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Dressed in an olive-brown business suit, Pizano takes a visitor on a tour of the rest of the compound that is not open to the public. When she began her gig as director, Pizano reveals, the shelter had an epidemic of respiratory infections and an outbreak of distemper within the dog population. "When that happens," Pizano says, "something is very wrong."
Animal services was also losing track of dogs and cats. For example, there is a five-day hold before owners can pick up their new pets from the shelter. Often animals on hold could not be found once their new owners arrived to retrieve them. "Now we do an inventory every day to make sure every animal is accounted for and is in the right location," Pizano explains.
In addition, Pizano trained the staff how to handle feral cats. According to the 2004 Humane Society report, animal care technicians would pull cats out of their cages using poles that caused the felines to thrash about violently. The technicians, Pizano relays, did not know they were not supposed to remove feral cats, which are immediately euthanized, from their cages. She taught staff members how to prick the cats in the abdomen with a euthanasia shot using a special pole. "They learned how to put the cats to sleep without ever taking them out of their cages," Pizano informs.
Pizano also set up separate rooms to handle the receiving of dogs and cats. Prior to her arrival, canines and felines would be processed in the same room. People would come in holding their cats under their arms and walk into the room. When the dogs spotted the cats, they would bark and lunge at the cats, which would leap out of the arms of their owners, setting off a melee. In addition to separating the cats from the dogs, Pizano requires people who drop off cats to place them inside metal pet carriers stacked outside the intake area.
In the west wing, where dogs are kept before animal services can determine if they are adoptable, Pizano created a quarantine area where sick canines are isolated from healthy ones. "Before you would have eight dogs with respiratory infections being placed in a pen next to dogs with skin diseases," Pizano says.
Despite her managerial improvements, Pizano admits, the shelter is woefully outdated and inadequate to handle the number of animals it receives. In 2005 animal services took in approximately 35,000 animals. The west wing suffers from a severe drainage problem. "We have to pay $800 a month to have a sewage company flush the pipes in the west wing," Pizano remarks.
The Medley shelter is a 41-year-old building that floods repeatedly during the smallest of rain storms. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused extensive structural damage to the shelter. On top of that, the shelter has a mold problem. Pizano does not plan to make any substantial repairs to the existing structure because the county has set aside seven million dollars for a new shelter, using proceeds from a two-billion-dollar general obligation bond approved by voters in 2004. Pizano estimates a new shelter will be built in the next two years. "It really doesn't make sense to fix up this facility," she says, "so we have to make do with what we have for now."
During the tour, Pizano acknowledges the resistance and criticism she has received from some animal welfare advocates, but claims it is based on a misunderstanding of how she wants to operate the shelter. "I do have a small minority who have been complaining about me," Pizano concedes. "But some of the rescue groups were used to getting their way and would take animals that were really sick out into the general population. That has been misinterpreted as I don't want to work with certain rescue groups."
"The shelter is always going to be a sad case," Fernandez of the Aardvark clinic adds. "It is like walking through a cancer ward."
Certainly animal services is far from being a dog-and-cat utopia where domesticated creatures are afforded the same care as recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, but the burden of responsibility also lies with the general public. Of the 35,000 animals brought to the shelter last year, only 592 were surrendered by their owners, Pizano points out. "The rest were strays picked up on the street," she says. "The majority were not spayed or neutered. The majority had no identification. If they did, the owner's telephone number was disconnected or did not have a forwarding address."
The Humane Society's Hoffman notes Miami-Dade has a severe animal overpopulation. "We can attest to the amount of animals abandoned at our facility on a daily basis," Hoffman says. "Stray animals are the result of people not caring about their pets." Last year the Humane Society of Greater Miami took in approximately 2100 animals.
Outraged by Miami-Dade Countys treatment of animals? Call Sara Pizano, animal services director, 305-884-1101, ext. 227; County Manager George Burgess, 305-375-5311; Mayor Carlos Alvarez, 305-375-5071; County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, 305-375-5511.
If you would like to save a dog or cat from animal services, contact 305-884-1101. Adoption of dogs costs between $53.35 and $60.25. If you would like to adopt a cat, the cost is between $28.25 and $35.25. The fee includes sterilization, rabies vaccination, deworming, licenses, a microchip, heartworm tests for dogs, and feline leukemia vaccination for cats. Animal services also offers affordable vaccination and free sterilization to pets of Miami-Dade residents. For more information, visit www.miamidade.gov/animals.