Special Report: Officers in Jeopardy

BROWNSVILLE - CHANNEL 5 NEWS is tracking new concerns on our border. Federal officers are unable to perform their jobs. We wanted to know why.

We received a letter written by eight Customs and Border Protection officers months ago. They said they believe their partners, fellow officers, are in jeopardy. They claimed that their treatment weakens border security.

The desperate words of Customs and Border Protection officers were loud and clear.

“We have run out of options to protect our partners,” the letter stated.

The letter was addressed to U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela. A copy of it was given to CHANNEL 5 NEWS.

The partners that the officers referred to are four-legged, loyal and trusted animals. Pictures accompanied the letter that was sent anonymously.

The dogs’ skin and fur was ripped apart by infections. The letters stated that a private kennel is the source of the animals’ problems.

“It does bother me when I'm hearing that these dogs at this facility are being saturated with fleas and rodents and there's feces, and they're getting sick because of these things,” said a retired CBP officer who asked to remain anonymous.

The pictures showed roaches in the dogs' food, mice and spiders in their water bowls, filthy sinks and rodent feces on work spaces, food bowls and canned food.

"A lot of times they're sitting in their own urine,” said the retired CBP officer. “They're sitting in their own feces, because it doesn't drain properly."

The letter stated that officers “strongly believe this dog waste issue likely caused six out of eight CBP detector dogs to fall ill with different infections due to cross contamination."

When these officers are sick, they’re taken off-duty. CHANNEL 5 NEWS took the pictures straight to the private kennel to check on the claims. The owners of the kennel opened their gates to our cameras and answered our questions directly.

The owner said the dogs have been there since June 1. Once inside, it was easy to find the federal dogs. Their pictures, names and jobs were clearly posted on each kennel. It is clear these are federal assets for our border protection.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS confirmed many of the concerns listed in the letter. The dogs were found walking and sitting in their own urine and feces. The owners said they have a system to clean out kennels. They don’t touch the ones that belong to the federal government.

"We told them we would pressure wash the runs every morning, but they declined that,” said the owner of the kennel.

The owner said the CBP is leasing the space under a contract.

"Apparently their procedures are that the handler is responsible for the dog,” the owner said. “They do all the feeding, watering, cleaning the runs, the whole works."

The caretaker said they are not allowed to care for the federal detector dogs under their roof.

"When they first got here, the doors on the outside and on the inside we had access to,” the owner of the kennel said. “We could go in there and wipe off the walls if we needed to, other things. We could squeegee and we could use the pressure washer, but then they put locks on all the gates, so we don't have any access to the dog."

A federal audit at the Gateway Bridge in Brownsville found that the CBP kennel did not meet minimum standards. That kennel was closed. The canines were moved to the private kennel.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS asked CBP for the requirements of a private kennel. They did not respond.

"I think roaches in the food is just not acceptable,” said Dr. David Heflin, a veterinarian from Mission Veterinarian Hospital.

Heflin has years of experience approving law enforcement kennels. He makes sure they meet state standards.

"A thing that concerned me on the pictures were the ticks,” Heflin said. “Ticks are really notorious in the Valley for carrying anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. They're two very common diseases here and they make dogs sick."

The CBP officers raised these exact concerns in their letter saying, “Dogs are exposed to insect bites on a daily basis.”

Heflin’s biggest concern was the tick situation, because ticks carry diseases. The owner of the kennel said if they find a tick on a dog, they give them Bravecto, an oral treatment.

The owner admitted the kennel has a problem with ticks, roaches and rodents. They said it all comes with the outdoor environment.

"I can understand their concern, those are expensive animals and they're important too, they do a job,” the kennel owner said.

The dogs’ job is to stop the drugs, money, humans and ammunition that are trying to breach the border. It’s a job that keeps national security in check.

"These are working dogs. They're high stress jobs,” Heflin said. “They really need to be well taken care of. Typically, they're indoors. They're in air conditioning when they're not working. It's quiet, it's comfortable for them."

In this kennel, there is no air conditioning for these canines. There is no peace or quit. The metal link cages provide little separation between the animals. They hear, smell and see everything.

“They’re very high strung,” Heflin said.

The dogs are unable to unwind and rest. Dr. Heflin said sensory overload could lead to physical exhaustion and mental anxiety.

“We see problems with them chewing on their tails,” Heflin said. “We see them twisting around their kennel, all kinds of behavioral issues, if they're not well taken care of."

CHANNEL 5 NEWS tried to get answers. We asked to speak with the CBP port of entry director, the CBP regional media relations office and the CBP media relations office in Washington, D.C. All of our requests were denied.

CBP sent CHANNEL 5 NEWS this statement:

"CBP is working diligently to address the concerns raised in the letter."

"The animals are paying for this, you know, they're the ones getting sick on a daily basis,” said the retired CBP officer.

In the letter to U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela, eight CBP officers pleaded for help to get their partners out of the private kennel. Acting as the only voice for these animal officers, they asked for treatment and protection for their loyal, federal canines that keep the border safe.

Relief is on its way. CHANNEL 5 NEWS sat down with Congressman Vela to address this issue. He said he wants to thank the CBP employees who brought the issue to light.

Vela said he worked with CBP to find $150,000. The agency will upgrade the canine officers’ kennel at the Gateway Bridge.

No timeline exists for the upgrade. CHANNEL 5 NEWS will continue to press for answers.