Spindletop Pit Bull Rescue Scandal: Where Did All the Money Go?

Pit Bulls
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."

Pit bullMost 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.

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James Williams

Hey I tried to turn her in back in 2009 but know one would listen to me cause I was her boyfriend and I caught her with another man so I left the spindle top. I even took a liken to a wolf pup, and out of spite she put the puppy down. It was sad I work there lived there and seen everything even the lies.

July 13 2015 at 9:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The solution is mandatory spay and neuter. There are just too damn many dogs and not enough homes. Ban pit bulls-a MILLION are euthanized yearly. The HSUS is little more than a pit advocacy group anymore-they even provide pit bulls to homeless people. One got shot by cops. You can't get much dumber.

April 29 2013 at 8:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

HSUS does not have any shelters. HSUS is not associated with any shelters. They come in for raids and disasters like Katrina with their HSUS T-shirts for the cameras, make pleas for donations (Holifield made a plea on video for them in this case) and then leave the work and upkeep and adoptions to the locals who do not see any of the donations to HSUS. For the sake of these dogs, do not send HSUS a check, find out who is actually taking care of the dogs and send them a donation..

July 28 2012 at 9:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

One cannot compare Spindletop to an HSUS shelter, as the AOL article does. First of all, HSUS actually does have a euthanasia policy to control overcrowding. Also, they are required to provide benefits, etc. to their paid staff and maintain all kinds of paperwork in order to keep up their tax-exempt status. Spindletop was a private rescue. Unlike HSUS, the dogs brought to Spindletop were, in general, in good health and neutered, and a downpayment for three or four months, at $250/month, was made at the beginning of an animals stay, and boarding costs would supposedly continue until placement. People don't pay HSUS to take in their dogs, and iHSUS is obliged to take strays.) As far as I know, Leah didn't take the dogs Leah didn't dogs right off the street; they had had some help before they got to Spindletop and were there because they couldn't be placed by other rescues, either because those rescues couldn't place any more pit bulls, or the dog had behavioral issues. Leah touted herself as being someone who could find placement for pit bulls, by pairing them correctly. She also made herself and her operation into a kind of last stop for other pit bull rescues who couldn't place dogs, for whatever reason. This must have been a relief to a lot of people, as they were willing to give Leah a downpayment of anywhere from $750 to $1000. Even considering having to pay staff to take care of dogs and herself to draw a salary, just 100 "paying" dogs should have brought in enough money to keep the operation afloat, if it were well-managed. (That's $25,000/month net.) Clearly, something went terribly wrong. Certainly this economy is partly to blame: it has caused a lot of people to give up their dogs; but perhaps Leah began to feel obliged to take every pit bull that was brought to her, whether or not the owner or fosterer could afford to pay the $250/mo. so who knows, without seeing her books, how much she was really taking in, and how much was going out. From the photos of her operation, she also had horses. The AOL article mentions "puppy milling." Perhaps she decided to to breed pit bulls, too (as if she didn't have enough) -- for profit? At least one of the dogs rescued from her property was pregnant, and there were some very young pit bull puppies, as well. Clearly, some kind of madness took hold of her, because the place was clearly out of control. Thank goodness for the young man of conscience who had to bury the 38 dogs that died, and who blew the whistle on Leah. If not for him, all this would still be going on. One other (possible) correction to the AOL article. If I'm not mistaken, the ban against Leah's participation in future rescue operations is only for two years: that's Texas justice for you. This means it will be up to the community to make sure Leah is never allowed to rescue another pit bull, or any breed of dog.

July 28 2012 at 1:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to debbie's comment

ummm HSUS runs no shelters. They don't take in strays.
do not confuse them with local humane societies who actually do this.. and in fact will be the ones who clean up the Spindletop mess by taking on the leftover dogs after HSUS has gone. HSUS will not provide a dime for their care.. though you can expect to see some HSUS fundraising around this disaster
Leah DID rescue dogs "off the streets" during Katrina, as well as receiving dogs from dogfight and cruelty busts throughout her history. No payments came to her for those dogs.
She evidently developed some model she thought would fund the dogs, by charging fees for taking in dogs and for boarding them. She was always a liar.. she turned into a crook, a hoarder and an abuser.

All the crap about how much money she must have made is just ridiculous. I imagine she currently has huge unpaid debts.

