I’ve Always loved animals. Just ask my pug, Pee-wee. But when one of those TV ads comes on, with the sad-eyed dogs and cats and Sarah McLachlan singing in the background, I pretty much go to pieces. I want to send them money and then run over to the animal shelter and adopt the saddest-eyed animal available.
Luckily, most of Sarasota feels the way I do. We have all sorts of animal charities—Lab and greyhound rescues, free spay-and-neuter clinics, state-of-the-art no-kill shelters full of the cutest kittens imaginable. The citizens lobby for doggie dining and pet-friendly retirement homes. As such things go, we do it much better than most communities.
But what about the problem animals? The stray mutts and the feral cats? The pit bulls who have been taught to fight? The victims of animal hoarders, forced to live in filth and overcrowding?
Many of them get turned over to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office Animal Services. About 4,000 of them a year are picked up, turned in, or confiscated from their owners. The lucky ones—about 18 percent—are adopted. Another 24 percent are returned to their owners. Twenty-nine percent are euthanized. Twenty-three percent are transferred to rescue groups, and a few die at the kennels—they may have come in sick or injured.
I asked Tami Treadway, the animal care supervisor for the sheriff’s office, if I could tag along as the deputies and civilian employees made their rounds. Tami has been working with animals her entire career. She started out at a vet’s office, then switched over to Animal Services. “I never know what species I’m going to have to deal with next—ferrets, rabbits, snakes, chickens, iguanas, even sheep and goats,” she says. She and her husband have eight dogs at their home in North Port, including five search-and-rescue dogs that “volunteer” to help find missing persons.
Tami assigned me to ride with Jen Shirley, one of the civilian employees. Jen and I met at the Animal Services headquarters out at the end of Bee Ridge Road, where the kennels and administrative offices are located. Jen is a petite blond woman who, in her private life, is a Lakewood Ranch housewife. She has a five-year-old son and a husband who is also in law enforcement—he’s a sheriff’s deputy. “I’ve always loved animals,” Jen says. When the opportunity to work for Animal Services appeared, she jumped at the chance.
Jen and I began the morning by riding around in an Animal Services van equipped with cages and all sorts of restraints and traps. We were patrolling the north part of town, looking for stray animals.
We soon saw one, a big dog with a thick orange coat. He was lolling in the street, looking quite comfortable and relaxed, but unattended. Jen approached him and slipped a leash on him. He was a beautiful dog. “Part Lab and part chow,” Jen guessed.
She asked two old men nearby who the dog’s owner was, and they pointed to a house on the corner. With the dog in tow, we went up and knocked on the door. The woman who answered said, yes, he belonged to her and his name was Plies. But he was a problem, she told us. He dragged trash into the yard, would only eat “people food,” and no, he hadn’t been vaccinated or neutered. Jen explained what would have to be done to bring Plies into compliance with all the county ordinances, and the woman’s look became more and more unhappy. When offered a chance to turn him over to the county, she took it. The deciding factor? She said she couldn’t afford to feed him.
Plies had been pretty happy-go-lucky up until this point, but as the woman signed the consent forms and Jen led him away, he began to suspect something was up and started to resist. It may have been a patch of dirt and table scraps, but it was home. He wanted to stay.
“What will become of him?” I asked.
“I don’t follow the dog after I turn him in,” Jen told me.
She was trying to maneuver Plies into a cage in the rear of the truck, and his anxiety was turning to panic. “I don’t allow myself to get attached to the dog. Otherwise I couldn’t do the job,” she said With a final squeal Plies got locked in his cage, looking remarkably like the unhappy dogs on TV.
I consoled myself with the fact that Plies was well-behaved and handsome—he seemed like a good candidate for adoption.
We had seen two other little dogs roaming the neighborhood, but we had something more important to attend to—court. Every few weeks the cases involving animals are adjudicated at the courthouse, and today was the day.
Four or five cases were being heard. There was a woman who let her dogs bark all day. She seemed off in her own world and puzzled about what she was doing in court. The law was unfair, she said. “Tell your legislators,” the judge said. “Legislators?” she asked. “What are legislators?” The judge sighed and I felt very sorry for him.
Next came some people who lived in a trailer park. They didn’t show up, but the deputies—and their neighbors, who kept describing the people as alcoholics—listed the 18 citations they had received for their dog: no tagging, running wild, etc. The dog was a pit bull who was known to bite and who had just given birth to nine puppies. The judge ordered the dogs picked up, pending the next hearing, when the owners might or might not appear.
