Death by the Pound

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."


Miami-Dade County Animal Services

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.

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."

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.

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.

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