As for Boosinger defending Leah's refusal to assist in identifying and reuniting the dogs with a bizarre notions of legal requirement blah blah blah... evidently it takes one piece of pond scum to know another.

July 28 2012 at 2:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to EmilyS's comment

I point out this study for your consideration: http://www.thetruthaboutpitbulls.blogspot.com/search/label/Best20Animal%20Society
Study Conducted by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary Explains Why They Failed to Rehabilitate Vick Dogs and Why Fighting Dogs Will Never Make Good Pets

April 29 2013 at 8:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
PJ Boosinger

You are mistaken. First it was an agreement rather than a ban and it is permanent.
"agreed to terms that bar Purcell from future rescue and boarding"

Your accounting is lousy too. That would be $26,000 GROSS rather than "net" and, since you didn't grasp that basic concept, the rest of the accounting would be way over your head. Let's hope YOU aren't running a business.

July 28 2012 at 6:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to PJ Boosinger's comment
PJ Boosinger

John Richardson: "I got my eye on you."
Thank you! Best laugh I've had in days. You, on the other hand haven't even been worth enough of my time for a google search.
"past backers who are NOT suing her" Ah, but they are certainly threatening to, aren't they? I'm sure you know "doggirl" and have seen her threats on that topic since you're such a tight little group.

Bonny, my interest is in protecting the rights of owners and I tried to help your little group of "victims" too. If you'd filed court papers, retained a lawyer, you'd actually have some rights. But you were all more interested in flaming Leah instead.
"But HSUS and AFF have no photos of dogs matching our dog's description."
Yeah, well, here again... IF you'd all filed papers, you might be able to argue that you have a right to see the actual dogs and not just pictures. If you're willing to take the word of HSUS (well established liars) who are keeping you from seeing the dogs, ensuring you will never know if they are in that shelter or not. Y'all need to make a choice. Get the District Attorney to agree not to file charges and you might get your answers or suck it up and live with the forever doubts of not knowing. But you all need to realize that Leah can't tell you diddly about the dogs once HSUS got their hands on them. And that little snot of a disgruntled ex employee who has his own ax to grind isn't even close to a reliable source either.
But mostly you've made your collective choice that flaming Leah and revenge were far more important than those dogs you keep claiming are so precious and you made it within minutes without waiting for any actual facts. They weren't precious enough for you to all bite your tongues and do what was needed to actually protect and help them, were they?

July 27 2012 at 11:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to PJ Boosinger's comment

I am not sure if you are trolling for clients or bashing good people who entrusted Leah to make good on promises which apparently she didn't ... I don't think that people who feel betrayed and are understandably anxious about their dogs are wrong to lash out at Leah.. especially the ones who were told their dogs had been adopted but in reality never left the property. I understand that you feel Leah is not culpable at all in this situation and the fact she bears no blame for anything that transpired . Soon will all be over At which time you can get back to writing more pages of your self absorbed autobiographical tome.

July 28 2012 at 2:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to allen.richards2's comment

First of all there is no bait except in your mind. I have read your rants on other postings and you have trashed those people who were sincerely looking for the dogs that they entrusted to Leah, whether it be for evaluation, boarding, training or adoption.. there has been several people on the victims page that claim they were notified in writing that their dogs had been adopted out only to find out they this never happened and in some case the dogs died (in the fire and in the dehydration incident) .. again it doesn't matter because your purpose on here is to bully... Bullies typically are insecure, self absorbed cowards with low self esteem...who look for a vulnerability in others and after then go after them for the purpose of intimidation. I just never liked the way you trash , bash, lie and misrepresent the facts to attack in order to intimidate those who are really suffering through this..
I don't care " if you take the bait " please don't .. I just think someone and hopefully everyone needs to call you out.. and hand back your hate on a plate.

