He is named after Thanos, the hulking super villain of “Avengers” fame. But don’t let that scare you. He weighs 140 pounds, eats a lot, slobbers a lot. But don’t let that turn you off. He is a Presa Canario, or Canary mastiff, whose ancestors are from the Canary Islands, where they were bred to herd cattle, guard farms and compete in vicious dog-fighting rings. But don’t let that intimidate you.
Thanos is really just a sweet, mellow lap dog. Granted, it might be easier for you to fit in his lap rather than the other way around. But he needs a home. Like most of his 450 roommates at the Miami-Dade Animal Services shelter, he was a stray and is eager — as his wagging tail indicates — for a new owner to adopt him.
Summer is peak population time at the shelter, which adheres to a no-kill policy and has seen its adoption rate soar since moving from a cramped, decrepit, depressing building in Medley to its airy, welcoming, state-of-the-art facility in Doral three years ago.
“It’s like we went from the slums to a Hilton Hotel,” said Gary Eubanks, a 40-year employee who was exercising six dogs on a recent afternoon in a play yard where they cooled off in two plastic kiddie pools.
At this time of year, intake of dogs and cats goes up, adoptions go down, and, with an average of 86 new tenants coming in each day, the 70,000-square-foot shelter is full of orphaned animals.
The reasons for the crush: It’s kitten season; breeding patterns bring an influx of felines. It’s hurricane season; people tend to surrender pets or avoid adopting them when storm threats lurk. It’s vacation and moving season; people don’t adopt when they are planning to take a trip out of town or relocate. It’s firecracker season; dogs get scared by the noise and run away.
“The population starts to spike in June and we’re in the doldrums for adoption,” director Alex Munoz said.
In 2018, the shelter took in 29,470 dogs and cats and had to euthanize 2,664 injured, sick or dangerous ones, which enabled the shelter to continue to meet the best-practices standard of a minimum 90 percent save rate. Compare that to 2010, when 18,886 animals were euthanized for a 43 percent save rate. Dogs are much more popular for adoption than cats, and last year of 12,715 dogs received (75 percent of them strays), 6,349 were adopted, 2,722 were transferred to nonprofit rescue organizations, 2,150 were returned to owners and 878 were euthanized.
“We feel a little like Sisyphus pushing the rock back up the hill because the animals keep coming in,” Munoz said. “But the numbers show we are winning. There are fewer animals in shelters and there is a greater acceptance of rescuing and adopting dogs and cats.”
The shelter has resources, personnel and space it didn’t have in the past to take better care of animals and provide better services to the public, such as spay, neuter and vaccination clinics, nine veterinarians, surgical suites, isolation rooms for animals with contagious conditions, larger kennels with soothing classical music playing on speakers, a grooming team that posts “Before and After” photos on its bulletin board, and homey areas where prospective owners can spend one-on-one time interacting with a dog or cat and talk to adoption counselors about how to choose a good match.
There are 259 dedicated employees — like kennel staffer Hector Pla, who beamed as he cradled an elderly Pomeranian, her tiny head obscured by fluffy fawn-colored hair, his as hairless as a bowling ball.
“Animal shelters were not prioritized when I started this job in 2011,” Munoz said. “Our old shelter was part of Public Works — the same department that fixes potholes. Stray animals were considered a nuisance. Cats came straight to intake and were euthanized immediately. But a movement took hold across the country and the traditional dog pounds changed their mission. We’ve been on the cutting edge. People love to come here and adopt a pet.”
Larger dogs, like the plentiful number of stocky American bulldog mixes, are less desirable in most households and typically stay at least two weeks before they’re adopted. Those who have been at the shelter longer than two or three months become the subjects of special promotions — the shelter produced a video entitled “I Like Big Mutts” — or get sent to volunteer rescue groups who can focus on finding them a home.
Last year, 800 were transported to other no-kill states such as New Hampshire where they are in demand. Miami’s shelter has been temporary home recently to a St. Bernard, a Louisiana Leopard Catahoula and a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.
Puppies, smaller dogs and purebreds, like a French bulldog named Meek who had a red “ADOPTED” sign on his kennel, usually get adopted within four days.
“People in Miami tend to prefer pocket pets,” Munoz said.
A change in philosophy is helping control the population of 100,000 free-roaming cats in Miami-Dade. Street cats used to be put to death, but today Animal Services officers trap them, bring them in to be spayed, neutered and vaccinated and return them to where they were found. The shelter also relies on “power trappers,” zealous cat-catching citizens.
“We have a lady from Doral who brought in 1,000 cats last year,” Munoz said. “If the cats are thriving where they live, we take them back and they continue to coexist with man. Most are not housable here. They would go crazy inside the kennels.
“Not everybody agrees with this policy, and they argue that cats are harmful to the environment.”
The shelter must also accommodate animals brought in by the 16 animal-welfare and six anti-cruelty officers in its enforcement division. Annually that adds up to about 2,500 cruelty victims, 500 dangerous dogs, 500 pit bulls, which have been banned in Miami-Dade since 1989, and 200 neglected pet store animals. Officers have also arrested fake veterinarians for cruelty — which is a felony in Florida — and operating without a license. Officers and vets often work together to analyze forensic evidence they deliver to prosecutors.
