Miami animal lover Gisela Tacao took in scores of unwanted dogs and cats and would try to find them loving homes, her friend says.
Instead, investigators say, Tacao hoarded as many as 200 animals in “deplorable conditions” inside a small Hialeah warehouse.
Tacao, 40, was charged Thursday with 52 counts of animal cruelty. Investigators believe she got most of the animals through private rescue agencies, which received the dogs through Miami-Dade County Animal Services.
Witnesses told Hialeah detectives that the animals appeared “filthy, smelly and dehydrated,” some with “obvious sores and injuries,” according to an arrest warrant.
“There was a strong foul odor emanating from inside the warehouse, and it seemed to permeate the whole building,” Hialeah police Detective Frank Caldara wrote in his arrest warrant. “Inside, there were dogs and cats everywhere, some were in cages, but most were not and feces and urine was on the floor all throughout the building. . . .
“Also, in one area, it appeared that the defendant was sleeping/living in the warehouse.”
On Thursday, Hialeah detectives arrested Tacao at her Little River duplex and discovered an additional 60 diseased and wretchedly skinny dogs. Pet-rescue volunteers, working through an intense odor in the home, spent hours caging the animals, some of which will probably have to be put down because they are in such poor health.
Tacao’s friend, Steve Stuart, defended her, saying she was only trying to find homes for the animals.
“She took in all the sick, injured and crippled dogs,” Stuart said. “She’s got a big heart and she cares about the animals. Unfortunately, a lot of the dogs — there’s a one-eyed Chihuahua — people don’t want them.”
Tacao, a onetime Miami Beach police public service aide known as a huge animal lover in the city, was held at a Miami-Dade jail Thursday night and could not be reached for comment.
She has been in the news before.
In the summer of 2011, the department suspended Tacao after she fired a pistol at a suspected armed carjacker, who moments later was felled by a police officer’s bullets on the MacArthur Causeway. Tacao, who was off duty at the time, was feeding stray cats near the U.S. Coast Guard station off the causeway when she heard the emergency call over the police radio.
She was later laid off. Prosecutors are still investigating the shooting.
Tacao started Gigi’s Rescue in January 2011 at the warehouse in the 200 block of West 24th Street in Hialeah. But prosecutors say that over the next year and a half she began hoarding the animals at the warehouse.
Her organization was not a certified nonprofit animal group, which meant she could not get the animals directly from the county’s animal shelter. But investigators say she got the dogs through other private local groups, including SOS Paws, Be Kind to Animals and Cat Network.
Representatives of those groups could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Kathleen Labrada, the county shelter’s chief of operations and enforcement, said the county has contracts with approved nonprofit rescue groups that prohibit them from giving dogs to unauthorized organizations.
But the county has not so far been asked by prosecutors to find out whether those groups violated the contract, Labrada said.
“If we are provided the IDs of the animals, we can certainly trace them to make sure we take appropriate action,” Labrada said.
In June 2012, Tacao’s neighbors in Hialeah complained to the city about the conditions at the warehouse. Hialeah code enforcement inspectors found 120 dogs and cats living in the poorly ventilated warehouse, according to the arrest warrant.
As the city was scrutinizing her business license in September 2012, Tacao called fellow pet rescuers to help her remove most of the dogs from the warehouse.
In all, they took 53 dogs from Gigi’s Rescue, all of which had originally come from Miami-Dade’s animal shelter.
One dog, suffering from an untreated leg injury and malnutrition, died less than three days after being removed from the shelter.
Detectives pulled original medical records from the animal shelter to “track the history and deterioration of each specific dog.”
The arrest is likely to cast scrutiny on Miami-Dade’s often-criticized Animal Services department, which released the animals during an effort to reduce overcrowding and euthanasia procedures at the county’s lone shelter.
Alarmed by a spike in the number of animals euthanized at the shelter, the County Commission in 2012 set a “no-kill” policy goal for the Animal Services department.
Local animal-rights activists hailed the move. A grassroots movement, Pets Trust Miami, soon pushed a nonbinding vote to raise $19 million in funding to improve animal welfare. Almost 65 percent of voters that November approved the measure.
The plan, approved by county commissioners, would have paid for free or low-cost vaccinations and sterilizations, a public education campaign, additional veterinary staff and examining tables.
But county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, during a lean budget year, nixed the plan, which would have raised taxes by about $20 per homeowner.
In July 2013, the shelter waived fees during a three-day adoption event — leading to a record number of cats and dogs being taken in by animal lovers and pet rescuers.
“There are empty cages throughout the shelter!” Labrada told the Miami Herald after the event, which led to 350 cats and dogs being adopted.