirms that Stella was one of those who died.

For the people who did everything they could to help Stella, it comes as a terrible blow. For the hundreds of others who sent dogs to Spindletop for safekeeping and do not know the status of those dogs, the past few days have been ones of uncertainty and anguish. Rescuers and other rescue organizations are scrambling to find out where the dogs are and what officials plan to do with them. In the short term, there is a “seizure hearing” scheduled for Friday, July 20. At that hearing, owners and former owners can submit evidence of ownership (the court suggests vaccination records, receipts, microchip records or photographs). It is hoped that many of the dogs will be returned to the individuals or organizations that had them before they were sent to Spindletop. Others will be evaluated and placed appropriately. There has been some concern for their safety given that most of the dogs are pit bulls, but HSUS’ Jarl wants to assure the public that HSUS, at least, does not routinely euthanize dogs due to breed. “The Humane Society of the United States evaluates every single dog that we rescue,” Jarl said. “Our overall goal is most certainly adoption. “

Unfortunately, the problems at Spindletop most certainly stemmed from the fact that the needs of the animals exceeded the means of the facility, and this is the case nationwide – especially for pit bulls. These dogs have been rescued from deplorable conditions, yes, but their future is by no means hopeful. They were at Spindletop because they had nowhere else to go. Now they need others, more able than Spindletop, to step up and help. One hopes that there are enough people out there to help all of them.

Story by Mikki Hooven