Bad Neighbors and Dead Dogs

The county's animal shelter is plagued by old problems, but retaliation would be a new one

The Miami-Dade Police Department's Animal Services unit is getting a lot of attention lately, none of it good. On March 18, New Times published a story about a woman who was taken to the hospital with heart trouble. After the ambulance carted her away, someone called Animal Services, which confiscated her dog from her apartment. Her mixed-breed pet has since vanished and Animal Services cannot find it.

On March 30, WSVN-TV (Channel 7) aired a report involving a man whose two dogs were seized by Animal Services after they wandered off his property in the Redland area of South Miami-Dade. They were killed by the unit in less than 24 hours, even though the owner had called to say he'd pick them up.

On April 10, the Miami Herald reported that the county had hired the national Humane Society to review the unit's practices, including its euthanasia policies. This followed repeated complaints about conditions at Animal Services' NW 74th Street facility and allegations of animal cruelty. The same article noted that the State Attorney's Office was conducting a criminal investigation.

Obviously this is unwanted attention for the unit and the county police department, and especially for Cmdr. Frank Vecin, head of the department's intergovernmental bureau, which oversees Animal Services. What the Channel 7 report didn't mention is this: The man whose two dogs were quickly destroyed by Animal Services, Ray Barcelo, is Vecin's neighbor, although the two are far from neighborly. "Three times a month he files complaints against me," Vecin says. "I haven't talked to him in twelve years."

Among other things, Barcelo has complained to police about a bull Vecin once owned. It allegedly stomped across their shared property line and crushed a number of young trees. Meanwhile Vecin's son complained to police when Barcelo and he got into an argument. "He and my son don't get along," Vecin says. "He blames my son for everything."

So it's understandable that tongues wagged after Barcelo's dogs were killed. Did Vecin put out a contract on the mutts? "Absolutely not, I would never do that," the cop says. "I stay away from getting involved with anything involving the neighbors."

When I called him, Barcelo was reluctant to comment because he has filed a complaint with the police department's professional compliance bureau against Vecin. He did allow that he filed a complaint because he thinks Vecin is behind the death of his dogs. He also confirmed the chronology of events and reaffirmed what he said in the Channel 7 report.

Ill will between Barcelo and Vecin notwithstanding, things came to a head at 2:05 p.m. on February 18; animal-control officer Robert Nekoranec picked up Barcelo's two mixed-breed dogs after they reportedly had strayed off his property. Nekoranec, who also lives in the Redland, says he had seen the dogs a few days earlier while he was off duty and riding an all-terrain vehicle. The animals were "attacking" two girls. He rescued the girls, gave them a ride home, and vowed to search for the dogs when he was back on duty.

Nekoranec found them, and they didn't have collars or tags. He says he suspected they lived at a particular house. Using the address, he obtained a name -- Barcelo -- and wrote two citations, leaving them on the front door. "I wasn't sure he was the owner," Nekoranec says, adding that the dogs "were in bad shape, both had mange pretty bad."

On the intake sheet at the Animal Services shelter, each dog was identified as "stray." A vet examined them and made note of the skin condition. Dogs with mange are killed rather than housed at the shelter because they risk infecting other dogs. A supervisor reviewed the vet's notes and initialed approval. Standard procedure is that before killing a dog, a supervisor is supposed to check the computer to see if there is any indication of an owner. Apparently they couldn't find Barcelo's name anywhere, even though his address is listed on the dispatch sheet and the citations were made out in his name. Though they had access to his phone number, no one called him. The next day a vet pumped sodium pentobarbital into the dogs, quickly killing them.

In 2001 the Animal Services unit was transferred from the county's public works department to the police, largely because it was mismanaged and had a history of sloppy record-keeping that made it easy to lose animals, if not mistakenly kill them. In 1998 a county task force that examined the animal shelter called for, among other things, an overhaul of the computer system. Yet last year a volunteer reported that the computer system would be down for days at a time, according to the Herald. Police admit the place can barely keep up with the roughly 30,000 dogs it receives annually. About 10,000 of those dogs are euthanized, with a large margin for error.

The day his dogs were taken, Barcelo had been at a hospital visiting his son, who has leukemia. He returned home in the early evening and found the two tickets on his door. The next morning he called Animal Services. A female attendant confirmed the shelter had the dogs and explained he could pick them up for a $184 fee. He arrived around 1:00 p.m., but it was too late. The dogs were dead. Elapsed time: about 23 hours.

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