Hoarding cases pose a challenge because hoarders usually need psychiatric treatment to keep them from hoarding again. Two months ago, 99 Shih Tzu-mix dogs and five cats were removed from a South Dade home where a woman became overwhelmed by the number of pets she collected and could not care for them. Workers at a neighboring plant nursery noticed a stench, heard barking and called the county’s 311 help line. It was one of three large-scale hoarding cases that enforcement teams encountered in the past year in Miami. One involved 50 cats, most of them dead. In the other, 31 pit bulls were rescued.
“For investigators, each case is heartbreaking because our call volume has not decreased,” said Kathy Labrada, assistant director of Animal Services.
Labrada recalled the case of a Doberman pinscher with a tight collar deeply embedded in her neck. Her owners had not changed it since she was a puppy. She was tied up outside because of the bad smell of the inflamed sores beneath the collar. After she was rescued, the collar was surgically removed, she recovered and she became the poster dog for an anti-tethering campaign.
Enforcement officers also collaborate with police and the FBI to identify animal abusers.
“Criminal investigations are showing a link between a history of animal cruelty and serial killers, school shooters and people charged with domestic violence,” Labrada said. “If we identify these individuals early on, we could prevent something worse from happening.”
Inside the shelter’s medical clinics, there’s a nonstop flurry of treatment on an astounding variety of patients. On one table, a teeny 2-month-old Tabby named Keeble from a malnourished litter of five is being fed with a doll-sized bottle. Kittens like her and her siblings are candidates for the shelter’s Milkman Program, in which people care for orphaned kittens in their homes to relieve crowding in the shelter’s neonatal nursery. Animal control officers deliver “kitten kits” with feeding supplies and heating pads and give tutorials to caregivers.
On another table, a vet examines a Chihuahua-rat terrier mix brought in after being hit by a car. He’s growling and snapping at everybody and has to be muzzled. His back legs aren’t functioning normally.
A grumpy, geriatric Chihuahua with heart worms, a heart murmur and arthritis gets cuddled at another table.
Difficult cases like these would have been deemed lost causes in the past, said Dr. Maria Serrano, a pioneer in the movement to save animals rather than discard them.
“We used to euthanize injured and diseased animals right away at the old shelter,” she said. “We didn’t have the means or the will to save them.”
But she began aggressively treating the sick and the lame. Rather than dispose of a puppy hit by a car, she amputated one leg, took the puppy home for three months and found a dolphin trainer in Key West who wanted to adopt her.
“Another puppy came in very pale and anemic because of parasites and was slated to be euthanized, but I said no, we can do a blood transfusion. Within two hours he was fine,” she said. “The owner of a dog with a bad skin condition wanted to surrender her. We said let’s try some treatments. We bathed the dog in Selsun Blue dandruff shampoo and she healed. The owner came back, took her home and bathes her in Selsun Blue to this day.”
Dogs with the deadly and highly contagious parvo and distemper viruses used to be euthanized automatically. But at the new shelter, they received an intensive course of treatment and were placed in isolation rooms with separate air circulation systems. Once the shelter began offering low-cost vaccines to prevent distemper, the huge caseload dissolved and “I haven’t seen distemper in four years,” Serrano said.
Serrano, who likes to boast that she can complete a spay sterilization in five minutes compared to 45 for vets not trained in high-volume shelter medicine, took an emaciated American bulldog mix home on a recent weekend after operating on the dog’s infected uterus.
“She kept attacking my dogs and when I brought her back, I thought we’d have to put her down for being so aggressive, but we got an email and found the owner,” Serrano said. “That dog and that owner were so happy to be reunited. It made me want to cry. In this job it is not only the number of animals you help but the number of people you help. These aren’t just pets. They are family members.”
The shelter wants pets to stay with their families. The Retention Program provides advice on training pets as well as a temporary supply of food and housing. At the Surrenders desk, owners can turn in their pets — usually because they are moving to a building that doesn’t allow them. That was the situation with a woman who wept as she said goodbye to her dog. A Reflection Room gives owners a quiet place to spend the last moments with an old or sick pet that the shelter will euthanize. There’s a foster care program, an educational program for schoolchildren, a mentoring program for University of Florida vet school students.
The shelter’s enrichment program coordinator, Savannah Alcerro — who is said to know the name of every animal at the shelter — organizes activities and play groups in tune with their personalities. You could call her the stray whisperer.
“My focus is on quality of life while they’re in the shelter,” she said. Volunteers are assigned to make sure every dog gets walked twice every day.
Munoz has tracked where the greatest number of strays come from and found them concentrated in low-income areas lacking veterinary clinics — dogs in Liberty City, cats in Hialeah and Little Havana. In a partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the county is building a clinic at Northwest 62nd Street and 12th Avenue that will provide free services to residents.
At the Doral shelter, it costs $75 to adopt a puppy, $65 to adopt a dog, $35 to adopt one or two cats (buy one, get one free), and that includes sterilization, vaccination, a license and a microchip.
As Munoz walks through the shelter’s “Dog Mall,” greeting employees, volunteers and dogs peering longingly from behind their windows, he talks about accomplishments and goals. How can he make this busy time of year less busy?
“Our biggest problem remains inadvertent breeding because owners are not spaying and neutering their pets. How do we reach those people? How do we educate them?” Munoz said. “I guess our greatest success would be if we went out of business.”
He peeks in on Thanos, and marvels at the Good Samaritan who found the lost giant wandering near Allapattah and kept him in his fenced backyard until he was taken to the shelter. Thanos, utterly unperturbed by the curious stares and the pats of his blocky head, rests his jaw on the floor. He’s ready for a nap.
“Somebody will fall in love with him,” Munoz said. “How can you resist?”