“Turn your rings inside out,” advises a small, athletic-looking woman named Jennifer McKay. We’re in a CVS parking lot in Northeast Houston, and McKay has a gun in her purse, although our yet-to-arrive, no-nonsense leader, Alicia McCarty, won’t like it. The final member of our group is Yvette Holzbach, a soft-spoken South African photographer who’s been with the organization almost since its inception. A year back, Holzbach was waiting in the back of a car with a pregnant pit bull she and a friend had just picked up off the street when someone opened the door and got in the driver’s seat. She thought it was the woman with whom she was out feeding stray dogs. It was not. She screamed at the sight of a strange man, and he ran off with Holzbach’s $2,500 camera. 

Every week, Holzbach and McCarty meet here, load up a van with hundreds of pounds of dog food donated to their organization, Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward, and head out in search of strays, which is something like looking for hay in a haystack. More than one million animals roam the streets of Houston, a city with six animal control officers on duty at any one time. The Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control’s “About” page is a half-defensive, half-apologetic note about the scope of the problem. The land area is too large, the budget too limited, the breeding season in a semi-tropical climate too long. 

But there’s something else, too, and it’s not something a government website is going to address. Last year McKay was driving along I-45 when she spotted a dog trapped in a grassy triangle bordered by that highway and 610. “She must have been dumped,” McKay says, “because there was no other way for her to get there.” The dog’s ribs were showing, the bones of her spinal column protruding and countable, reptilian.

She informed Kelle Davis, Forgotten Dogs’s founder, who returned that day to find a gray-and-white pit mix so emaciated she looked like a Weimaraner. The dog, who would come to be known as Blue Star, was friendly and affectionate, wagging and wriggling on the ground, asking to be touched.

Blue Star led Davis to two puppies she had birthed days before. They were dead. Houston is a place where people dump pregnant dogs in the middle of the highway and leave them to starve beside their litters. This is not a problem you can blame on the weather. 

Shaggy dog2 rbth5g

We set off moments after it starts to pour, and in the yard of a dilapidated Baptist church, a small, sopping white poodle turns to regard us. Holzbach, McKay, and McCarty sigh in unison. “No compassion,” says McCarty, a refrain she will utter under her breath throughout our afternoon. The dog’s coat is mud-flecked and matted into thick knots of fur. McCarty dumps some multicolored kibble on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street while both McKay and Holzbach snap pictures. By the time we get back into the car, McKay has posted a picture of the puppy on Facebook along with a request for help. 

Should someone on social media offer to foster the dog until she’s adopted, they will come back for her. “If you board dogs,” Holzbach explains, “people lose interest.” Fosters emerge when they see compelling, recently taken photos of dogs on Facebook and know the animal to be suffering rather than safe in a shelter. But the difficulty of walking away from an animal is why many volunteers prefer to work behind the scenes, and why in their first few months of volunteering, Holzbach and McCarty ended every excursion in tears. Which is not to say that either of them has a perfect track record when it comes to leaving dogs behind. Between them they’ve accumulated nine. And the worst cases—dogs with broken legs, gunshot wounds, infection-encrusted eyes, prolapsed uteri—they sweep straight off the street.

As we drive through a community of identical small homes, we see hungry, mange-ridden dogs on front porches, chained to fences, huddled in crates. The car has become a near-constant chorus of sighs, punctuated by the occasional gasp when we come upon a particularly pathetic case. These dogs are not all without owners, this is not our neighborhood, and feeding someone’s underfed dog can come across as an accusation. McCarty jumps out of the car to leave food on someone’s front yard and hurries back, splashing through the now-flooded sidewalk. We pass a hungry-looking mutt on a front porch, and McCarty considers it. “I’m not walking up there,” she decides reluctantly. “I don’t want to get shot.”

Chi and pup on porch udfrrz

We stop by the home of an elderly woman McCarty regularly supplies with kibble, and leave more food with a smiling, alcoholic thirty-something who has taken in area dogs. At another house, McCarty disappears inside for a full 10 minutes; when she returns she explains that she was trying to convince a man to let the organization neuter his pit bull. “Some men think that neutering a dog is neutering themselves,” she says. “It’s not your testicles.”

There are reasons beyond threatened masculinity that Houstonians choose to keep their dogs fertile. “They say it’s money, and then there is the fact that they don’t have transportation,” says McCarty. “Sometimes it’s laziness; we used to give vouchers, but nobody would show up.” Once, a resident asking for help from the organization said she wanted food and vetting but definitely not spaying; she wanted her dog to “be fruitful and multiply.”  

Hours later we pull up to a boarded-up house that appears to be abandoned. On a cracked, hole-ridden, tilting wooden porch, a black-and-white Chihuahua rests his black, pointy head on a much larger, wrinkly 7-week-old puppy. The puppy’s mother, a pit mix who ought to be white with brown markings but is red with mange and chafed skin, sits curled up on an office chair with the seat ripped and sagging. We walk right up the porch, hoping it will hold our weight, and dump food beside them. The mother digs in, and the puppy nurses from her chapped belly. While we watch, McKay snaps a photo, and McCarty picks up the Chihuahua and holds it up to her chest. She still has the Chihuahua in her arms when we return to the car. It shivers all the way back to her place. 

Glens puppies3 fueak7

Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward has pulled from the street 450 dogs, and placed a third of those in permanent homes, some as far as British Columbia. There’s a Facebook picture of Blue Star in Vancouver with the adoptive owner the organization found for her. Her ribs are no longer visible; her eyes, bright and alert as she navigates a pine tree–lined trail in the woods alongside her young, smiling new guardian.

We scour the streets while the organization’s Facebook page fills with promises of prayer. On top of her picture of the mange-ridden pit mix feeding her pup, McKay has typed the word “MOTHERHOOD…” The comments sound a lot like the inside of our van: “cannot handle this,” “poor babies,” “bless them.” The fourteenth comment reads “will foster.” 

“This is not a problem we can adopt our way out of,” said McCarty as we drive away from the porch in the pouring rain. The Chihuahua perks his black ears inquisitively. Luckily for him, she can’t help trying.

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