Death by the Pound

Hidden from the public and cloaked in euphemism, regulated execution of dogs and cats is a routine horror. Can a new animal services director make a difference?

This past May 1, Donna Halpern arrived at the Miami-Dade County Animal Services shelter to rescue a Persian cat that had been surrendered by its owner. She arrived at the shelter, walked into the sick ward where the Persian was being held, and was flummoxed by the scene. Two three-by-three-foot cages stacked atop each other were overcrowded with six- to seven-week-old kittens.

"The technician on duty told me to take the kittens," Halpern recalls. "After I took the kittens out of the first cage, I opened the second one and started to take out the rest of them. When I picked them up, I couldn't believe what I saw."

At the bottom of the cage were four newborn kittens that were being smothered under the weight of the older kittens. "They were no bigger than an index finger," Halpern describes. "They looked like toy mice." Flabbergasted, Halpern says she asked several shelter employees to take the newborns out of the cage. "I told them to euthanize the poor kittens if they were not going to care for them. They were close to death."

In the past two years, Miami-Dade County has executed 17,221 cats and 23,308 dogs that were either abandoned by their owners or found on the streets
In the past two years, Miami-Dade County has executed 17,221 cats and 23,308 dogs that were either abandoned by their owners or found on the streets
Sara Pizano was named director of animal services for Miami-Dade less than a year ago
Sara Pizano was named director of animal services for Miami-Dade less than a year ago

Halpern claims her pleas went ignored. In addition to the Persian, Halpern ended up rescuing another sixteen felines and six dogs. But she could not do anything to save the newborns. She left without them. "I should have taken them to a vet so they could have been euthanized," Halpern laments. "But really that is what animal services should have done in the first place."

An animal rescuer who runs Fairy Tails Inc., a nonprofit rescue, from her Kendall home, Halpern is among several animal advocates who complain the Miami-Dade Animal Services department still suffers from incompetence and poor management despite sweeping changes made by county officials to improve the conditions inside the community's only public animal shelter. "The place still has serious problems," Halpern says.

For the most part, the animals killed at the Miami-Dade County Animal Services compound have no major health problems and display no signs of aggressiveness. They experience a very death-by-Miami demise: They are the wrong shape, size, color, or breed, too slender or too heavy or simply unspectacular— judged on appearance. That, or they are never seen by the person who would love them despite ill fortune, bedraggledness, or lack of pedigree. While animal shelters around the country aggressively promote their prospective adoptees, the majority of Miami strays are killed without ever being viewed by anyone but the pound workers who deliver the fatal injection.

But the fundamental problems experienced at, and in many cases created by, animal services go far beyond the cosmetic. These crises were documented in a 195-page report issued in 2004 by the Humane Society of the United States, which concluded the county shelter in Medley was in deplorable condition and that its handling of animals was "appalling."

According to the report, which was commissioned by the county, between May and April of 2004, 103 animals died inside their cages at the shelter through the spread of communicable diseases. (The shelter houses an average of at least 2000 animals a month.) None was given comfort items such as toys, soft bedding, or hiding spaces. Cats were not provided with litter boxes and were forced to urinate and defecate on newspaper inside their small cages. Some cages were constantly filled with animal waste because staff could not keep up with cleaning them. Dogs tethered to short leashes were choking themselves. The report concluded that the problems in the animal shelter would take months, even years, to correct.

The Humane Society's findings prompted County Manager George Burgess to make animal services a stand-alone department, separating it from the county's police department, which operated the animal division from 2001 through 2004. The police force assumed control of animal services from the public works department. In June of last year, Burgess named Sara Pizano, a former veterinary services director for the Humane Society of Broward County, director of animal services.

The animals are killed by injection (the use of gas chambers ceased a decade ago) at a cinderblock compound, which includes kennels, a clinic, and an office, in the town of Medley. Theoretically animal control departments are charged with suppressing rabies outbreaks, investigating reports of vicious or abused animals, enforcing leash and licensing, clearing neighborhoods of strays, and monitoring a lost-and-found for living beasts.

But Miami is the de facto perfect storm for domestic animal hell. Consistently one of the poorest — for humans — in the nation, the city is a mélange of people from cultures where dogs and cats aren't cherished as members of the family and are left to fend for themselves in the streets. On the other hand, the South Beach disposability-oriented lifestyle sees more than its share of transiency. Pet fads — this year it's tiny dogs who fit inside Birkin bags, last year Great Danes briefly thronged Lincoln Road — do not bode well for cats and dogs, which can live in excess of fifteen years.

Pizano and several animal advocates insist the animal services department has made dramatic improvements over the past six months. "It is still a struggle, but it has gotten better," Pizano affirms during a recent interview. A petite 41-year-old woman with a tender voice, Pizano changed the physical configuration of the entire shelter in order to separate sick animals from healthy ones. This decreased the spread of respiratory infections among the dog population. The shelter is still putting down a considerable number of dogs that contracted kennel cough and respiratory infections, killing 50 in a two-day span in early January.

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