Abandoned animals a growing concern in Broward
Broward County animal shelters are overwhelmed with abandoned pets.
BY SUSANNAH BRYAN
Two little old ladies drive to a nature center in Coconut Creek, deposit an orange cat and drive off.
Earlier that day, park workers find a baby opossum in a cardboard box with a note: ``Needs water.''
A week earlier in Coral Springs, four puppies are left to fend for themselves at a dog park.
They are among thousands of animals abandoned in Broward County, including rabbits and chickens, gerbils and snakes, piglets and an 80-pound tortoise.
Abandoning an animal is not only heartless, it's a crime. People who do it can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $5,000. More severe abuse cases where the animal dies or is repeatedly injured can be elevated to a felony, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Crimes against animals, however, are rarely prosecuted because they are tough to prove, says attorney Stephan Otto, of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. Police may have trouble finding a pet's owner, or may not make it a priority to solve.
In April alone, animal control officers in Broward County investigated 95 animal cruelty cases. But for all of 2008, police made only 449 arrests on animal cruelty charges throughout the state, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It's unclear how many people were prosecuted because no one tracks that information, authorities say.
Police have no way of finding the people who dumped the puppies, says Coral Springs Sgt. Joe McHugh. Two were adopted by officers and the other two were given to a rescue group.
Parks workers took the orange cat to the county-run animal shelter and the baby opossum to the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale.
More than 17,600 animals -- 7,415 dogs and 10,229 cats -- wound up at Broward County's two animal shelters between October 2007 and September 2008. Officials estimate thousands more were simply dumped on the streets.
As supervisor of the unit at the Broward Sheriff's Office that handles animal cruelty cases, Lt. Sherry Schlueter has seen it all. ''There are horror stories out there that people wouldn't want to hear about,'' she said.
Schlueter said she thinks the number of abandoned pets has risen sharply as owners faced with foreclosure move out and leave their animals behind.
''There's no excuse for this because we do have shelters and rescue groups in abundance,'' Schlueter said.
Many people assume the animal can fend for itself. But often, the pet starves or becomes prey.
''People think Fluffy is going to eat the birds [to survive],'' says Cherise Williams, animal care specialist for Broward County's Parks and Recreation Division. ``People think they're doing the animal a favor by not taking it to a shelter. But they're just frightened and lost when you drop them off in a park. If people knew the fear and anxiety animals go through, maybe they'd change their mind.''
Some people think the animal will be put down if taken to a shelter. But that remains the most humane choice, experts say.
''It's important for people to remember that animal shelters and rescue groups are there to help,'' says Adam Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. ``There's a fear animals will be euthanized if they are brought to the shelter. But shelters try really hard to place animals into a home.''
Last year in Broward County, 9,789 cats and dogs were euthanized. But homes were found for 3,066 animals. Another 1,794 were reunited with their owners and 1,534 were released to rescue groups.
Anyone who witnesses an animal being dumped can report it to local police or Crime Stoppers at 954-493-TIPS.