Houston’s Animal Cop

Animal cruelty investigator and out police officer, Mark Timmers’ job takes gentleness and strength.

By Brandon Wolf
Photo by Pam Francis

Nov08cover‘It is the weak who are cruel; gentleness can only be expected from the strong.’ Leo F. Buscaglia

 A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” Mahatma Gandhi once observed. But every society has its loose links . . . and when they break, heroic people have to step into the gaps and forge the links back together. One of those people is Houston’s Lt. Mark Timmers.

He’s been threatened with knives, shovels, and guns. He’s had his nose broken several times. He’s been yelled at and cursed. Still he soldiers on. “I know the difference between right and wrong,” explains Lieutenant Mark Timmers as he chomps down on his cigar. Timmers, 48, is an animal cruelty investigator for Harris County Constable (Precinct 6) Victor Trevino. He works under a contract funded by the Houston Humane Society (HHS), which means that his working life is exclusively dedicated to animal cruelty enforcement and investigation.

 He is a man’s man—broad shoulders, thick biceps, husky build, and confident stance. Silver hair covers his temples. He has always wanted to be a cop, to champion the rights of the defenseless. “I wanted to be just like the guys in Adam 12,” he says. As a child, he would stand between playground bullies and their intended targets. He was practicing for his future.

Timmers with Burnie, who was saved by the Houston Humane Society.

Having a career in law enforcement has been a challenge for Timmers, and there have been ups and downs. He draws motivation from his experiences as a gay man. “I know what it’s like to be hated for absolutely no reason,” he says. But today, he believes, gay people can be whatever they want to be. In a quiet, behind-the-scenes manner, Timmers counsels and encourages young people who want to become officers.

The Things People Do

 Timmers’s work has exposed him to animal abuse in all its forms—neglect, abandonment, violence, ritual sacrifice, and competitive fighting. “Most of what I deal with would never be shown on Animal Cop,” he says. “It’s too nightmarish.”

 Animal cruelty reports come from a variety of sources—concerned neighbors, animal rights groups, utility personnel, city services workers, surveyors, realtors, the District Attorney’s office, and other law enforcement officers. Timmers regularly holds training courses to help people understand what to look for.

 He feels that common sense is usually the best way to identify animal cruelty. “If an animal looks and acts abused, most likely it is,” he says. “If it appears to be thin and sickly,” he adds, “it probably is undernourished and doesn’t have proper housing.” When animal cruelty is suspected, Timmers advises leaving the investigation to those with the training and legal authority to deal with it. “It’s best for citizens not to get involved; emotions run high when it comes to pets. The most effective action is to contact the HHS.”

 Cases are handled at one of three levels—education, intervention, or prosecution. About 90 percent of reported cases are handled with a civil citation. “We interview pet owners, and if they have no prior criminal record and want to cooperate, we educate them on their legal responsibilities as a pet owner,” states Timmers. “Then we make a follow-up visit to assure compliance with the law. But if an owner rolls up the citation, throws it on the floor and tells me to leave, I intervene and seize the endangered pets.”

Willful, knowing, or reckless actions that result in the abuse or death of an animal are taken to the prosecution level. Seized animals are x-rayed for broken bones and other proof of physical assault. Blood tests identify diseases, dehydration level, and the food content in an animal’s stomach. “The HHS veterinarians give us the evidence we need to ensure a conviction in criminal cases, and serve as our expert witnesses in the courtroom,” says Timmers.

Smaller Pieces of Larger Problems

 Neglect and abandonment of animals are clues that point to more serious problems. At the most innocent level, people forget about the welfare of their pets because they are busy trying to make a living and raise their families. In most of these situations, Timmers notes, people are cooperative and eager to comply with the law. “Pet owners are required to provide proper nourishment and housing for their pets. Animals are not allowed to be chained or tethered 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he states.

 Diminished capacity usually leads to animal neglect, also. Timmers recalls the case of an 82-year-old woman roaming the neighborhood, looking unkempt and unhealthy. Officers investigating the case found 37 cats and seven dogs in her home. “The odor in the home was unbelievable.”

 In another case, 68 cats were found in a house. The owner is now in an assisted-living environment and thankful for the intervention. “For the first time in so long, I have clarity in my life again,” he told Timmers.

 Puppy mills are often the scene of gross neglect. Timmers cautions potential pet buyers to insist on picking up animals from the place where they are raised. “Puppy mill owners usually clean up dogs and take them to a different location—like a parking lot—to transfer them to the new owners. Don’t buy pets at flea markets or Traders’ Village, either,” he advises.