The final case was packed with drama. A rich guy who lived in a gated community had let his dogs wander over to the neighbors, who lived in a much less lavish development. Animal Services had been out to his house several times, and they testified that he had seen them coming and run inside, dropping his leaf blower, and pretended he wasn’t home. There was a sort of cultural disconnect between the neighbors, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and the rich guy, who spoke with a foreign accent and was wearing a cashmere sports jacket and expensive loafers. To add insult to injury, he had named his dogs Prada, Armani and Halston.
The rich guy blamed everybody but himself. The neighbors should have a fence to protect their tiny little yards, he said. He himself had five acres, and the electric fence he put in didn’t work on such a big piece of property. And as for the dogs getting out, that was his caretaker’s fault. “But the caretaker works for you,” the judge pointed out. “But he’s the one who let the dogs out,” the guy said. “And Prada. It was all Prada’s fault. He’s a real troublemaker.”
In the end, the rich guy was fined $208. He finally came to his senses, admitted his responsibility and promised to come up with a plan—and a fence—to keep Prada from causing more trouble.
As we left court another call was coming in. A stray cat was causing problems at a nursing home. Jen and I hurried over, and when we pulled up in the van the manager came running out. “Park over there,” he said, directing us behind a fence. It turned out this was to be a covert operation.
It seems that a feral cat, whose name I think was Louie, had discovered that if he came to the yard of the nursing home the elderly residents would toss him food out their windows. Naturally, he kept coming back. So far, so good. But the local raccoons and possums caught wind of this opportunity, and soon the place was packed with hungry animals. Clearly, Louie had to go.
But it had to be done with the utmost discretion, as Louie had developed a fan base and the manager was worried about upsetting the old people. So Jen and I snuck in and took a circuitous route through the hallways, avoiding the dining room and the lounge and trying to pretend we weren’t carrying a cage and a pole with a noose-like thing on the end.
Louie had been lured into an empty unit, where he sat hiding under a bed. He turned out to be surprisingly fat for a feral cat, but he knew exactly what was up and put up a good fight. Jen finally got him hooked with the pole and put him into the cage, as he protested with a deep basso meow.
From a notch on his ear, Jen could tell that he was a feral cat, or a “community cat” (the politically correct term). Thanks to various animal welfare organizations, such cats have certain—for want of a better word—rights. Ideally, they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, then returned to their community, as long as there is a place for them to get fed regularly, usually by a kind person in the neighborhood. Surprisingly, this method actually works. The feral cat population of Sarasota has been declining at a rate of about 10 percent a year.
After lunch Jen turned me over to Deputy Kathi Pitman. Kathi is a regular sheriff’s deputy, or what is known as a “sworn deputy.” She can arrest people, she carries a gun and she drives a regular patrol car. She is often called to respond to situations that have nothing to do with animals—she recently tackled a man who had stuffed $90 worth of filet mignon in his pants and was being chased by a posse from Winn-Dixie—but she is the sheriff’s chief of animal services.
When it comes to people and animals, Kathi has seen it all. She knows about dog fighting and the cruelty it inflicts, and she knows all the scams, like the guy who adopts pets from a shelter in Miami and then sells them, at a hefty profit, at his “pet store” in Sarasota.
But mostly she knows about mental illness and the link it has with animal neglect and cruelty. Mentally unstable people are often drawn to animals. Sometimes it can be beneficial for both owner and pet. The animal supplies unconditional love, and the owner provides a home. But it can also lead to animal hoarding—large numbers of dogs or cats packed into a home, often living in hunger and filth.
“It’s shocking when a dog is killed or beaten,” one local expert says. “But animal hoarding can mean months or even years of suffering.”
Early intervention is the most effective technique to combat the syndrome. Deputy Pitman was familiar with many of the area’s “at risk” animal hoarders—people who had done it before and would probably do it again—and this afternoon we were going to check on several and see how they were doing.
“Sally”—as I’ll call her—didn’t seem to be home when we drove up to her mobile home in one of the city’s more disreputable trailer parks. At first glance the place looked abandoned. The carport was packed with junk, and the windows were covered with aluminum foil and blankets. But Kathi is a past master at determining if someone is at home but pretending not to be.
As Kathi was going through her checklist, we looked up to see an old woman on a bicycle heading toward us, yelling insults and cursing Animal Services. Luckily, Kathi is also good at calming people down, and soon Sally was laughing and even apologizing. Inside, we could hear some dogs begin to bark. I looked at the trailer. Cockroaches were crawling over the outside.
