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?

Under Pizano's watch, 723 animals were adopted this past December, compared to 500 the previous December, according to statistics compiled by the animal services department. There was also a two percent increase in adoptions last year from 2004. Compared to similarly sized cities such as San Francisco, whose progressive animal control policies and state-of-the-art shelters are held out as models; and Denver, which saves 76 percent of its animals, Miami-Dade's kill numbers are embarrassing, county leaders acknowledge. "You could not design a worse animal shelter," Pizano says bluntly. "Right now we are dealing with what we have."

Nevertheless Pizano argues it is unfair to compare the county shelter to those in San Francisco and Denver. "There are a lot of positive changes taking place," she says.

Pete Fernandez, head veterinarian of the Aardvark Animal Clinic in Miami and a board member of the South Florida Veterinary Foundation, says when animal services was under the police department, any change was like pulling teeth. "They would pretend to listen to the recommendations of the animal advocacy groups," Fernandez says, "but they would still do whatever they wanted with the animals."

This pup was one of 38 lucky ones adopted over a two-day 
span in early January; during the same period, animal 
services euthanized 83 dogs
This pup was one of 38 lucky ones adopted over a two-day span in early January; during the same period, animal services euthanized 83 dogs
Since Pizano's arrival, the dog kennels are no longer 
overcrowded and are cleaned daily
Since Pizano's arrival, the dog kennels are no longer overcrowded and are cleaned daily

Pizano has a monumental task, and it is going to take at least two years to get the department on the right track, Fernandez says. "I would have been scared to take that job because of the conditions inside the shelter and the lack of morale and interest by the staff," Fernandez remarks. "But she has a lot of energy. I just hope it doesn't run out."

Laurie Hoffman, shelter operations director for the Humane Society of Greater Miami, offers that Pizano has done an exceptional job of building good relationships with local private animal rescue groups. "For the first time in quite a few years, the Humane Society rescued a litter of puppies from animal services," Hoffman says. "In the past, we would not even recover Humane Society adopted animals that ended up in the county shelter because of the high risk of contaminating our animal population."

Yet members of the organized but all-volunteer animal rescue community say Pizano has not done enough, even though she's been on the job only a short while, to reduce the number of animals being euthanized inside the shelter. "It has gotten worse," attests Dee Chess, vice president of Friends Forever, a pet rescue group in Miami. According to animal services statistics, the county killed 20,830 animals in 2005, compared to 20,165 in 2004. In August, the shelter had to put down 2127 animals, a fourteen percent increase over the same month in 2004. The following month, animal services euthanized 1883 animals, a whopping 27 percent increase compared to September 2004. "Those figures just blow your mind," Chess says.

A season of devastating hurricanes further hurt the chances of Miami-Dade's needy animals finding a loving home. The mammalian evacuees of Hurricane Katrina included thousands of dogs and cats as well as the humans who likely will never be reunited with, or able to take care of, these pets again. The population at the Tri County Humane Society — a nonprofit but private no-kill shelter in Boca Raton — swelled to more than 400 animals after rescuers returned from storm-swamped shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi this past fall. Many of those animals have been housed, but at the expense of our indigenous population of strays.

The Humane Society began its consulting service in 1998 and has performed evaluations for shelters in New York, Dallas, San Diego, and Tallahassee, in addition to Miami and other cities.

"People often say there's no way we can read documents, come for three days, and tell what's really going on," Kim Intino, manager of the consulting program, told the Tallahassee Democrat last year. "But most of us have been in the business long enough to know what's not running up to par. A coat of paint can't cover several years of mismanagement or misconceptions."

Pizano counters she has put a stop to the releasing of sick animals to the public. She also says it was unfair to simply use the euthanasia statistics as evidence the shelter is indiscriminately killing animals. "Statistics don't reveal what condition the animals were in when they were picked up by animal services," Pizano reasons. "It's a heartbreaking decision. It's like the movie Sophie's Choice."

On a recent Wednesday morning, the county animal shelter is business as usual. In the reception area, several pet owners wait in line to make appointments to have their animal companions vaccinated or sterilized. Inside the animal adoption area, all sorts of canines — from adorable, tail-wagging terriers to forlorn hounds with despair lining their already mournful faces — lie inside their cages or pens. Some of the larger dogs in the open-air concrete-and-chainlink-fence pens, including a nervous, elegant black-and-tan mutt with German Shepherd features, yap wildly at the sight of a human strolling through the humid corridor.

In the smaller rooms that house three-by-three-foot cages stacked on top of each other, several puppies are so excited they can't control their bladders and urinate all over the newspaper covering the bottom of their holding cells. Some of the cages and pens have not been cleaned, leaving the canines to lie on top of dried urine and piles of feces. Two terrier mixes whine. Some of the dogs appear sedated and can barely summon the strength to put their noses against the cold metal rods of their cages.

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