Previously, I reported on John Stossel's year long investigation of the SPCA. Much of Mr. Stossel's investigation, though certainly not all of it, was focused on the "SPCA-TX," which, as you might guess, is located in Texas. Mr. Stossel touched on a few issues that I'm concerned about, such as granting private organizations police powers with no state oversight. (If you haven't read the transcript of the program and my take on it, you might like to do so before you read further — it is important for context.)
ABC's report was not completely damning of the SPCA, though if you read the transcript, you can't help but worry about such organizations, and there's no question that you'd think twice about contributing money to the SPCA.
Not surprisingly, the SPCA-TX was unhappy about how they were portrayed. They responded by posting on their website a list of alleged errors they claim ABC made, and have called for an on-air apology and a retraction of them.
ABC seems to have gone the extra mile, and far from ignoring SPCA-TX's claims, have responded to them in a well-documented and well reasoned letter.
Jun. 27, 2005 - On behalf of the SPCA of Texas ("SPCA-TX"), you have asked for an on-air apology and retraction of alleged misstatements that have been posted on your Web site (Click here to view). For the reasons stated below, we respectfully decline.
At the outset, let us clarify the genesis of this broadcast. It came from talking to numerous animal owners around the country who felt that they had been treated unfairly, and had animals taken from them unnecessarily, due to the actions of various SPCAs. While the Report acknowledged that SPCAs do a lot of good work, we spoke with owners who claimed, as stated in the Report, that "when they'd gotten overextended in caring for their animals, the SPCA accused them of neglect, confiscated their animals and sold them within days. The SPCAs then keep the money." The Report allowed these people to voice their complaints while at the same time accurately presenting what transpired in the proceedings against them.
With regard to the specific points on your Web site, you indicate that the SPCA-TX was not involved in the first two cases presented in the broadcast. The Report did not suggest otherwise and indeed any cases involving SPCA-TX were specifically identified as such.
Regarding Renee Moore, you take issue with the statement from the Report: "Garcia used photos ... to convince reporters and justices of the peace that Renee had abused her animals." There, however, was nothing false about this statement since Dave Garcia in fact showed 8 photos taken at the SPCA-TX raid during the Moores' disposition hearing on January 21, 2004. The Report stated that veterinarians and others disagreed about whether those photos in fact demonstrated animal abuse and that the Moores' own vet who had examined the animals found no starvation, believed the Moores to be caring people and recommended a less draconian response than removing all of the Moores' animals. The Report then noted that the Moores lost in court. We find the Report's recitation of the facts neither inaccurate nor misleading and believe the Moores are entitled to express their opinions about the actions taken against them.
Regarding Lynda Williams, you complain about some the following statements: "Williams isn't even in a business that sells animals. She runs a shelter, rescuing old and sick dogs. The SPCA warned her, clean up your shelter or they'd charge her with animal neglect. She says she was nearly done when the SPCA trucks and TV cameras, lots of them, suddenly appeared. ... Garcia took all her animals and charged her $6,000 for vet and boarding fees. After a local justice of the peace ruled it was okay, the SPCA sold her most valuable animals." You first object that Ms. Williams holds no license to operate a sanctuary. While that may be so, she was never officially reprimanded for operating a sanctuary without a license and the fact that she took in and provided shelter for unwanted animals was well known within her community.
You additionally state that the SPCA did not investigate Ms. Williams, that the courts are the ones to bring charges and that the SPCA-TX neither charged nor collected any money from Ms. Williams. We find no material inaccuracy. The SPCA-TX helped raid Ms. Williams' property and testified against her in court. The Report clearly indicates that the forfeiture action was done with court approval. Additionally, on July 9, 2004, Ms. Williams was ordered to forfeit her animals to the SPCA-TX and to pay to the SPCA-TX the cost of caring for 37 dogs, 26 cats, 22, sheep, 1 rabbit and 2 wolf hybrids at the rate of $10 per day for each animal. Ms. Williams told us that amount totaled $6,000. The only reason that the SPCA-TX never received any money from Ms. Williams is because she has not paid the fine.
Regarding the Pam Chennault case, you complain about these statements: "[W]e accompanied the SPCA's Dave Garcia as he went with a police officer to a justice of the peace to get the warrant he needs to raid a dog kennel that he said didn't provide adequate food, water and shelter. ... Pam Chennault hired a lawyer and tried to get her animals back, but the court gave him only two hours to prepare. So he advised her to settle and give her dogs to the SPCA." First, you reiterate your point that the raid was carried out with court approval. This text from the Report, however, makes that point quite clearly. You additionally suggest that her lawyer had five days to prepare and that when faced with the evidence he advised her to surrender her animals because he thought the charges had merit. That misstates the facts. Indeed, her lawyer told us he had been retained that morning. He asked the court for a continuance, but that request was denied. Thus, he had only two hours to review the evidence and decide the appropriate course of action. He told us that he thought the case was weak, but advised Ms. Chennault to surrender her animals rather than risk other penalties and other restrictions.
