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Miami-Dade’s Pets’ Trust would be a national model

A poster greets owners surrendering their pets at Miami-Dade Animal Services’ shelter:

“We work tirelessly to save as many pets abandoned at Animal Services as possible...But last year, 3,558 of 5,182 kittens (68%), 8,267 of 9,233 cats (90%), 1,139 of 5,166 puppies (22%) and 7,072 of 16,300 dogs (43%) were euthanized because there were not enough homes for them. Please make sure you have exhausted all other options before leaving a pet at Animal Services.’’

But most people who hand over cats and dogs at the Medley shelter haven’t sought other options, much less exhausted them, and neither the stark statistics or frank talk from shelter personnel make much difference.

Gloria Acevedo brought 4-year-old Ariel, the mixed terrier she’s had since puppyhood, to the receiving room of Animal Services one day in September.

The dog had “mental problems,’’ she said. “She goes in the street. She almost bit a little boy.’’

Wagging her tail, Ariel stared expectantly up at Acevedo, who began to cry.

“I hope someone adopts her,’’ said Acevedo, of Homestead.

Leo Romero, animal care specialist supervisor, knows that’s unlikely. Ariel is no beauty. She’s had several litters and lost some teeth when she was hit by a car.

He tried to persuade Acevedo to reconsider, suggesting that if Ariel were spayed, she’d calm down — and if she stayed at the shelter, she’d probably die.

“We can do [the spaying] here for $30,’’ he said. “She’s a good dog and she’s very attached to you.’’

Acevedo brightened.

“OK, I’m gonna do that!’’ she said. But her husband wanted none of it.

“I’m not driving back up here,’’ said Jose Ramos. “You can’t keep her.’’

They headed for the door, leaving Ariel behind.

In came Isabel Fuentes and her 7-year-old-son Renato, with the brown puppy they’d gotten from Animal Services just days earlier.

“We live in an apartment,’’ Fuentes said, as her reason for returning the dog. And he was throwing up, Renato added.

Shelter personnel have heard every reason and every excuse in the receiving room: “I’m moving to a place that doesn’t accept animals.’’ “I lost my job.’’ “My kids are allergic.’’ “We changed the decor and the dog doesn’t match.’’ “It pees in the house.’’ “It scratches the furniture.’’

“I had a lady yesterday who brought in a dog because it had worms,’’ an easily treatable problem, Romero said. “I gave her a packet of dewormer.’’

People even give up their pets because they get fleas, he said, “but mostly, they just don’t want to deal with it anymore.’’

By the next day, the puppy, renamed Miles by the shelter staff, went home with a new family.

Nine days after the Homestead couple dropped her off, Ariel became one of some 20,000 animals to die this year in the shelter’s euthanasia room for the same reason: No one wanted her, and new arrivals needed the space.

The root problem, say animal activists, is overpopulation, and a non-binding question on the Nov. 6 ballot asks voters if they’d be willing to spend a few dollars a year to stop it.

It’s called the Pets’ Trust, based on the county’s Homeless Trust and Children’s Trust initiatives, both of which involved voter-approved tax increases.

The Trust would raise about $20 million annually through a small property-tax increase amounting to $10 for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value. The average property owner would pay $20 a year. Residents who don’t own property would pay nothing.

Advocates say it’s the only way to achieve the “no kill’’ objective that Commissioners adopted earlier this year, defined as a 10-percent kill rate.

In the long run, Pets’ Trust will save money, said Michael Rosenberg, the Kendall businessman and civic activist who launched the initiative less than a year ago.

He notes that killing an animal costs $300 because it must be cared for during the mandatory five-day holding period that gives owners a chance to reclaim, which few do — about 1,500 last year. Many, like Ariel, stay longer waiting in vain for adoption, only to meet their demise.

In contrast, spaying and neutering costs $65, and is the best hope for resolving the overpopulation crisis, said Rosenberg.

“Taxpayers are not getting a good deal with this current method,’’ he said. “The proof is in the numbers, as we never kill less than 20,000 animals a year, and that is for the past 25 years. That is $6 million to kill, and it accomplishes nothing.’’

Pets’ Trust would underwrite free and low-cost spay/neuter/vet-care clinics in parts of the county where it’s hard to find a vet and residents can’t afford expensive services. Spay Neuter Miami Foundation and the Greater Miami Humane Society Adopt-a-Pet do some of that now.

It would also fund responsible pet-ownership and behavior-modification programs, and grants to rescuers so they could spend more time saving animals and less figuring out how to pay for it.

Not only would it dramatically improve the lives of animals in Miami-Dade, but it could become a national model, said Lindsay Gorton, Spay Neuter Miami Foundation’s president and a Trust booster.

