Story By: Amber Elliott

Matt Bryant, owner of Houston Dog Ranch, noticed that a troubling dynamic was developing in the early days of COVID-19’s countywide stay-home order: Reports of domestic violence and animal cruelty had gone through the roof.

“Having been a child in a domestically violent home myself, I saw firsthand how pets are used to keep the woman in the home or keep control over a household,” Bryant said.

Through his work with the Animal Justice League, Bryant has been invited to serve as an ambassador of the Harris County Animal Cruelty Task Force. That’s where he met Tena Lundquist Faust and Tama Lundquist, twin sisters and co-founders of Houston PetSet, who share Bryant’s concern over the uptick in domestic violence and subsequent animal cruelty.

Together, the trio moved quickly to launch Pet Protect. The program aids individuals fleeing unsafe home environments by providing free animal boarding for up to 30 days.

“It’s something that we’ve been talking about for a very long time. This issue has always been on our radar, but we never had the bandwith or partners until Matt,” Lundquist said. “When COVID hit, we were developing this program, and there were animals coming in who might sit for two or three days with their injuries. The conversation switched to domestic violence, and we asked Matt, ‘Would you be willing to take pets from those situations?’”

Bryant’s response was an emphatic “yes.”

Houston Dog Ranch has more than 90 rooms available on its 7-acre property in Spring Branch. Accommodations range from private cabins with color televisions for background noise to small group options for dogs who are more social. Popular attractions include a diving pool, splash pads and porches for lounging.

“It felt criminal to let those rooms sit empty when there’s a need,” Bryant said. “This was the good and right thing to do on every level.”

While Pet Protect is still in the pilot phase, Houston PetSet is covering boarding costs, and Houston Dog Ranch will absorb any training or rehabilitation-related fees for both the dog and its owner.

Bryant, who’s been dubbed the “Texas dog father” within certain rescue circles, enlists a staff of 15-18 dogs to model good behavior and accelerate the healing process.

“We’ve learned that when you’re dealing with trauma recovery, whether it’s neglect or they’ve just missed the windows of development, is a pretty unique situation,” he explained. “Our dogs help teach others how to trust people and how to read social cues. It also helps with transitions into a multidog home.”

Bryant’s offerings are idyllic, though there’s a drawback: Houston Dog Ranch isn’t set up for intake after 5 p.m. or to house cats.

That’s where Westbury Animal Hospital’s Dr. Jonathan Cooper comes in.

“Sometimes when these (domestic violence) events occur, it’s after hours,” Cooper said. “We don’t want the inability for someone to leave and not take their animal to be a barrier for exiting an unhealthy situation. This program allows victims and their pets to find safe harbor.”

Westbury Animal Hospital is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Cooper, who sits on Houston PetSet’s board of directors, describes the facility as a large, multidoctor veterinary hospital that provides clinical care and emergency practice around the clock.

“There are other organizations that take animals from domestic violence situations, but a big piece of the puzzle that was missing was overnight access,” Lundquist said. “Some research indicates that 40 (percent to) 50 percent of domestic violence victims stay because they don’t want to leave their animals behind.”

Houston PetSet has partnered with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County District Attorney’s Office and Houston Area Women’s Center to facilitate the connection between clients and Houston Dog Ranch or Westbury Animal Hospital.

The organization launched Pet Protect in April by pulling funds from the budget’s emergency funds. Lundquist and Faust planned to test the program over a 30-day period, though they’re considering an extension based on need.

“We’ll adjust,” Lundquist said, now that some stay-home restrictions have been lifted. “Thirty days is a good idea in theory, though I think we’ll keep it open and re-evaluate.”

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