Lazara Betancourt was hospitalized with heart trouble and a broken leg when the county's dog-enforcement agency, a.k.a. the Miami-Dade Police Department's Animal Services Unit, moved in on her mixed-breed pet Ambrosio. On January 3 Ofcr. Kathy Labrada entered Betancourt's second-floor apartment on Normandy Drive in Miami Beach, snatched the year-old mutt, and whisked him to the dog detention center in Medley. Betancourt is now back home, but Ambrosio is missing. Betancourt doesn't know the fate of her dog because Animal Services has been unable to locate him or explain how he vanished.
The tragedy began unfolding on December 26, when Betancourt arrived at the emergency room of Mt. Sinai Medical Center. An ambulance had taken her there after she experienced heart palpitations. While waiting for medical attention, she fainted and fell to the floor. The impact left her head bruised and a bone in her leg fractured. She was promptly admitted as a patient. From her hospital bed, she arranged for a neighbor, Lucia de Armas, to feed Ambrosio and her two cats.
Coincidentally Betancourt, a 67-year-old former advertising illustrator who moved from New York City to Miami in the Seventies and now survives on Social Security, adopted the pup from Animal Services when he was about two months old. Even though Ambrosio crazily tore up two sofas with his sharp young teeth, Betancourt's love for him only grew. "He's very friendly," she says. "Anybody would have wanted him. He was so beautiful, that dog."
But as Animal Services giveth, so it also can taketh away. According to the police unit's records, Officer Labrada's visit was prompted by a call from Betancourt's landlord, Carlos Rivero, who asked her to confiscate Ambrosio. "The dog owner has been hospitalized.... The property owner [Rivero] has been caring for the dog in her absence and is no longer able to do so," states a vaguely written Animal Services memorandum concerning Ambrosio's case. The memo provides no details of any nuisance the dog was creating. Carlos Rivero admits to signing the complaint but insists he was not the one who called Animal Services. He believes it was a disgruntled neighbor. He and his wife fed Ambrosio, but he admits they didn't bother to walk him. "Nobody was obligated to take care of the dog," Rivero adds.
Betancourt, who returned from the hospital in mid-February, says she never asked her landlord to take care of the dog. In hindsight, she admits the arrangement she made with her neighbor turned out to be messy. "The dog was shitting on the floor," Betancourt says. De Armas, who is 47, says dog doo and urine were all over the floor when she first arrived to feed Ambrosio. She and the landlord cleaned it up, she adds.
But Betancourt doesn't think that justified Ambrosio being dognapped. "The landlord didn't say anything about the dog until I got sick," she fumes. "I think he took advantage of the opportunity that I was in the hospital and had the excuse that the dog was by himself. But that was mean. The dog could have been put away. He could have been euthanized."
For two months Animal Services has failed to provide her an explanation. "They don't know whether the dog was adopted or what," Betancourt laments. "They say he wasn't killed." But she still fears the worst. "This cop tells me that maybe the dog escaped. How could the dog escape from there? It's ridiculous."
That cop is Miami-Dade Sgt. Tom Magnan, who Betancourt believes is investigating Ambrosio's disappearance. The pound's civilian supervisor, Orlando Rivero (no relation to the landlord), says he cannot comment on an open investigation or confirm that there is one. He also declines to reveal even basic information, such as how many dogs are at the pound and how quickly after their arrival they could be euthanized. (Magnan and Labrada did not return calls for comment.)
So New Times paid an undercover visit to the Animal Services unit last week, searching for clues to the dog's whereabouts. Employees produced computer records indicating that Ambrosio was "redeemed" -- the pound's jargon for "picked up by owner" -- on Monday afternoon, January 26. The file on Ambrosio also provided some reassurance that he might not have been among the dozens of dogs killed by Animal Services each week. "Do not ER!!!" the file stresses (ER is shorthand for euthanize).
Betancourt was shocked when her neighbor notified her of Ambrosio's January 3 abduction. From her hospital bed, she tried to figure out how to rescue her dog from the clutches of Animal Services. She located a kennel she could afford, Thomas' Promises in South Dade. An occupational therapist she met at the hospital, Rod Sanchez, offered to fetch Ambrosio from the pound and take him to the kennel. "I thought it was very kind of him," Betancourt remembers.
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But she is now angry with Sanchez, who went to Animal Services on Friday afternoon, January 23, saw Ambrosio, but did not leave with him. The therapist aborted the mission, he explains, because he ran into an unexpected delay: Ambrosio could not leave the premises until a veterinarian there gave him a rabies shot. Sanchez decided not to wait, believing he wouldn't make it through rush-hour traffic and arrive at Thomas' Promises before its office closed at 6:00 p.m. "Since I wasn't going to have enough time to get it to the kennel, they ended up not giving it the rabies shot," Sanchez recounts. An employee took the dog back to the pound's kennel area.
After frantic urgings by Betancourt, Juliana Whittle, an owner of Thomas' Promises, reluctantly agreed to retrieve the dog the following Monday with her sister Esmeralda. "To go to Animal Services is a big headache," she sighs. "It was like a favor." When the sisters arrived at the pound's reception desk that afternoon, they had to write a check for Ambrosio's kennel fees. "But when we went to find the dog, he wasn't there," Whittle says, adding that they retrieved their check and left. She then called Betancourt at the hospital: "I left a message and said that we hadn't picked up the dog because they couldn't find the dog." The Animal Services file erroneously indicates Ambrosio was redeemed to owner (presumably Juliana Whittle) at about 4:30 p.m. that Monday.
A few days later Betancourt received a $137 bill from the pound for three weeks' kennel fees, including one dollar for a new rabies vaccination. A new rabies tag came with the bill. "That's so ironic that they sent me the tag and everything and I don't know anything about the dog. I would like to know if he's doing well."
These days, while waiting to move to a ground-floor apartment and losing hope of finding Ambrosio, Betancourt dreams of somehow acquiring a house with a yard where she could run a nonprofit day-care service for dogs whose owners are in the hospital. The service would be free for the elderly. "Kennels are expensive. The cheapest one I could find was $15 a day," says Betancourt. "That's a lot of money."