“It’s the only model of its kind anywhere,’’ Gorton said. “Whenever I talk to people [in animal care] everyone is shocked that we got something on the ballot.’’

Rosenberg knows that any tax increase, no matter how tiny, faces an uphill battle. But he’s convinced that when voters grasp the scope of the deaths, they’ll support it — and if they support it, the County Commission will feel confident in establishing the Trust.

The earliest it could be up and running is November 2013.

The money would neither build a new shelter nor become part of Animal Services’ budget, although Animal Services could apply for special-project funding. Instead, a volunteer board would make grants to many of the same groups that now struggle to keep strays, ferals and castoffs from dying at Animal Services or in the streets.

If, for example, “the Cat Network came to the Pets’ Trust board and asked for another mobile unit and could convince the board of the necessity, they could be successful,’ said Rosenberg. “However, the board might want to examine the financial records of any organization before any money was awarded...You would have to really prove need, and that there was no other way to get what you need.’’

“Even if we start now, it will take about five years to get things under control,’’ Rosenberg said.

Animal Services Director Alex Munoz figures it will take even longer to change public consciousness about responsible pet ownership, perhaps a generation, as it did with recycling. One reason: Miami-Dade’s multi-cultural population.

“Here, a dog is part of your family. In other places, it’s not the same relationship. It’s an outdoor pet that rarely comes inside the house...This is a community issue. “We’re not making the animals’’ at the shelter. “They end up here from this community, and the community is part of the solution.’’

Kathleen Labrada, Animal Services’ Operations & Enforcement chief, said that a system-wide school curriculum would help. When she goes into schools for special events, she’ll ask: “‘How many have a dog?’ And every hand goes up,’’ Labrada said.

When she asks “How many live outside?,’’ 20 hands go up.

“‘How many have a dog house?’’’ she asks, and four hands go up.

“You talk about how your dog gets hot, thirsty and tired like you do,’’ Labrada said. “Those kids are reaching their parents.’’

Yleana Escobar, who runs the veterinary technician program at Felix Varela High School, hopes that Trust-supported awareness programs will attack the cultural myths that cause so much animal misery in Miami-Dade.

Her students show Friends Forever rescue dogs at weekly adoption events and care for them as part of their training.

They’ve seen animals with their ears and tails docked with scissors and knives. Dogs covered in ticks, maggots and mange. They find boxes of puppies in Dumpsters, kittens tossed in canals.

“I’ve seen...dogs hit by cars and instead of taking them to the vet, they take home and let the bacteria grow until the animal rots,’’ Escobar said. “I’ve seen ropes embedded into their necks where you have to surgically remove them.’’

She has one word for this sort of behavior: “Stupid.’’

Even stupider, said Adrian Diaz, one of 14 Animal Services officers who respond to complaints and pick up strays across the county: the “machismo thing’’ that clashes with the spay/neuter message.

“People think it takes away their manhood. Even if you explain the health benefits, they don’t understand. I’ve seen people have their dogs neutered then put in [prosthetic testicles]. That’s the freakin’ dumbest thing I’ve heard of in my life.’’

Diaz issues citations for wandering and tethered dogs, outlawed pit bulls, failure to give vet care and other infractions in gritty areas of north Miami-Dade. One September day, police called him to the scene of reported gunfire, where they found two protective pit bull-type dogs and a litter of puppies.

Diaz realized the owner was the same man who’d been trying to sell the puppies on Craig’s List, which is illegal without a breeder’s license. He tells the man he can give the puppies away but can’t charge for them and issues a written warning.

The same day, Diaz spent half an hour trying unsuccessfully to catch an elusive female American bulldog running through Miami Gardens. She’d recently had puppies, and Diaz theorized that someone sold the puppies and dumped the mother.

At another stop, he found an attention-starved Labrador mix in the fenced yard of an abandoned house. A neighbor said he’d been feeding the dog. Because the dog was not in serious distress, Diaz couldn’t remove him from private property without leaving a 48-hour citation.

“In two days that piece of paper will still be there and we’ll come get the dog,’’ he said. (It was, and they did).

At another stop, he carried a frightened brindle mutt from someone’s lawn to his truck. The resident had called in a stray complaint.

“We’ve been running him off all week,’’ the man said.

As he filled out paperwork, Diaz named the dog Mortimer.

“He’ll get adopted,’’ Diaz predicted. “Who couldn’t love that little striped face?’’

Mortimer was one of the lucky ones. He was transferred to the Humane Society of Greater Miami Adopt-a-Pet, which guarantees adoption or lifetime care.