Photographer Pam Francis's dogs Pepper and Daisy, who were found not guilty of biting a stranger.

 Pet abandonment is usually the act of someone who is wanted for a more serious crime. In a turn of ironic justice, criminals are sometimes brought to justice because of outst anding warrants for animal abandonment. “Law enforcement officers everywhere work especially hard to help catch people who leave animals to die,” says Timmers, “and criminals are often dumbfounded to learn that this is why they were caught.”

  Pets Used as Pawns

 Domestic violence incidents are a bellwether of animal abuse. “The demeanor of a dog is usually the demeanor of the household,” Timmers says. “You can’t interview an animal, but you can study its behavior.”

 Pets are often used as examples by people who rage. A boyfriend stomps on the head of his girlfriend’s chihuahua and threatens to do the same to her. A father throws a pet over a balcony to maintain mental control of his children. Timmers remembers one domestic violence case in which an officer noticed a food dish and water bowl for a dog, but couldn’t find the pet. As she interviewed one of the children, he cried and ran away. “She opened a closet door, and the dog was hanging upside down by its hind legs,” Timmers says, his voice cracking with emotion.

 Pit bulls are the dog of choice for protecting drug kitchens, Timmers points out. “If there are several such dogs in a yard, acting fierce and barking in a menacing fashion, there is a good possibility something illegal is happening inside the house. And drug dealers often store their merchandise under the collars of pit bulls.”

 Ritual Killings and the Scourge of Dog Fighting

 The most heinous crimes against animals are also the hardest cases to crack. Timmers finds it extremely difficult to investigate ritual animal sacrifices. “We find animals drained of blood and missing body parts. Most have been tied and killed, then dumped. We find a lot of goats,” he says. Timmers can usually identify the specific cult involved, based on the condition of the animal. He’s researched cult activity extensively. “I even know which cults operate in which parts of the city and the times of the year when they will make sacrifices,” he says.

Adolescents who torture animals give Timmers grave cause for concern. “It says something about where they are headed as adults when they consciously find an animal and knowingly torture it. I come down really hard on them.”

Dog fighting operates in the Houston area at three levels—street, mid-level, and organized crime. “The Michael Vick case only drove dog fighting further underground,” Timmers notes. Street-level dog fighting is conducted by gangs and is more visible. “They are more interested in bumping their dogs; that is, seeing which dog is the toughest. But mid-level and organized-crime dog fighting is nearly impossible to crack. It would be easier for me to buy 10 kilos of cocaine than to infiltrate these rackets.”

Dog fighting is lucrative and secretive. “One fight can bring in as much as $25,000,” he explains. “It can cost $250 and up just to attend and watch. Participants are transported in vans to one location, transferred to another van, and sometimes blindfolded. Warehouses are often used as the staging sites.”

 Timmers viewed one dog-fighting video confiscated during a narcotics bust. “It’s pathological behavior—people get excited watching ears and testicles ripped off.” He has no patience with dog fighters. “In the District Attorney’s office, I’m known as ‘the pit bull’—once I sink my teeth into a case, I don’t let go.”

 Cockfighting is just as insidious a problem in the Houston area, and these cases always end in tragedy. “We have to destroy the animals. They are extremely hostile creatures, and may have been fed steroids. They can do a lot of damage to a human being.”

 Lions, Tigers, Snakes, and Sugar Gliders

 The largest animals Timmers has worked with are elephants in traveling roadside circuses. “But those days seem to be nearly gone now. It’s become obvious that animals don’t do well being transported from city to city,” he says. The smallest animals he has worked with are sugar gliders, a tiny marsupial possum native to Australia and New Guinea. They are only about six inches long and are often mistakenly called miniature flying squirrels. “We once seized 47 sugar gliders from a home,” says Timmers. “The living conditions were deplorable, and the animals were in very poor health.”

 Timmers has no fondness for iguanas. “They have bad tempers and their tails can inflict a lot of pain.” But monkeys, he says, are the most dangerous. “They are vicious and carry lots of diseases.”

 Citizens are allowed to own exotic animals such as lions and tigers, if they have the proper permits. “It’s rather intimidating standing next to the cage of a Bengal tiger,” Timmers says, recalling inspections he’s conducted.