You next object to the statement: "These televised raids bring in money. After broadcasts like this one, people make big donations. $6 million last year." The narration actually should have said "$6 million two years ago" and that point had been corrected on our Web site. You claim that "in 2004, the SPCA received only $165,000 in donations for its rescue and investigations department." The most recent publicly available IRS 990 Report, however, is from 2003 and indicates that the SPCA-TX received $5,646,452 in total direct public support from contributions, gift and grants. This total sum is not broken down by contribution program and our broadcast did not attempt to do so either, nor did we state the amount was given or went specifically to support raids or rescue efforts. In fact, none of the donation programs presented to the donors on the SPCA-TX Web site is specifically for the "Rescue and Operations Department" -- the closest apparent means of donating to that department is to sponsor a humane officer. Because nearly six million dollars is the most recent publicly available figure for total donations to the SPCA-TX and because we did not say that the money was donated specifically for rescue missions, we see no reason for a correction.
With regard to Mr. Garcia's title, we stand corrected and have changed that on our Web site. As for the next statement from the Report: "Under Garcia's leadership, the Dallas SPCA has seen financial penalties against owner quadruple," you suggest this is erroneous because the SPCA has never seen a single dollar in penalties from any seizure case. The Report, however, never did say penalties were paid to the SPCA-TX and indeed, Garcia himself confirmed in our interview that penalties against owners are up 500 percent under his leadership. Accordingly, we find no error here.
You additionally complain about the statement: Animal owners are claiming that self-righteous amateurs are confiscating their animals for money. Many animal owners have made these claims about various SPCA personnel and volunteers, specifically stating that they have misidentified illnesses, breeds, genders and were novices in dealing with various animals. You suggest that this line was meant to refer to Mr. Garcia. There, however, was no specific reference to Mr. Garcia and indeed the Report specifically noted that Mr. Garcia has "saved a lot of animals from abusive people" and worked in several states.
You also complain about the statement: [S]ome people who've had animals taken away by animal rescuers say SPCAs have acted like petty tyrants on power trips who use their police powers to steal people's animals. You counter with the statement that "[t]he SPCA of Texas has no police powers nor does it conduct or condone the "stealing" of people's pets." The Texas legislature, however, has imbued the Texas SPCAs with the power to raid people's property, remove their animals and terminate their ownership rights, when approved by the courts and exercised in conjunction with police officers. Our Report made clear that the SPCAs are acting with the approval of the legislatures and the courts. Nevertheless, many owners who have had their animals taken away from them and seen rulings made that are at odds with the recommendations of their own veterinarians, often with little or no realistic opportunity to contest or appeal the rulings, feel that the process treated them unfairly. The fact that owners receive nothing from the sale of their forfeited animals, regardless of the costs to the SPCA, surely adds to their opinions on these matters.
You further state that the "SPCA of Texas has never collected any money from any individual depicted in the 20/20 broadcast." While that may be true, it is only because Renee Moore and Lynda Williams never paid the judgments entered against them. Next, you complain "ABC's video segments of SPCA of Texas animals were taken following the animals' seizure, not when the investigations took place. Images from various humane groups were commingled to purposely create confusion." First, there was evidence of improvements in these cases. It seems reasonable to suggest that conditions and quality of care at the time of seizure is of greater relevance to the question of whether animals should be seized at that time from their owner. The raids were shown as they took place and some raids include volunteers from several groups.
Lastly, you state: "Dr. Gaylon Teslaa, who posed as a photographer for 20/20, is not a veterinarian licensed in Texas nor was he present during any of the SPCA of Texas' investigations. He based his statements on seeing less than one-third of the animals that were the subject of Pam Chennault's investigation." Dr. Teslaa is a licensed and respected veterinarian in the states of California, Iowa and Arizona and is a vet in good standing in Minnesota. To somehow suggest that his lack of licensing in Texas renders his opinion less sound is specious. Additionally, Dr. Teslaa gave his opinion after examining all of Pam Chennault's animals -- those at the seizure location and in the SPCA-TX van, at the SPCA-TX facility and at Pam Chennault's second kennel.
Having reviewed your complaints, we have found no substantial errors and therefore decline your request for a retraction and an apology.
ABC's letter pretty well speaks for itself, and I think it's worth noting that in response to my post, I received a couple of letters from readers who felt Mr. Stossel's report captured, exactly, the feeling of helplessness and injustice — really, of violation — they experienced years ago and that remain sharply with them to this day.
I continue to be very concerned when a state takes the easy and cheap way out of dealing with the humane treatment of animals, and grants police powers to private organizations.