Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s Instagram account contains a collection of snapshots typical of a politician: speaking at a budget hearing, reading to schoolchildren, taking a selfie with other leaders.
But just about every humdrum photo has been received with unusual venom from social media commenters.
“INNOCENT ANIMALS ARE BEING KILLED LIKE TRASH AND IT'S YOUR FAULT!” And “you’re disgusting for what you’ve done to our animals!!!!” And “I can certainly tell you where to put that selfie stick.” And so on.
The mayor’s Instagram account has been largely hijacked by a particular group: animal-rights activists who have long railed against euthanizing unwanted pets in Miami-Dade County. It’s gotten this bad: One commenter — irate even in far-off Canada — warned he might try to put down the mayor or his family, a threat Miami-Dade police are now investigating.
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Despite a gleaming new county animal shelter and the county’s claim that few animals are euthanized any more, online commenters continue to target Gimenez – who is running for re-election against Raquel Regalado, an opponent who enjoys the support of some of the county’s high-profile animal activists.
The mayor said he’s troubled by the dark tone the social media heckling has taken.
“When you start threatening my family, you’ve gone way too far,” he said in an interview with the Herald. “You’ve gone way too far. They have no limit and they have no shame ... there is another agenda and it has nothing to do with the safety and welfare of our animals. I know we have done a tremendous job from when I became mayor to now.”
The mayor also squarely blamed co-founders of a group called the Pets Trust: Michael Rosenberg and Rita Schwartz, who he said have fanned the flames of an online mob with lies about how the county treats animals.
“I’m calling them out,” said Gimenez, who charges that Pets Trust is trying to grab a piece of $20 million that could be raised by a tax.
In 2012, Pets Trust leaders led a successful campaign to pass a non-binding ballot item calling for a special property tax to fund sterilization efforts of cats and dogs across the county. It passed with 65 percent of the vote, but Gimenez and other county leaders ultimately opted not to pursue the money, saying they weren’t confident voters realized they were endorsing higher taxes.
The tax would have raised about $20 million a year for clinics offering free or low-cost spay/neuter and veterinary care services, administered by nonprofits, not the county. It would have also underwritten community campaigns and school curricula promoting responsible pet ownership.
Under pressure from Pets Trust, Gimenez did boost spending at the county’s Animal Services Department, where the budget has climbed about 80 percent since 2013, from $12 million to $22 million in the mayor’s 2017 spending proposal.
But the decision to not implement the tax outraged many activists who hoped to make Miami-Dade a “no-kill” haven. During the 2012 campaign, Rosenberg even lived for four days in one of the cages at the county’s shelter to promote his cause. And since then, he has campaigned to oust the mayor, filing a lawsuit against the county seeking to improve conditions for shelter animals and stop what his group claims is slander peddled by the mayor.
Rosenberg, a Kendall businessman who is supporting challenger Regalado, scoffed at Gimenez’s criticism. He insisted Pets Trust would get no money and that conditions for animals in Miami-Dade are worse than ever, despite the new shelter that opened in June.
“He blames us for everything,” Rosenberg said. “We’re probably responsible for Zika.”
Of course, online trolls making nasty comments have become the norm in American politics. But at least one of Gimenez’s attackers has drawn attention from law enforcement. Miami-Dade police detectives this month asked Instagram for info on the account of a kickboxing-and-dog enthusiast who likes to post shirtless selfies. The reason: his comment on a recent Gimenez post touting half-priced animal adoptions.
“Better watch yourself in Miami i don't have much to lose, ever see what s person that nothing to lose is capable of?? i WILL kill you if not ill start with your family and loved ones,” wrote a commenter called “nakmuaythai.”
The man, a Canadian identified on social media as Daniel Bowes, has since deleted the comment. He has no known connection to local activists but has occasionally posted on Gimenez’s account in the past
He would not respond to requests for comment. On Instagram, Bowes accused a reporter of being a “detective/cop with the sh**ist fake account” he had ever seen. “please do f**k off,” he wrote.
A Miami-Dade police spokesman said detectives do not consider the posting a “viable threat” but the investigation is nevertheless ongoing. The probe into the possible issuing of written threats was revealed in a search warrant filed in Miami-Dade circuit court.
The case might be an outlier but the online vitriol – some of it often laced with profanity – has been going on for months. Rosenberg said it reflects the clout of the animal rights faithful. “We’ve become a political force. We’ve built a huge army that does not like Carlos Gimenez because he does not honor what we voted for,” he said.
That army, or at least some of those very passionate followers, have not minced words, even with seemingly good news about animals.
In June, when the county opened its new and long-awaited pet adoption center in Doral, billed as the largest animal shelter in the United States, an Instagram post showed Gimenez welcoming the first dogs to the shelter.
The backlash was vicious: “You take pictures with the dogs and then kill them later” replied one commenter. “The blood of thousands of dead cats and dogs is on your hands,” said another.
One frequent Instagram commenter, Remgin Gundogdu, a 39-year-old Tampa animal activist, began ripped the mayor after she read about Miami-Dade’s animal shelter through social media.
“I kind of hate him right now,” she told the Herald. “These dogs are healthy. This is murder.”
But Alex Muñoz, director of Miami-Dade’s Animal Services, defended the county’s treatment of unwanted animals, saying the shelter has made great strides
Last year, over 90 percent of the animals that came through were adopted out to rescue groups or citizens – only sick, injured or overly aggressive dogs were put down, he said. He also said funding for the department has nearly doubled in recent years.
The social-media campaign is nevertheless vexing for Muñoz, who said he also has gotten death threats over the years.
Said Muñoz: “Passion doesn’t surprise me, but the threats in response to bad information – that does.”
Shaamini Yogaretnam of the Ottawa Citizen contributed to this report.