 The Texas Wildlife Commission actually owns all wildlife within the state. Still, some people have found young bobcats and deer and tried to raise them. “I’ve worked with Animal Control teams to remove adult animals from homes. They may be cute when small, but once they are sexually active, their behavior is unpredictable.

 “We get a lot of snake calls,” Timmers states. Houston ordinances forbid ownership of any reptile that can grow beyond eight feet in size. Timmers relies on his online fact book to determine what kind of snake he’s about to deal with. A majority of these calls involve boa constrictors, but he also carries equipment for dealing with rattlesnakes. “The only snakes I really worry about are the ones that spit venom.”

Utilizing the Power of Technology

Timmers is proud of the technological advances he’s brought into his field. “The HHS has the only online animal-cruelty-reporting interface that sends the reports immediately to vehicles,” he boasts. “Our tracking system tells us when to return to a home to monitor compliance.”

 What used to take days now only takes hours. “We file affidavits online, and by the time we get to the courthouse, our search warrants are ready,” he states with satisfaction. Details of neglect and abuse are recorded with digital photography, and interviews are captured on videotape. “When I’m working with another law enforcement agency, I burn all the evidence onto CDs and DVDs and pass them along before we part. We’ve really streamlined the whole process of enforcement and prosecution, but we’re always trying to improve. I want to be the best in the country.”

 The HHS pathology lab is used extensively for processing evidence. For the cases that go to trial, the evidence is well documented. “We haven’t lost a case yet,” Timmers says. Sentences can range up to two years in prison with a $10,000 fine.

Timmers believes that the popular cable show Animal Cop has increased awareness of animal cruelty. “We worked with a local version in 2003 and 2004, but they had a hard time keeping up with our pace.” Still he does have reservations about the reality show. “Everyone has a right to privacy and the due process of law. More than once I’ve had to pull people off the cameramen.”

 Positive Changes for Gays in Law Enforcement

Timmers is a 1982 graduate of the Houston Police Department Police Academy. He worked for HPD until 1987, when he went to work for his present employer. In 2003, he became the city’s first law enforcement officer to be fully dedicated to animal cruelty. “It’s my lifelong dream come true. I hope to continue until retirement,” says this 26-year veteran of law enforcement.

 Timmers has seen a sea change for gays in the field of law enforcement. “Twenty years ago we wouldn’t have been having this interview.”

 Because he doesn’t match the stereotypical image of a gay man, Timmers has many times heard people talk unflatteringly about the gay community. “Then one day they find out I’m gay and call me and apologize. I just thank them for re-evaluating how they feel.”

 Because of his abilities and long record of performance, he enjoys the respect of colleagues and extensive contacts within law enforcement. “There have been many occasions where people who know me have spoken up against homophobic remarks,” he states.

 “I’ve been blessed by good mentors,” Timmers reflects. “My father taught me to never walk away from a situation. I have many mentors in the law enforcement field. I’m always ready to learn—from those older than me and younger than me.”

 Timmers advises young people who want to enter law enforcement to get a two- or four-year degree and a law enforcement certificate. “Being a cop today isn’t about a billy club; it’s about talking to people, understanding human behavior, knowing the law, and documenting investigations. Gay men and women who want to enter the police force need to be realistic. They should live in a large town, and they need to present themselves with credibility.”

 The Man Behind the Badge

 Timmers says that he is proud of his uniform and his badge. But once he puts them aside, he’s a very introverted and private person. He was once married and has two children. “My wife is a wonderful person, but the situation just didn’t work,” he says.

 One of four children, Timmers grew up in Minnesota and moved to Houston in 1979. His twin sister is also gay. “She’s been with her partner for 19 years now.”

 He came out in 1984, and tragedy followed soon thereafter. “I lost two partners to AIDS. The families came in and took everything—the house, the furniture, and the clothes.”

 Last month Timmers and his partner Daniel Huerta, a city budget analyst, celebrated their fifth anniversary. “He’s the perfect companion—extroverted and kind,” he says. “We both love Harleys and working out at the gym. We have a lot of common interests.”

 Timmers recalls that he tried to get Huerta’s attention for nearly three years. “Finally I gave him my card and suggested we do lunch. We made a connection.”

 They now live in a townhouse in the heart of Montrose. Their home is one of 31 colorful units in an L-shaped complex on tree-lined streets. All units overlook a common courtyard. “I researched the units and discovered they were built in the 1950s for the members of the Houston Ballet.”

