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Opinion | Peter Zheutlin

Who will step up for the dogs of Houston?

A puppy found in a shoe box during the hurricane and now being cared for by Tom English.Photo by Tom English

There is no poorer or more vulnerable neighborhood in Houston than the city’s Fifth Ward. It sits just a few miles from the headquarters of some of the world’s most profitable energy companies and Joel Osteen’s lavish megachurch. Simple, often dilapidated houses, line streets whose only drainage is provided by ditches that run alongside, many obstructed by debris of every imaginable type: old tires, construction materials, garbage, and old appliances.

The Fifth Ward is also home to a large proportion of Houston’s 1.2 million stray dogs, dogs that struggle, like the people around them, to survive with very little. That’s no typo: canine rescue organizations and the city agree on that estimate.


Three summers ago I walked the streets of the Fifth Ward with two volunteers from the Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward Project whose mission is to provide help and comfort to as many of these dogs as they can. They pour kibble on street corners, tend to wounds and mange and, if a dog is in extreme distress, take it off the street and into foster care. If a dog has an identifiable owner, they encourage them to spay or neuter their pets, a practice that is far too uncommon in the Fifth Ward and in many parts of the south.

Houston’s enormous animal shelter, BARC (Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control) sits at the edge of the Fifth Ward, and this week the shelter was surrounded by water and preparing for a massive influx of strays and abandoned dogs. BARC reopened on Friday. Under normal circumstances, BARC is inundated with strays and surrendered dogs. In the wake of Harvey, things are about to get much, much worse. There is a limit to how many dogs can be accommodated even in a large facility such as BARC, and many will no doubt be euthanized.


It is natural, of course, to think first of the people suffering through the massive disaster that was Hurricane Harvey. But the images from Houston also show abandoned dogs (and cats) in boats, or tied to telephone poles or, thankfully, being carried to safety by their owners. But when people get to shelters being set up in churches, schools, and convention centers, they may find dogs are not allowed inside. At the Houston Convention Center those arriving with dogs were initially prohibited from entering with their dogs, but by late Monday an area was set aside for them.

The large, national humane organizations are stepping in, but it’s also many local groups, some just a collection of volunteers such as Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward, who are improvising with few resources but a lot of heart. And there are individuals such as Tom English, a math professor at a community college in Texas City, southeast of Houston.

Tom e-mailed me on Friday. He had been making his way to the shelter in Dickinson, Texas, the town where that famous photograph of nursing home residents trapped in rising flood waters was taken.

Tom wrote:

“On Monday, Aug. 28, I was able to make the five-mile trip to the Bayou Animal Services shelter in Dickinson. More than a hundred dogs had been rescued from the water or dropped off by fleeing citizens. Wire crates were being set up and dogs were being walked regularly, even through the rain, to give them some relief from the stress. I took a litter of seven puppies home. I call them the Harvey 7. They were in poor shape . . . I bathed, medicated, and wormed them. Once they were settled, I went back to the shelter with a load of vaccines and a foldout mattress, pillow, and blanket. Sarah Saunders, the animal control officer coordinating the rescue effort, had not left the shelter since Friday. She slept in a chair. It rained 12 inches that night and by Tuesday I wasn’t sure if the roads would be passable, but I made it to the shelter and spent the day vaccinating and tending to a few injured dogs. Wednesday morning I returned again. A vet from Houston stopped by to volunteer and we assessed more injured dogs. Several vet techs came in to volunteer and did people whose homes were underwater. They had lost everything, yet it only seemed to refocus them to care about something else — the animals. Military trucks rolled through bringing in dogs they rescued, as did amphibious vehicles. Volunteers continuously set up more crates. Soon the shelter was up to 200 dogs and 150 cats. Even before the storm they were at capacity, which is 30 dogs and 25 cats. People started bringing in huge amounts of food, both for the animals and to feed the staff and volunteers. . . . Now the next phase begins — animals that by now have been out in the water for a long time. I fear in the coming days there will be many more serious medical cases coming in.”


In the weeks ahead, as rescue groups scramble to help as many dogs as possible, there will be enormous need for adoptive homes here in the north. Already, rescue organizations in the north and south are collaborating and organizing transports that will bring some of Houston’s canine refugees to safety. The numbers will be a proverbial drop in the bucket, but every life counts and the question will again be, who will step up for these dogs?


Peter Zheutlin is the author of “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway” and the forthcoming book, “Rescued: What Second Chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things,” to be published in October.