Dogs and cats burned alive at Miami-Dade’s animal shelter? Clandestine dog fights after hours? A plot to whitewash data and obscure animal deaths?
Miami-Dade’s Inspector General issued a report this week addressing some of the most explosive allegations against the county’s Animal Services Department and declared them unfounded. The “review did not find any intentional mistreatment of animals,” the report said. “Neither were the allegations regarding intentional falsification of records to enhance the shelter’s reported rate of animals saved substantiated.”
The investigation’s pursuits during the three-year probe capture the intense, bitter feud between Miami-Dade’s animal activists and the agency charged with protecting the county’s pet population. Under pressure from activists, Miami-Dade has dramatically boosted spending on animal services in recent years and reported encouraging statistics in terms of euthanized dogs and cats. But that hasn’t eased tensions, with critics alleging a statistical smokescreen.
“They keep getting away with their lies and deception,” said Rita Schwartz, a leader of the Pets’ Trust group, an organization that deploys members to film Animal Services trucks and monitor the county shelter’s parking lot. “And these poor animals are suffering just so their numbers can look good.”
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It’s like UFOs. There is more evidence of UFOs, actually.
Miami-Dade Animal Services chief Alex Muñoz
The Inspector General did not produce a glowing report for Miami-Dade’s Animal Services Department. It notes resistance from administrators to the investigation itself, flawed record-keeping, and details questionable partnerships with the rescue groups that free the county from having to euthanize hundreds of unwanted dogs each year.
But the watchdog agency did refute allegations of mistreatment. and endorsed the numbers showing a dramatic increase for Miami-Dade’s “save rate” for dogs and cats brought to a shelter. The rate soared from 51 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2016.
“I hate to use the word ‘exonerated,’ because we weren’t on trial,” said Alex Muñoz, the county’s director of Animal Services. “But it basically clears the record from people who have been making false accusations for years.”
One section of the report described an unfounded accusation of “staff intentionally arranging animal fights.” Another rejected accounts of “incinerating animals while alive.” (The report noted that the county’s animal incinerator hasn’t been used since 2000, and that dead animals are disposed of at the South Dade Landfill.) Investigators found no evidence of staff incentives to “falsify” animal data.
A large portion of the improvement at Animal Services came from Miami-Dade’s decision in 2012 to stop euthanizing unwanted cats, instead sterilizing them and returning them to the streets. The treat-and-release program boosted a 25 percent save rate for cats in 2011 to 86 percent last year. But dogs are faring far better, too. While the county listed a 72 percent save rate for dogs in 2011, the number hit 90 percent in 2016.
Muñoz credits the better canine numbers with a series of initiatives and programs implemented through a flood of new money over the last six years. In 2011, Miami-Dade’s Animal Services budget was $10 million. This year, it’s $21 million. The boost in dollars came as elected leaders fended off the fury of activists at the Pets’ Trust, which takes its name from a failed 2012 effort to impose a special property tax for animal programs.
They keep getting away with their lies and deception.
Rita Schwartz, Pets’ Trust founder
One area of improvement at Animal Services involved kittens and puppies, which Muñoz said are more likely to survive thanks to beefed-up protocols for dealing with young animals. A “pet retention” program helps persuade existing owners to reconsider leaving their animals at a shelter by offering help with training and other services. A beefed-up medical staff — from three veterinarians in 2011 to eight now — cut down on mortality rates in the shelter.
More staff also allowed for a packed schedule of adoption events, with about 500 held in 2016, but none was held in 2011, according to the report.
Miami-Dade also is spending money to send dogs and cats elsewhere, with employees driving abandoned pets to rescue organizations hundreds of miles away. In 2014, the agency sent 61 cats to a nonprofit in Maryland, and one group taking Miami-Dade pets is located in Canada. “We transport animals as far as we need to go to save them,” Muñoz said.
The Inspector General report raised questions about some of those destinations. When investigators asked for the agreement and monitoring reports with an unnamed Canadian rescue organization credited with “numerous” transfers listed as adoptions in Animal Services records, the department responded the group “is not a rescue partner” and so “are not subject to reporting.”
Investigators looked at another rescue partner in the Miami area, and found the organization consisted of a string of residential homes. When investigators visited two of the addresses, “both homes were under substantial reconstruction due to the conditions of the properties after housing animals.”
Despite the visits, the Inspector General said it couldn’t locate any animals on the properties or locate the group’s representative, with investigators told “she may be in hospice.”
The report does not address one frequent claim of critics: that shelter staff reject animals as a way to boost the save statistics. “They are turning away so many cats every day,” said Schwartz, citing a recent Saturday when her group filmed the Doral shelter from the parking lot.
Muñoz rejects the allegation as one more conspiracy theory from some of the most devoted critics in county government.
“It’s like UFOs,” Muñoz said. “There is more evidence of UFOs, actually.”