Shana Best had just started working for rancher CJ Tobler on his 50-acre property in Caldwell County, tending to chicken coops and pig stalls, when she found Brock, a French bulldog, lying on a urine-soaked shred of cardboard with piles of feces around him.
Brock was resting on his right side with his front legs skinned from the elbows down, bite wounds on his back legs and face and an abscessed right eye.
“Something in his eyes told me not to leave him behind,” Best said.
She picked up the dog, drove off the property and didn’t look back.
Three years later, Tobler, who ran Owner’s Pride Companion Animals in Lockhart, is to be sentenced July 26 after being convicted of animal cruelty and neglect.
“I am the one who screwed up,” Tobler told the American-Statesman in an email. “I am the one who must accept the poor choices that I have made. This happened three years ago. I will be haunted with this for the rest of my life.”
The Texas Department of Licensing and Registration cited Tobler in 2017 for breeding puppies and piglets without a license, said Adalis Cardenas, a member of Bailing Out Benji, an animal advocacy group.
Cardenas’ group recognizes at least five puppy mills and two pet stores that commercially sell dogs from them in the Austin metro area. A map provided by Bailing Out Benji shows most of the known mills concentrated in northeastern Texas.
“Because it’s rare to have a puppy miller get any time in court, let alone a conviction, this particular case is very important for greater Austin-area animal advocacy groups,” Cardenas said.
Best had worked at Tobler’s ranch for only about six days, and in that time Tobler had mentioned to her that one of his animals on the property had been injured in a dogfight, she said. She was supposed to avoid certain rooms in the house, including the backroom where she found Brock.
“He left him to die in that room,” Best said.
Best tried to call her family for advice but got no signal, she said. Her second plan was to get a dog bed out of her car for Brock and leave a note for Tobler saying she could no longer work for him.
“I came back with the dog bed, and I just knew that I couldn’t just leave him there,” she said. “I scooped him up and made my way off that property with Bosco tucked under one arm and the bed under the other.”
At the time, Brock was listed in an ad as a $3,000 show dog, Best said. His disappearance did not go unnoticed, and Tobler called Best multiple times about 15 minutes after she left the property, she said.
“He called the cops on me for stealing a $3,000 show dog,” she said. “Officers came out and read me my rights, but I told them, ‘See that dog before you charge me.’ ”
She told police her intention was not to steal the dog.
“I have no doubt that he would have been dead in a week had I not taken him,” Best said.
Charges against her were dropped, she said, and a case was opened against Tobler.
She also renamed the dog Bosco, a nickname of her father, who died when she was 15.
Because Best had taken the dog without permission, Bosco stayed with the veterinarian caring for his injuries until Best went to court and won custody.
After three weeks under the vet’s care, Bosco was well enough to walk and eat on his own. But it took months for the wounds to fully heal. His back legs wobbled, Best said, “and no matter what, the hair never grew back, he would just have these scars on his legs.”
Last February, before his third birthday, Bosco died of heart problems. Congenital issues are common for dogs bred in puppy mills, Cardenas said.
“He got to a certain size, and his heart couldn’t keep up and pump strong enough,” Best said. “He had a good year and a half.”
Tobler said the incident happened three years ago, and in the next two months, he will be closing his animal business.
“I realize that I no longer desire or have the ability to be a large-scale animal breeder, even an animal breeder,” Tobler said. “I deeply regret much, and am taking quick steps to change the ranch and to cease the animal business on the ranch.”