Miami-Dade County

Pets’ Trust moves forward to save unwanted animals in Miami-Dade

When they created the Miami-Dade Pets’ Trust initiative last winter, businessman Michael Rosenberg, retailer Rita Schwartz and marketing executive Lindsay Gorton hoped it might become a nationwide template for saving unwanted animals.

But there was no assurance that the idea might become reality. After all, to create it, the County Commission would have to impose a property-tax increase — a tiny one of perhaps $20 a year for the average property owner, but a tax increase nonetheless.

One politician after another told Rosenberg it was never going to happen, but the Commission agreed to let the people decide, and on election day Nov. 6, voters overwhelmingly favored the measure in a straw vote.

On Thursday, the Commission’s Public Safety and Health Committee took the next step, asking the mayor to report back in January on how an estimated $20 million in first-year Trust revenue would kick-start the county’s “no kill’’ goal.

Even though their campaign succeeded, Trust founders want to keep more than 1,000 volunteers engaged — and watchdogging the Commission.

Hours after the election, they launched a “10,001 Miamians’’ drive to recruit activists who’ll quickly respond if the effort gets bogged down in politics.

They also sought out national experts to advise on a Trust operations manual, which they’re offering to the mayor and commissioners so Miami-Dade “can create it correctly,’’ Rosenberg said.

The county shelter, run by Miami-Dade Animal Services, takes in some 37,000 unwanted cats and dogs per year. More than half are never adopted, rescued or reclaimed by their owners, and end their lives in shelter’s euthanasia room.

The Commissioners’ “no-kill’’ goal is to increase the shelter’s “save rate’’ to 90 percent, which both they and Animal Services administrators acknowledge is only possible through programs that the Trust would pay for.

“We have a big problem: 20,000 deaths. It breaks your heart,’’ said Commissioner Jose “Pepe’’ Diaz, who heads the Public Safety committee. “Things are hard, but guess what, it’s an economic issue. It’s fiscally responsible.’’

He said that “every one [of his colleagues] understands that the people aren’t playing out there. For a lot of people, $20 is a lot of money. The biggest problem...was making them understand that the tax isn’t there forever...The people voted on a limited tax for a limited time.’’

Diaz said he was “amazed and surprised’’ that the straw vote passed so handily, with 500,000 votes: 65 percent of all votes cast.

So was Rick DuCharme, who founded First Coast No More Homeless Pets 10 years ago in Jacksonville, and who has been informally advising Trust advocates.

“When I first heard about it, I thought: ‘Great idea. Ain’t gonna work.’ But they knew the problem, saw the problem, looked for a solution and found one...This will move animal welfare ahead at warp speed in Miami-Dade.’’

DuCharme added that if the effort “goes fully through and succeeds — and that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ — it will be a model for the whole country. I don’t see how it couldn’t be.’’

An unpaid board, mainly the heads of time-tested pet rescue groups, experts in sheltering and animal welfare, will administer the Trust.

It would fund programs that Animal Services, with a $9 million budget, can’t afford, such as high-volume, free spay/neuter clinics in underserved communities, and public-education programs on responsible pet ownership.

Nonprofits that depend on donations and volunteers try to fill that gap now.

Rosenberg has been asking experts around the country to help craft or review the Trust’s operating manual, and said that all seem “so excited about what we’ve done here.’’

Among them: Becky Robinson, president/founder of Alley Cat Allies, a national network of a half-million feline-welfare advocates, based in Bethesda, Md.

“The most comprehensive study to date indicates that 72 percent of all cats entering [public shelters] are killed,’’ according to Alley Cat Allies. “Just 23 percent are adopted, and only 2 percent are reunited with their owners.’’

In Miami-Dade as elsewhere, far fewer cats than dogs survive the shelter. The local statistics conform to national estimates.

The news is better for dogs and puppies in Miami-Dade. About two-thirds entering the shelter this year are expected to survive.

Robinson said her group has spent 20 years “creating and building programs from the ground up’’ to humanely manage feral cat colonies, and is happy to help Miami-Dade with proven protocols and “not have to reinvent the wheel.’’

While each commuity is unique and requires a customized strategy, there are certain “do’s and don’ts,’’ Robinson said.

“The biggest population in shelters is feral cats,’’ which are not adoptable, should be handled by spay/neuter programs then returned to their home colonies, she said.

Animal Services Director Alex Munoz agrees.

“No ‘open admission’ shelter adopts its way to ‘no-kill,’ ’’ he said. “The way to save cats is not to take them in.’’