RGV Humane Society sent 50 dogs, cats to New York shelter raided by police

LEFT: This photo shows a puppy transferred to a New York shelter that was raided by police there. RIGHT: This photo shows a puppy before it was transferred to a New York shelter that was later raided by police. (Courtesy: City of Harlingen)
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HARLINGEN — The Rio Grande Valley Humane Society sent more than 50 dogs and cats to a New York animal rescue shelter before a raid in which its owner was arrested after authorities found more than 100 animals in “extreme conditions of filth and crowding” in her home, authorities said.

The Humane Society’s transfer occurred while the city was contracting the agency to operate the Harlingen animal shelter.

On Friday, city officials took over the shelter’s operations a month after they terminated the Humane Society’s $400,000 annual contract, claiming the “no-kill” agency breached the agreement when it failed to take in Harlingen residents’ pets and some animal control officers’ intake requests.

On Jan. 17, authorities with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands, New York, and the Colonie Police Department arrested Jennifer Ulh, the owner of Empawthy Animal Rescue in Latham, New York, for cruelty to animals after finding 47 dogs, 52 cats and three ferrets in her 1,200-square-foot home in Cohoes, including 15 dead cats and one rabbit in a freezer, Marguerite Pearson, the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

The officers “encountered extreme conditions of filth and crowding” in the rescue shelter, the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society said in a press release. “Empawthy Rescue is not a registered pet rescue or shelter, as required by New York State Agriculture and Markets law.”

On Tuesday, Uhl, who could not be reached for comment, did not respond to a message sent to the rescue shelter’s website.

Authorities were filing a charge stemming from “over-driving, torturing and injuring animals, including failure to provide proper sustenance” against the Empawthy Animal Rescue shelter, the press release said.

“It is believed that animals came from overcrowded shelters in other states as far away as Texas, as well as private individuals and online ads for unwanted pets,” the press release said.

The Mohawk Hudson Humane Society was taking care of the animals.

“All animals were taken to the Society’s Menands Animal Care Center where they will be evaluated by veterinary staff, bathed and receive other needed care,” the press release said.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society had transferred a puppy which became sick at the rescue shelter, Mayor Norma Sepulveda said.

“A severely emaciated puppy was taken to the Capital District Veterinary Referral Hospital where measures are being taken to attempt to save her life,” the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society said in its press release.

On Tuesday, Pearson said the puppy named Sprite was facing “critical” days as she tries to recover.

“Sprite is out of the hospital,” she said. “She is continuing her recovery with an experienced foster and the next few days will be critical for her.”

A view of the facade of the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society in Harlingen in Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

On Tuesday, Melissa Saldana, the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society’s interim executive director, said members are traveling to the New York humane society to help.

“In light of the impending closure of our Harlingen facility, we were presented the opportunity to send animals to New York for a better life,” she said in a statement. “We learned that an out-of-state rescue we collaborated with is facing hoarding charges. Fortunately, Colonie Animal Control and Mohawk Humane Society intervened, rescuing the animals found and providing them with the necessary care they need. RGVHS appreciates the timely rescue by the animal control and Humane Society. Thanks to a sponsor, our team is flying out to New York to assist them through this process.”

In a statement Tuesday, Sepulveda said officials’ decision against renewing the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society’s contract stemmed from “serious concerns regarding their transparency and operational practices.”

“The recent raid and subsequent arrest of the director of Empawthy Animal Rescue, the rescue organization used by RGVHS, further validate our concerns,” she said.

“Among the documentation requested of the RGVHS was a list of rescue organizations they partner with,” Sepulveda said. “After significant delay in producing the list, the city was provided a list. However, they failed to disclose their partnership with Empawthy Animal Rescue.”

“Nonetheless, shortly before the raid, RGVHS posted on social media praising the partnership and crediting Empawthy with transporting a ‘combined number of 48 dogs and 11 cats’ to ‘loving new homes,”’ she said. “We have since learned that during the Empawthy raid 16 animals were found dead in a freezer and another 47 dogs and 52 cats were removed. It begs the question, ‘How many of those animals were Harlingen animals that were supposedly transported to loving homes?’”

In her statement, Sepulveda said, “RGVHS’s partnership with an organization like Empawthy, who is not properly registered as a rescue, highlights a critical failure in due diligence.”

“RGVHS not only failed to provide requested documentation, including a complete list of rescues they worked with, but also failed to appropriately address the aftermath of the crisis,” she said. “Their decision to remove social media posts that previously praised their partnership with Empawthy only adds to the concern. This lack of transparency and accountability in handling such a serious matter is deeply troubling and the citizens of Harlingen deserve better. It reinforces our decision to sever ties, reaffirming our commitment to working with organizations that maintain the highest standards of integrity and animal welfare.”

“The RGVHS’s ‘no-kill’ mission requires they have a 90% ‘save rate,’” Sepulveda added. “However, this ideology, while noble in its intent, can lead to serious challenges. The situation at hand underscores the necessity of balancing the ‘save rate’ with the quality of care provided to these animals. It also brings to light the importance of transparency in the operations of such organizations. I would hope that RGVHS will take this opportunity to re-evaluate their animal welfare practices, ensuring they are not only focused on the quantity of lives saved but also on the quality of life and care provided. Animals deserve better.”

The city’s operation of the Harlingen shelter comes months after officials began requesting the Humane Society present detailed financial information to determine whether the agency was using the city’s $400,000 annual payment to help Harlingen residents.

When the Humane Society presented some information weeks after an October deadline, officials questioned whether nearly $1 million was spent on payroll.

In 1988, the city first contracted the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society, under its former name, the Harlingen Humane Society, to operate the shelter.

About four years ago, the Humane Society, under past Executive Director Luis Quintanilla and a revamped board of directors, turned the shelter into a “no-kill” operation, slashing its numbers of euthanasia procedures.

In November, Quintanilla resigned after about four years on the job.