 Timmers and Huerta have an ever-changing group of pets that they play foster parents to—usually four at a time—and they favor chihuahuas. “We have the best-dressed pets in town,” he laughs.

Characteristic of many heroic people, Timmers doesn’t see himself as a hero. Nevertheless he is a hero—a dedicated and tireless defender of defenseless animals who have no voice—and a man whom Houston’s gay community can embrace with admiration, appreciation, and pride.

The Author on Heroes  

I am 60 years old—been out for nearly 40 years. Came from a family of three sons—I was the youngest—my oldest brother was gay, too. He died in 1979 from complications from diabetes.

 As a kid, I was the one who got bullied, and I never had any strong sense of physical aggression. So bloodying someone’s nose wasn’t the answer—I just simply don’t have the emotional makeup to deal with violence—it’s so illogical. I could never have picked up a rifle and shot people I didn’t even know in Viet Nam. Iraq just baffles me.

 I developed a strong affinity for the heroic guys, early on. Every once in a while, a bigger and stronger guy would stand between me and the bullies. I never understood why, but I was sure glad that such guys existed as a counterbalance to the bullies. And they were my heroes.

When I was 15, Lt. Mark Timmers was the last man in the world I would ever have thought was gay. Back then I quite simply could not even conceive of it. So the article I wrote was really written for the 15-year-old who I was. If I had realized back then that gay men could be like him, my whole sense of being a gay man would have been dramatically different.

 I’m no longer 15, but I believe there are 15-year-old boys today who will read this article and feel better about themselves. That’s what I want to pass along to the youngest generation of gay men out there now. B.W.

 Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

 The Law and the Lens  

 There are two females involved in the cover who deserve special note. The first is our covergirl Burnie. This beautiful collie mix was once tied to a tree by two teenage boys, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Thanks to the Houston Humane Society (HHS), Burnie was treated and adopted and is presently the HHS mascot, traveling to schools and other events to help increase public awareness of the horrors of animal cruelty.

 The second lady we should tell you about is photographer Pam Francis, who shot the cover. We could go on and on about Francis’ many awards, her iconic photographs of everyone from Ann Richards to Beyoncé, but we’d rather tell you about her animal rights activities—namely her one-woman crusade to successfully overturn city ordinance #2006-995, aka the “tattoo pet law.”

 Basically, the ordinance went like this. If your animal is accused of biting someone, that animal is taken from you, placed under house arrest, and given a “dangerous animal” tattoo. Two more instances and your pet is put down. Which almost sounds reasonable—if, in fact, the animal has actually bitten someone. However, BP (Before Pam), no one ever actually had to show any proof, just make an accusation. And it’s what happened to Francis.

 “He [the alleged victim] couldn’t say which of my two dogs even bit him,” an incredulous Francis recalls. “He pulled his pants down in the middle of the street, and there was no mark or bruise or nothing. I go jogging with my dogs all they time. They’d never bite anybody. Next thing I know I get a call from his lawyer and a ticket from the city of Houston because the man had reported a dog bite. The guy missed no work. Never even went to the doctor! Then his lawyer wants me to give up my home insurance information.”

 Scam bells going off yet? That’s where the real beauty of this law comes in. You see, most homeowners just roll over and beg the case to go away in situations like this. Your insurance company gets slapped with a big fat lawsuit and they pay to make it go away.

 “As a homeowner, they might as well just tattoo me. My dogs are like my children, and I didn’t want any strikes against my dog.”

And that’s when Francis started doing her homework. “I found out from animal control that about 50 percent of these cases are fraudulent. We were accused, indicted, arrested, and then we were convicted. No due process. I was talking to my father one night about it and asked him if he knew any lawyers who would defend a dog.”

 Boy, did he. Francis’ father put her in touch with legendary attorney Racehorse Haynes. “So I called him and he took the case,” Francis laughs. “We sued the City of Houston for eliminating my constitutional right for due process. I had to put up $10,000 of my own money. But they scratched it off the books, they did.”

Francis could have countersued for damages, but didn’t. “Everybody thought I was crazy not to at least go after some money. But that’s not what I was in it for. I just wanted them to change the law.”

Now that’s a photographer who’s got real focus. —Steven Foster

 Photo caption: Mark Timmers sits with Burnie, one of this month’s covergirls. Our other covergirl (behind the scenes) is Pam Francis, who photographed Timmers and Burnie. Francis’ own dogs, Pepper (l) and Daisy, were found not guilty of biting a stranger, eventually helping erase an unjust law from the city’s books.


Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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