July 28 2012 at 11:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

PJ Boosinger, either you are highly invested personally in defending Spindletop or you are talking out of great ignorance. Many of us brought our fostered rescues to Leah on faith based on her promises and others' words. She was not good about communicating, gave no contracts, gave no follow-up on how our dogs were doing, and lied lied lied by telling us our dogs were being adopted by "people with a ranch who just loved" our dog. (At least 7 people whom I now know were told that SAME story, as we were!) We brought our dog to her in early Nov 2011 and paid the usual $750; we had to call her constantly, as she would never return emails or call us back to advise us on our dog's status. She told us in early Dec that our dog was adopted by a friend of hers with a ranch. Hooray! NOT. Last week we learned from former employees that our dog was last seen in Feb 2012 stuck in a medium-sized crate in one of the "back kennels" at Spindletop. Zandra Anderson, Leah's attorney, assured us last Thursday Jul 18 that our dog was alive and had been confiscated and was with HSUS at the rescue center. But HSUS and AFF have no photos of dogs matching our dog's description, and we are not allowed to go in and look at the dogs personally. LIES LIES LIES. Someone genuinely overwhelmed does not lie, scheme for more money, bury dogs and keep it secret, and keep dogs in obviously cruel and unhealthful conditions (an understatement for what these dogs went through). An innocent, well-meaning person who gets overwhelmed has a breakdown and cries for help. That Leah does not now help by telling where each and every dog is, which dogs were among the 38 who died, and where any dogs who were adopted went, proves that her priority is not now and never was the DOGS. Personally, I get no satisfaction about railing on Leah or Zandra or their unethical associates. I'm angry because our dogs and others' dogs have suffered and may still be suffering, and the only people who could still help will not. Period.

July 27 2012 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Richardson

PJBoosinger - You know, you really ought to be REAL careful about accusing anyone of lying. I got my eye on you. The sequence of events is this: Leah received a multi-thousand dollar loan, of which she paid back about half and then there were all sorts of excuses, followed by unanswered calls and emails. That was the first act of deadbeating. I then, because I was genuinely concerned about how Spindletop would both literally and figuratively weather the storm, I did indeed go down to help her evacuate. I was the ONLY out of area supporter who did that time. After that experience and talking it over with my wife, we decided to forgive that loan post facto. Note that there is a difference between forgiving a loan before it was due to be repaid and forgiving it after. Some time later, Leah asked for another multi-thousand dollar loan and gave us a loooong song and dance about how different it would be this time, what jobs she would take to repay, etc, etc. Then she stiffed us again for about half the amount. If your ethics tell you that anyone who decided to forgive an obviously uncollectible loan because we still believed Leah and Spindletop was doing more good than harm DESERVES to be stiffed a second time, then your ethics need a serious makeover. But the fact that this same scenario played out with MANY people just shows the gravity of the situation. And you know what is really irksome about this? I had zero intent to comment on ANYTHING here except for my strong objection to the suggestions that Spindletop was some sort of enormous cash cow for Leah. I was here to DEFEND her against what I consider a scurrilous charge that never should have seen print. But having read your diatribe against Leah's victims, you made this about something else altogether, Leah ought to be more worried about the screaming stupidity of her current crop of backers than about past backers who are NOT suing her, and just want a little help resolving uncertainties that have become even more stressful in light of the fact that Leah has been caught in multiple lies about placing dogs. Leah will never regain the stature she once had in the field of animal rescue, But a little graciousness, humility and helpfulness would make eventual forgiveness a lot easier. What we are seeing instead is a haughtiness and a disdain for all others that is by now grimly familiar and extremely UNWISE given the current situation.

July 27 2012 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
PJ Boosinger

And I'll say something about Zandra here too which probably won't make me any friends on either side of the Spindletop situation. Zandra represents dogs. Every case I've seen her take was one where the person she represented tended dogs WELL above average. She doesn't take clients who won't act "in the animal's best interests"; she doesn't seem to take ANY case that truly turns on the owner's rights rights alone - just those cases where the law is incredibly clear and on her client's side AND the critters are in exemplary condition. She is one of YOU, an animal rights activist who nominally argues that owner's have rights because that is the current basis in law. That is MY opinion of Zandra and, frankly, I think it's lazy lawyering and at least partial appeasement.

The one thing I can be sure of when I see Zandra's name attached to a case is that the animals were in extraordinary care and she's got a righteous client and a righteous case. You people on your "victims" page are absolutely fools if you don't get that! I have told a very long list of people to call everyone BUT Zandra because they simply weren't going to meet her standards from what I can tell and many of them have called me back, after they called Zandra anyway, to tell me I was right. I will certainly ALWAYS stand behind any case Zandra takes for these reasons but I also stand up for owners that I doubt she would because I believe in property rights rather than animal rights and I think those property rights keep animals alive much better than animal rights seizure that result in mass casualties.

