Harlingen Humane Society proposal called into question as residents protest

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HARLINGEN — Animal rights groups are protesting the city’s proposal to allow Harlingen residents to take their pets to the city’s humane society shelter, arguing the move would force the agency to euthanize more dogs and cats at the operation, which prides itself as a “no-kill” shelter.

But Mayor Norma Sepulveda told residents the city’s proposing limiting in-takes to Harlingen residents while officials are planning to set protocols to take care of those pets, giving them “a better opportunity to survive.”

Amid strong opposition, city commissioners earlier this week voted to grant the Harlingen Humane Society a 120-day extension on its current contract while officials revise the proposed contract’s language.

Executive Director Luis Quintanilla at the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society holds a kitten ready for a forever home Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

‘Mass killing’

On Thursday, Luis Quintanilla, the humane society’s executive director, argued the city’s proposed contract would lead the agency to euthanize more dogs and cats.

“The proposal absolutely makes our work impossible,” he said in an interview. “The proposal would necessitate mass killing of cats and dogs almost immediately. Our bottom line is saving animals.”

The proposed contract would also fail to compensate the agency for taking on more animals at its shelter, Quintanilla said.

“They’re asking their contracting partner to perform a significantly larger amount of work with no additional consideration,” he said.

Quintanilla also said the proposed contract would require the agency to take on the old shelter’s maintenance and repairs.

“Now the humane society will be responsible for maintenance and repairs to a city-owned building,” he said, adding, “the building has been allowed to fall into disrepair.”

Rio Grande Valley Humane Society staff members at Harlingen deliver puppies to a foster family Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Residents’ protests

During the meeting’s public comment period, residents and animal rights advocates called on commissioners to revise the proposed contract.

“You’re setting up the humane society for failure,” resident Dawn Rae Leonard told commissioners during the Wednesday meeting, describing the shelter’s condition as “deplorable” and “unsafe,” plagued with mice and roach infestations.

“It would be impossible to abide by the terms of this proposed contract,” she said. “The shelter is always operating at full capacity and under these terms there will be no way to properly manage the in-take. So what becomes of the animals? Well, I’ll tell you. They will die by the hands of our elected officials.”

From podium, Misael Lerma, the shelter’s former longtime manager, told commissioners he suffers post traumatic stress disorder as a result of euthanizing animals there.

“I know what it was like when it was an open-intake and we were in-taking animals non-stop,” he said. “What happens is you euthanize non-stop. The shelter is not built to be suitable to meet the volume that is in-take everyday so you have to euthanize double or more every time. I get triggers of flashbacks all the time. I saw it take a toll on my employees — piles of animals, piles everyday.”

Meanwhile, Clarisa Campos, who argued the city doesn’t enforce spay and neuter laws, said she found the shelter unsafe while volunteering there during the summer.

“It’s not safe,” she told commissioners, describing the shelter as roach-infested, while its kennels are in disrepair.

“You walk in and the stench is overwhelming,” she said.

Staff members work at the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society at Harlingen delivering puppies to a foster family Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Mission meeting

Taking the podium, Dendea Balli, executive director of Mission-based Paws for Help, apparently alluded to Sepulveda and City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez’s meeting last week with Mission officials regarding Mission’s humane society contract.

“It comes to my attention that you’re trying to interrupt that partnership and break this one down,” Balli told commissioners.

During an interview, Quintanilla said he attended a private meeting with Mission Mayor Norie Garza, City Manager Randy Perez and City Attorney Victor Flores which included Sepulveda and Gonzalez who were involved in discussions surrounding Mission’s humane society contract.

‘A lot of misinformation’

During Harlingen’s city commission meeting, Sepulveda told residents commissioners were granting the Harlingen Humane Society a 60-day extension on its current contract while officials revise language in the proposed contract that would not open the shelter to unlimited in-takes.

“This is a negotiation,” she told the audience. “This is a good-faith on the city, with Harlingen trying to work together with the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society. I have walked the humane society (shelter). I was just there this week. I have gone previously. I’ve had multiple conversations with leadership, with the executive director and some board members. There’s nothing here wanting to break that partnership with the humane society. I think there’s a lot of misinformation going around.”

The proposed contract would allow Harlingen residents to request the shelter care for their pets, Sepulveda said, adding, “citizens of Harlingen only.”

“This is not an open-door policy,” she said. “Citizens of Harlingen go to the shelter and say, ‘Please take my pet because I can’t handle it right now,’ and that is the partnership with the humane society — to make sure that folks that are down on their luck (who) want to attempt to go to the shelter are spoken to with compassion and talked to in a way that they can ease the pain that they’re going through and accept that pet and give it a better opportunity to survive.”

“I’m confident that we will come up with a solution so that when they are at capacity, that there are protocols in place to take care of those folks so that way there are no issues and citizens of Harlingen are taken care of,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the number of days the contract was extended.