Kathi spent quite a bit of time with Sally. She learned about her dogs—four at the moment, including a pregnant Chihuahua—and what kind of shape Sally herself was in. She checked to make sure the water was still turned on and inquired about Sally’s financial situation. She was living on $650 a month from Social Security, but was hoping for a government grant she’d heard about. She got excited as she explained how it would enable her to buy four or five abandoned houses and fix them up and rent them. Then she showed us a lump on her neck she was worried about. She suspected it might be a goiter.
Kathi was sympathetic but focused her advice on practical solutions and places Sally might get help. After a while she began to ask, rather pointedly, about the dog situation. Sally went into the trailer, opening the door just a crack so we couldn’t see in. But I could tell that it was dark inside and there was shredded newspaper all over the floor. “I can’t go in without a search warrant,” Kathi whispered.
Sally reappeared with the male Chihuahua. It was a chilly day, and he was wearing two different doggie sweaters. As Sally and Kathi continued to talk, I watched him being cradled in Sally’s arms. My eyes were drawn to something on his chest—some sort of spots. I looked closer and saw they were moving. He was covered with fleas.
“You have to become a lot of different people in this job,” Kathi said as we left the trailer park. “Sometimes you’re a cop, sometimes a minister, sometimes a psychiatrist. It’s much more than arresting people or giving them a citation.”
We headed back to the shelter, where the late afternoon routine had set in. In the kennels many of the dogs were napping.
Each dog has his own cage, which is divided into an indoor and outdoor section. Staff and volunteers had been spending time with the dogs, making sure to take each one out to one of the large enclosed pens in back for some one-one-one attention, and perhaps even learning a few tricks.
In the “free roam” cat room, other staff and volunteers socialize with the kitties, grooming them and giving them what every pet craves—attention from a human being. For though the atmosphere at Animal Services is caring and kind, life in a shelter is a traumatic experience for any animal. They live in a world of worry and uncertainty, with the cries and barks from the other animals echoing the anxiety they all feel.
These animals—like most of those Animal Services deals with—are suffering through no fault of their own. The problems they present are usually caused by the people who own them. Some are needy and confused. Some love too much. Some are living in their own world and force their animals to join them. Outright cruelty—and yes, it sometimes happens—is one thing. Dealing with mental illness in all its complicated forms is quite another. When the owners’ problems become overwhelming, some sort of intervention is needed, and it is this issue that Animal Services must face every day.
Some endings are happy, though. Plies, the Lab/chow mix, was brought to the shelter, where he was neutered and vaccinated. A woman who was looking for a dog to adopt saw him and fell in love. He is now known as Pumbah. The dog nobody wanted now has what every dog so desperately wants—a home.
Will you take me home?
Many people don’t know that you can adopt pets from the Animal Services Section of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department. While they don’t quite have the variety the Humane Society has, the need is even greater. This is where the dogs and cats that nobody wants end up, and they often make the best pets of all.
Most of the dogs at Animal Services have some pit bull in their genes. Pit bulls are common in the South, and because they’re often bred to fight, many people are afraid to adopt one. They shouldn’t be. Every dog at Animal Services is evaluated for temperament and behavior before it is put up for adoption, and with proper upbringing and socialization, they can make loyal and loving pets.
SARASOTA COUNTY ANIMAL SERVICES 8451 Bee Ridge Road, (941) 861-9523, sarasotasheriff.org
Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday noon to 2 p.m
Dawn, four years old, female, shepherd/chow mix.
This beautiful dog is a real cuddler. She’s also very good on a leash and has a sweet temperament.
Icis, eight months old, female, pit bull mix.
She’s housebroken and ready to go. A puppy at heart, she loves to play fetch and get her tummy scratched.
Haley, 10 months old, female, pit/boxer mix.
Very comfortable on a leash, she’s a great fit for a family that has other dogs.
Barney, eight years old, male, German pointer mix.
Barney’s an older dog but a real sweetheart.
He’s housebroken and mixes well with other dogs.
Dirk, 1½ years, male, pit bull mix.
Handsome Dirk is one of the sweetest dogs at the shelter. He loves attention and loves to play.
And don’t forget. . . .
A whole roomful of cats and kittens, all shapes, ages, breeds and colors. Maybe this tabby with seductive eyes will turn out to be your favorite.