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HARLINGEN — City officials are planning to reopen Harlingen’s animal shelter next week, hiring staff to take over operations after at least 35 years.
Now, Assistant City Manager Josh Ramirez is asking residents to hold off on taking pets to the shelter until it reopens “early next week.”
“We’re hoping to be ready next week,” he said. “We’re asking citizens to please hold on to their animals for now.”
Meanwhile, animal control officers are taking strays and “vicious” dogs to Brownsville’s Animal Regulation and Care Center, Ramirez said.
“That’s our main priority right now,” he said. “That’s important to maintain the health and safety of the citizens.”
Since 1988, the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society, under its former name, the Harlingen Humane Society, had operated the shelter.
Then on Jan. 19, city officials took over operations a month after terminating the Humane Society’s $400,000 annual contract, claiming the “no-kill” agency breached its agreement when it refused to take in residents’ pets along with some animal control officers’ intake requests.
Meanwhile, Mayor Norma Sepulveda questioned the Humane Society’s adoption policies after the agency sent more than 50 dogs and cats to a New York rescue shelter who’s owner was arrested with more than 100 animals in her home, including dead cats in a freezer.
Now, animal rights groups are searching for a dog the Humane Society allowed a homeless couple to adopt.
Last month, commissioners here pulled $365,937 from the city’s general fund budget to foot the payroll for an 11-member staff which will run the Harlingen shelter, with Shannon Harvill, the city’s environmental health director, overseeing the operation.
At City Hall, Ramirez said officials expect to complete the staff’s hiring next week.
“It’s going very well,” he said. “We had a good pool of applicants. That’s a good sign to see. We’re still interviewing. We’re making offers. This week we should finish. We expect to have everyone on board by next week.”
Since taking over Jan. 19, officials have been working to spruce up the old shelter, Ramirez said.
“We’ve made some repairs, it’s been cleaned, we’ve re-painted and we’re fixing the cages,” he said.
Before the city took over operations, the Humane Society had relocated the shelter’s dogs and cats.
Since then, animal rights advocates like Tracy Voss have claimed the agency failed to properly screen its adoptions.
In one case, the 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 Jan. 17, authorities with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands, New York, and the Colonie Police Department arrested 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.
“Empawthy Rescue is not a registered pet rescue or shelter, as required by New York state agriculture and markets law,” the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society said in a press release.
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.
In a second case, the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society allowed a homeless couple to adopt two dogs after requesting identifications while failing to verify addresses, Voss said.
Now, animal rights groups are searching for the dogs after the homeless couple lost track of them, she said.
Across the area, they’ve put up a $1,000 reward for a 7-year-old white and grey husky-shepherd mix named Bailey.
The two incidents led Sepulveda to question the Humane Society’s adoption practices.
“The commission ultimately decided to sever ties with the RGVHS due to their lack of financial and operational transparency,” she said in a statement. “I recently discovered that Bailey went missing after being adopted out by RGVHS to a homeless couple. This coupled with the recent report of RGVHS working with insufficiently vetted rescue groups is deeply concerning. These incidents collectively underscore a pattern of inadequate management and lax adoption policies that cannot be overlooked.”
“The intention behind our partnership was always to ensure that every adoptable animal finds a safe, loving and permanent home,” Sepulveda said. “However, practices such as waiving adoption fees, intended to encourage adoption, have unfortunately led to outcomes not in the best interest of the animals we aim to protect. The recent report further solidifies the commission’s decision to not renew the contract with the RGVHS, as working with unvetted rescues poses significant risks to the welfare of the animals and undermines the trust and safety our community expects.”
Across the country, many animal shelter’s fail to properly screen their adoptions, Voss, who runs a rescue shelter in Hondo, said.
“We are seeing a lack of screening and due diligence being done in areas all across the United States,” she said. “This is especially being seen in areas pushing high volume and live release numbers instead of the quality of placement for the animals.”
On Facebook, Lillian Kim, president of the Humane Society’s board of directors, offered to match the $1,000 reward in the search for Bailey.
“We have everybody in the rescue community looking for her but no sightings,” Voss said. “It’s unusual not to have multiple sightings.”