For some people, pets are just pets. For other people, pets are beloved members of their families, and these are the people who will have the most difficulty watching "Animal Cops Houston" (Wed. 8 pm. on Animal Planet) As it turns out, there's also a third category of people - people who care so little for other living creatures (or who, in the case of animal hoarders, care but are too plagued by mental disorders to care appropriately) that pets are simply forgotten, neglected, starved or abused. There are apparently enough people in this depressing final category for "Animal Cops" to have become a multi-city franchise, with shows based in Detroit, Miami, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City.
Given that I fall into the second category, I'm not sure if I could ever watch an uninterrupted "Animal Cops" marathon (an Animal Planet programming staple), but I can appreciate a reality show about (shocker!) people doing good works for the betterment of their community.
The show starts out with a 1970s-style split screen effect, dramatic music and a narrator who delivers lines like, "Struggling to stay upright on a carpet of feces, the investigators finally force the last dogs out of the house and into the safety of the kennels" with all the gravitas of a war reporter. It seems a little camp, at least until the stories begin to unfold. Regardless of how you feel about animals, it's hard not to get caught up in the life-and-death struggles, legal wrangling and battles with villains who are either clueless or truly evil.
Like any police procedural, scripted or unscripted, the heroes stay the same (albeit mostly one dimensional), though in Houston there's a little more twang and a lot more horses than on some of the other "Animal Cops" shows. As usual, the villains are an ever-changing cast of unsavory or tragic characters. Often their faces are blurred, but some offenders we do get to meet. On one recent episode we were introduced to an elderly woman who had hoarded 60 dogs, resulting in 18 inches of feces accumulating on her floors, dogs that had gone feral from neglect and one miserable pup so matted in her own filth she looked more like a carnival freak show exhibit than an actual living creature.
While it might have been interesting to hear more from this woman, who seemed fairly normal for someone whose house had become so full of dog crap shovels were needed to get the front door open, this isn't "Hoarders." The SPCA authorities scoop out the poo, grab the animals and head back to headquarters to see which animals (if any) can be salvaged. Amazingly, the fur matted dog (who is quickly nicknamed Matilda) is deemed docile enough to be saved, but the journey to adoption isn't an easy one.
While Matilda ends up in a happy home, not every story is so upbeat. It's very briefly mentioned that the other dogs found in the home were put down (a comment tossed out so quickly I had to rewind to make sure I actually heard it). Some dogs succumb to parvo, while other animals are so sick they have to be euthanized. Sometimes the authorities get to the scene too late, finding only dead or dying animals. Each episode, of course, tries to end on a happy note, ensuring that the image that lingers in your head isn't of a dead kitten covered in fleas but instead a playful pony frolicking in its fabulous new paddock, free to live a better life.
Every episode kicks off with the standard warning, "Due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised." While sometimes it seems to be an effort to make tepid programming more exciting than it may otherwise appear, "Animal Cops Houston" is just as gritty and unsettling as that warning promises. But as long as episodes end on that playful pony, maybe it's not so bad after all.