Man Bites Dog Owner

Rabies didn't kill his faithful pooch, but Dade's rabies-vaccine enforcement chief was an early the death of pet owner Randy Natalino

In the bizarre world of Dade County government, it's not surprising or even irregular for the absurd to become commonplace. It is, in fact, quite routine for some element of the bureaucracy to use its dubious and arcane powers to sublimely complicate some poor schmuck's life.

But sometimes a case arises that's silly enough to make even Kafka's ghost ruefully shake its head. Take, for instance, Dade County's attempt to foreclose on the house of one Randy Natalino, based on Natalino's failure to annually vaccinate his dog A which has been dead for four years.

Natalino is not above reproach. On May 5, 1990, officials from the Animal Services Division of the Dade County Department of Public Works slapped him with a $50 citation for failure to obtain a required rabies vaccination license for Robert, his aging springer spaniel. He did not pay the fine. But it is Natalino's belief -- echoed by a number of local veterinarians, and perhaps by common law -- that the county, in pursuing a penny-ante deadbeat, has been downright draconian.

In Dade County, dog owners are required by law to inoculate their pets with an annual rabies shot. They're also required to shell out $25 for a county rabies-certification tag. Natalino admits he failed to purchase a rabies tag for Robert, but he says he had the dog vaccinated. And to his way of thinking, the point became moot in September 1991, when Robert had the ill fortune to doze off beneath Natalino's car, where he perished under the wheels when Natalino backed out of his driveway.

About once a year since then, Natalino has received reminder notices from the county, admonishing him to get Robert vaccinated or face additional fines.

"I'd get the letters, see Robert's name, and just think, 'Well, the dog died, so none of this matters,'" says Natalino. "'What business is it of the county's?'"

But in early April of this year, a different kind of notice arrived in Natalino's mail. This one came from his mortgage company. It began like this:

"Norwest Mortgage has received notice that [the] Dade County Treasurer has filed a lien on [your] property for failure to pay a code enforcement fine issued by the Animal Services Division." The letter went on to say that the lien was for $600, and that failure to pay could result in foreclosure.

For Natalino, a shrubbery importer, the letter was upsetting. It was as if the FTD man had shown up at the door and belted him. "When I read that, at first I was shocked, then I was absolutely furious," he recalls.

So he called Norwest seeking further explanation. Surely, he said, this couldn't be. Yes it could, the mortgage company assured him, and they faxed along the letter they had received from Stanley P. Ochmanski, Jr., assistant director of Metro-Dade's Public Works Department. To his horror, Natalino discovered that the county had indeed "filed a lien" on his house because of his "failure to pay a code enforcement fine." The letter was a notice of the county's intent to proceed with the "appropriate legal action" A which, a mortgage company representative informed Natalino, would end in foreclosure unless he paid the $600.

Fast approaching the point where anxiety and resentment intersect, Natalino endeavored to contact Ochmanski. "It took me several tries to get through to him," Natalino recalls. "I talked to an associate of his who said, 'Well, you didn't notify us that your dog died.' I was like, 'I'm supposed to tell you?'"

Eventually Natalino got through to Ochmanski. "At first he took a real hard line on this thing," reports the owner of the dear-departed spaniel. "He was emphasizing the need to protect the public. I told him the public didn't have much to worry about from a dog that's been dead for years."

After some haggling, Ochmanski reduced Natalino's penalty to $70. But when Natalino went to settle the fine at the public works office, he discovered his case was by no means unique.

"I overheard this woman answering calls, saying, 'Yes, sir, I know you get your dogs vaccinated, but we sent you this notice and now there is a lien on your property. You'll have to take care of this.'"

According to Ochmanski (who, incidentally, says he has no recollection of ever talking to Natalino), the county has placed liens on "a couple thousand" dog owners who failed to pay fines incurred for tardy vaccination and/or licensing. And, as Ochmanski will tell you, this isn't something he's losing any sleep over; keeping Dade County rabies-free is a noble task. But some local veterinarians believe public safety isn't necessarily the county's prime concern. The money, they say, matters.

"Animal Control in Dade County gets no money from the general fund A its whole budget is based on the revenues from the sale of dog rabies licenses," explains Dr. Catherine Bancroft, a Coral Gables veterinarian who has been in practice for six years. "The first time you get a dog vaccinated, you buy a vaccination license good for one year. We send that information to the county. Now, medically speaking, you don't have to get your dog vaccinated exactly a year later. [Most vets use a serum that is good for three years, though its effectiveness markedly deteriorates with the passage of time.] But if the county sees that you haven't bought a new license a year later -- even if you've gotten your dog vaccinated -- they can start fining you.

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