Warning: This article is not for the squeamish.
For nearly three decades, Leah Purcell has owned and operated the Spindletop Refuge for pit bulls in Willis, Texas. Over that time, Purcell earned praise (and patronage) from hundreds, if not thousands, of fans of her efforts to help out this much-maligned breed. She even came to nationwide fame several years ago when assisting in the Michael Vick dog-fighting trial.
Last week, her life's work came to a sad end when, in response to allegations of "puppy milling" and inhumane living conditions, authorities in Montgomery County, Texas, raided Spindletop and discovered carnage. Katie Jarl, HSUS Texas State Director, described the scene: "Dogs in kennels so small they could not even stand up or turn around," stacked one upon the other. Dogs "living in their own waste ... [many without] access to food bowls, and many of them, their cages ... wired shut so tightly, they aren't able to get out regularly."
Most disturbingly, reports of a mass grave in which an unknown number of dogs were buried after dying of heatstroke.
Moving quickly, law enforcement seized the animals and shut down Spindletop's operations last week. On Friday, after extensive pre-trial negotiations, Purcell agreed to a ban on participation in any future "rescue" operations, or boarding pets.
But for the rescue community, which put its faith in Purcell for years, the questions are just getting started.
$861,000 Comes In, But What Goes Out?
Sandra Smith volunteers with a pit bull advocacy and rescue organization in Pittsburgh, financing her efforts in part by running an in-home business stitching handmade crate covers -- "Crate Apparel."
She calculates Spindletop's take thusly: "298 dogs were seized, and 11 returned because Purcell could prove ownership. That leaves 287 dogs boarded there. From what I understand, she was charging $250 a month in boarding fees. That means she was bringing in over $71,000 a month; $861,000 per year. Where did all that money go?"
Was Purcell robbing rescuers blind? Was she driving a fleet of Mercedes, and living in a mansion off the income from her supposedly "charitable" pursuit?
Animal Rescue: Not a Money-Making Endeavor
The investigation is ongoing, but there's no reason to believe that Purcell was living particularly high on the hog.
Jennifer Judd, manager of marketing and public relations for the Humane Society of Hamilton County, in Noblesville, Ind., operates a no-kill shelter of size similar to the one at Spindletop. "At any given moment, we have 400 to 450 animals in our care, about 150 dogs and perhaps 300 cats."
HSHC gets its funding in part from tax dollars, in part from private contributions, and relies greatly on volunteer workers. But even so, its annual cost of operations runs anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million, with "the majority of our expenses being for medical procedures."
Now consider that your average pit bull is a much higher-energy animal, and takes a lot more effort to care for than does your average house cat. Given this, even $861,000 a year or so was probably too little to properly feed and care for -- and pay medical bills, rent, insurance, and staff salaries for -- a herd of nearly 300 pit bulls.
Chances are, far from profiting from her endeavor, Purcell was struggling to make ends meet -- and at her wits' end about how to hold the operation together.
Support Your Local Shelter
And this may be the real tragedy here. A woman with the best of intentions -- and a decades-long reputation of putting these intentions to practice -- wasn't, in the end, able to make it work. Standards slipped, corners were cut, and innocent animals paid the price.
What's the solution? The next time you go to adopt a rescue dog or cat, and balk at the sticker price -- "$250! Why so high?" -- consider where that money is going.
Judd puts the cost of caring for an animal at HSHC at $160 for just the first week. As at Spindletop, other shelters say costs can easily exceed $200 per month per animal, before even considering the overhead costs of insurance, rent, and so on.
So is $250 "too much" to pay for a rescue? The cost of not helping out these animals may be far higher.
Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith and his family (one rescued American Foxhound included), live in Noblesville, Ind. He has no financial interest in any company or organization named above.