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Donna Halpern sits on a beach chair outside her three-bedroom house, surrounded by a menagerie of cats. The 43-year-old founder of Fairy Tails Inc., a nonprofit animal rescue organization, spends the afternoon this past January 19 awaiting the arrival of a Miami-Dade County Animal Services enforcement officer, who is responding to an anonymous complaint that Halpern is cruel to the creatures she cares for. "Can you believe they cited me based on the allegations of someone who didn't want to give their name?" she gripes. "I thought this was America, where you can confront your accuser. It's like filing a false police report."
A placard warning people of the penalties associated with breaking Florida animal cruelty laws hangs from Halpern's wrought-iron front gate. If convicted, the sign informs, a person is liable for up to a $5000 fine or 500 days in jail. Halpern's porch is loaded with industrial-size bags of Purina dog and cat food. The magnitude of her quest to find homes for orphaned felines and canines is revealed indoors. Every room in her house is inhabited by domesticated beasts. Dancer, a beautiful black Labrador mix, jumps excitedly in an attempt to win Halpern's attention away from Deputy Dawg, a mutt with a short-haired basset hound body and a chow's head. Fat Actress, a plump black-and-white spotted cocker spaniel, trails behind Halpern with a squeaky toy lodged in her mouth. Amazingly the cats are not stressed from the hyperactive dogs sharing their living space.
Halpern currently provides a foster home to 48 cats and 13 dogs, most of which have been abandoned by irresponsible pet owners or rescued from the county's animal services department. She also cares for cats and dogs displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Over the past fifteen years, she has found permanent homes for hundreds of homeless animals by holding adoption fairs at local retail outlets such as Publix and Petco. She also posts her rescued creatures online at www.fairytailsadoptions.org, for people interested in finding a new pet.
Around 5:45 p.m. the animal inspector, Sergio Tortiello, rings her front door. An anxious Halpern greets the officer and gives him a guided tour. "As you can see, all of my animals are healthy and the house is clean," Halpern informs the animal control officer. "Yeah, but you got to do something about the smell," he responds, noting that odor is one of the leading complaints the county receives from neighbors of home-based animal rescuers. He leaves without citing Halpern or taking any of the animals.
"It is not easy being an animal rescuer," Halpern sighs. "You have to put up with people calling you the crazy cat lady or the crazy animal lover. It can get lonely. But I don't think I could consciously stop saving animals."