Family says religious rights violated
By PEGGY O'HARE
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Members of a north Houston family that practices Santeria rituals said they were praying for a relative in a coma when authorities barged into their home, seizing 12 goats, 11 chickens and two pigeons about to be sacrificed.
No charges were immediately filed against the five participants in the religious ritual in the 300 block of Coach near Imperial Valley, but the Houston SPCA seized all of the animals in the family's back yard Wednesday.
The five residents, ages 19 to 76, said they had purchased the animals earlier in the day at a slaughterhouse.
Someone called Houston police at 6:53 p.m. to report cruelty to animals, and constable's deputies went to the scene.
They found the goats in a 6-foot-by-8-foot enclosed area with no food and water. The animals appeared thin, were bound by their feet, and some seemed lethargic, said Deputy Chief J.C. Mosier of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable's office.
Bowls of animal parts and blood were found, and three pits had been dug in the yard, Mosier said. One goat was found alive in one of the pits, with its feet bound, he said. Three chickens were found in the enclosed area with the goats, and one of the birds had been trampled and was barely alive, he said.
Neighbors said they heard animal screams at the residence, but were afraid to call police.
Residents of the home denied that any animals were malnourished or abused, and said their rights were violated by authorities who don't understand their religion.
"This is a country where there's supposed to be freedom, and without warning, they invaded the privacy of the residence," Rafael Zamora, 44, a ritual participant, said through a translator.
Family members said they are considering filing a lawsuit.
Charges were not immediately pursued, because the law stipulates a criminal offense has occurred only if someone has killed, seriously injured or poisoned an animal that does not belong to them, said Di Glaeser, chief of the district attorney's central intake division.
Santeria, a word that means "the way of the saints," is a religion that started in Cuba when Africans were brought to the New World, said Elias Bongmba, assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University.
The religion has spread worldwide, but how many people practice Santeria is unknown since worshippers often perform rituals in their homes. However, there are probably hundreds in Houston, Bongmba said.
Worshippers, he said, sacrifice only edible animals and offer different foods to the divinities. Practitioners offer sacrifices for many things -- illness, launching a business, taking a trip, making sure of fulfilling one's destiny in life. Once the animals are slaughtered, worshippers prepare a meal to be shared.
In a case in Florida in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting such religious sacrifices infringed on the free practice of religion, Bongmba said.
"In my interaction with the Santeria community in Houston, I've never seen anything that constitutes abuse" of animals, he said.
But those who saw the animals being seized Wednesday night called the scene troubling.
"It was gruesome -- and horrifying. I'd leave it at that," said Houston SPCA spokeswoman Kim Hogstrom.
A hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday before Justice of the Peace Dale Gorczynski to determine the animals' fate.
Chronicle reporter Danny Perez contributed to this report.
Feb. 13, 2003, 10:54PM