I am utterly disgusted that an agreement was reached in the civil case if just ONE of the released dogs actually belonged to Leah or Spindletop. Do you idiots not understand that Leah did that FOR THE DOGS and while putting herself at additional risk and giving up substantial rights of her own???

July 27 2012 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to PJ Boosinger's comment

so, since you're such good friends of Leah and Zandra... how about you tell Leah to HELP PEOPLE IDENTIFY THE DOGS.. there are more than 140 photos of "Victims" that went to Spindltop and whose previous owners would like to reclaim them. She knows every dog and where it came from... she is refusing to help reunite them. It will be up to the custodians of the dogs -- NOT Zandra or Leah -- to decide if the previous owners' claims are righteous. Leah is just proving how little she actually does care about the dogs...or maybe she is really content just to let them all languish in the holding area for months.

Leah gave up on more than one of her personal dogs in order to reach the bargain that kept her out of jail

July 27 2012 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to EmilyS's comment
PJ Boosinger

1. "previous" owners don't have any rights to these dogs therefore, while the current owners MAY choose to give them to previous owners, NONE of those claims are righteous.
2. Those dogs will NOT languish in that shelter for months. They'll probably ship out the remainder within 1 month of the seizure.
3. Leah didn't make any bargain regarding jail as far as I can tell. This was a civil case and the County Attorney does not have the authority to bargain over criminal matters (which was covered by the media blurbs and is trud).
4. I know Zandra IN PASSING, at best.
5. Never heard of Leah before this case and certainly do not know her.
6. Nope, wouldn't help a single one of you. You didn't do your jobs the first time you had these dogs and didn't make ANY attempt to protect them through the legal process. Now you can live with YOUR negligence; more accurately, the dogs will live (or die) from it.

July 28 2012 at 5:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Jon Anonnon

Shes just a pit bull activist,an animal rights activist would be fighting to ban pit bulls for all the other animals they kill every year.

August 24 2012 at 3:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
PJ Boosinger

OK John. First time you said: "My wife and I were stiffed on loans." That is PLURAL, indicating more than one. Now you say it was just one. One of those is a LIE.
Oh, but then you say you were oh so kind and decided... blah, blah, blah. And what I see his a boatload of people jumping on making all kinds of accusations against someone who can't speak up right now and you all know that full well but continue anyway. If, IF, she did the things that she's accused of (even the ones you all seem to collectively agree upon), then it sounds like you all deserved to be in the boat WITH her because you're all equally atrocious humans.

July 27 2012 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Richardson

I cut off ties with Leah after the first time Leah stiffed a loan. But when I saw a category 5 storm was bearing down on her in '05, I chose to contact her and offer to come down to help, which I did. After that experience, my wife and I discussed the matter and chose to forgive the first debt. Shortly after, she was back asking for more. Were we stupid to loan a second time, even after she outlined her whole plan of action for how this time it would be all so very different? Well, I sure feel like a fool now! But at the time, we were trying to help someone who seemed to want to do the right thing. It wasn't the first time that I tried to help someone who turned out to be an ingrate and hopelessly irresponsible. When you in fact DO give a damn and WANT to believe that someone's good intentions will be matched by responsible actions, this is what can happen. It's not the people Leah stiffed who need to apologize for anything. Leah should be apologizing to us and to the people we have since chosen not to help, not being able to get past the deep skepticism Leah instilled in us. It's really quite creepy for you to be castigating these people. I'm not aware of a single person who is seeking redress of past bad debts at this point. People are angry because of LEAH'S actions and inactions. We are angry because of HER lies and her silence, when a little bit of HONESTY could clear up a huge amount of the uncertainty and anguish she has caused.

And don't blame us for giving loans instead of gifts. Loans are what she ASKED for. My wife and I and several others also gave gifts and helped in other ways. We all stopped not because Leah was "gruff", but because she lied to us repeatedly. There are far too many people with similar stories for this "poor little Leah and her big mean supporters" story to sound like anything but sheer foolishness or an out and out sleazy attempt to deflect blame from the person actually responsible,

I will defend Leah from scurrilous charges. But I will defend her former supporters from scurrilous charges as well.

July 27 2012 at 1:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply