I had a long story yesterday - Saturday - in the Herald about the situation at Sabbath Rescue. Here it is:
By intent, Sabbath Memorial Rescue Center is hard to find -- until you're close enough to follow the noise and soon, your nose.
About 130 dogs live there, on part of a nine-acre mamey grove edging the Everglades. A few wander freely, minimally curious about visitors; most occupy runs, sheds or lean-tos.
It's muddy and makeshift, but for the strays and castoffs that otherwise might die on the street -- or at the Miami-Dade County Animal Services shelter -- it's a sanctuary.
But not for much longer. Rescue operator Robbie Coy is being evicted because the property is zoned agricultural/residential -- fine for farm animals but not for more than eight dogs.
CJM Investment Group, Inc., which owns the land, rents to Coy for $450 a month. For him to stay, principal investor Miguel Chamah, a family doctor, would have to seek an ``unusual classification variance.''
Chamah doesn't want to. The process is expensive and complicated, involving public hearings, government red tape and the loss of his agricultural tax exemption.
Instead, he has told Coy -- along with Buzzy, Teddy Bear, Cisco, Zeus, Jewel, Duchess, Sampson, Joey and the rest -- to leave by Aug. 31.
Coy doesn't blame his landlord, but wants an extension, which lawyers on both side are negotiating.
CJM's attorney, Peter Abesada, said his client ``is willing to do any reasonable thing to safeguard the welfare of the animals.'' Still, ``we have no alternative than to proceed with an eviction or face severe civil penalties.''
FINDING NEW HOMES
Dr. Sara Pizano, Miami-Dade Animal Services director, supports an extension, so that Coy can place his dogs.
``We want nothing more than for the dogs at Sabbath Rescue to fine permanent and safe homes,'' Pizano said.
`We have already reached out to our 50 rescue partners asking them to help save the dogs from Sabbath Rescue.''
When animal lovers' passions meet government regulation, tempers flare and accusations fly, so for some of Coy's supporters, that's no consolation.
Sabbath's plight has caused an uproar in the South Florida animal-welfare community, where many consider Coy saintly for dedicating his life to placing adoptable dogs and offering the old, sick and aggressive what the county shelter can't: a secure place to live out their lives.
``He has put aside a life of having a nice house and car to be able to provide food and shelter to these canines,'' supporter Lucia Ramirez wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. ``Just because he doesn't hold a mere license does not mean this man and helpless animals deserve to be shut down.''
The controversy began April 21 when four county police officers, three Animal Services investigators and an Animal Planet video crew showed up at the shelter's gate.
The Discovery Channel-owned program has spent nine months updating its five-year-old Miami Animal Cops series. New episodes will begin airing in December.
County officials say they were responding to an anonymous complaint about possible dog fighting, but by their own admission found nothing of the kind.
``They went through my place with a fine-tooth comb,'' said Coy, 48. ``Then they asked for a kennel license'' and cited him for failing to produce one.
It costs $100 a year.
A ponytailed Long Islander, Coy named the rescue for a beloved pet dog, Sabbath, now long gone. Over the past decade, he's had other locations, including a Hialeah storefront where a handful of dogs remain.
He insists that the righteousness of his mission trumps the bureaucracy's dictates.
``I'm out there in the middle of nowhere,'' he said. ``Why would anybody care?''
Coy's arms and legs bear the evidence of hands-on interaction with generations of dogs: slashes, punctures, deep-purple scars.
He said he has poured $1 million of his own money -- from a T-shirt business -- into the rescue, some $100,000 of it for upgrades at the site he's about to vacate.
``It's not perfect,'' he admits. ``We don't have any money. But the dogs are well fed and cared for.''
A full-time caretaker lives on the property with his own dogs. Coy and a handful of volunteers spend their days feeding, cleaning enclosures, treating illness and injury and fielding calls from prospective adopters, who pay what they can to cover neutering and other costs.
Despite food donations -- including 20,000 pounds of treats from celebu-cook Rachael Ray -- Coy said he spends up to $10,000 a month on animal care, and owes money to veterinarians all over the county.
``I'm saving dogs lives!'' he declared from his mobile office: the front seat of a beat-up 1996 Honda Passport.
And he's determined that not one dog will end up at the county-run Animal Services.
By statute, its Medley shelter, which has the capacity for 300 cats and dogs but often houses twice as many, must accept every one of them that comes in the door. Pizano projects 37,000 this year.
Last year, about one-third of shelter admissions reunited with original owners, were adopted or taken by rescue groups. It was a record number, yet 21,000 adult mutts and purebreds, tiny kittens and teething puppies met their demise.
The county calls it euthanasia; Coy calls it killing.
That dismays Pizano, a veterinarian.
``It's damaging to the reputation of the department to be unfairly depicted as murderers. . .as a result of a law that everyone must abide by, regardless of their good intentions,'' she wrote in an e-mail.
While Coy may have a laudable purpose, county officials insist he still has to follow the rules. In an e-mail Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez -- battling criticism for not simply granting a zoning waiver, something he says he's not legally empowered to do -- praised Coy for ``providing a much needed service to our community, particularly, to the dogs themselves.''
Then he detailed the county's involvement.
On April 16, Alvarez wrote, a police officer checking out the fighting complaint saw ``some dogs which appeared to be in poor condition and reported this to Animal Services.''
Investigators cited both Sabbath and CJM for failing to have a kennel license. Five days later, Neighborhood Compliance personnel responded to another anonymous complaint, Alvarez said, then sent CJM a warning letter on the zoning issue.
But the letter went to the Homestead address, and Chamah didn't know he had a problem until after he missed the deadline to appeal.
The $265 citation ``went to collection,'' Pizano said, and began accruing charges: $5,000 by the time CJM sought, and got, a late appeal.
Pizano said she'll remove the accrual as soon as CJM pays the $265 citation and brings the property into compliance -- in this case by evicting the kennel.
She noted that her department has helped with other unlicensed rescues in similar situations. Currently, a five-acre shelter in the Redland with 100 dogs called Born Free Pet Shelter, is working with the county to rezone and getting a kennel license.
``The Animal Services Department strives to save as many lives as possible and we welcome all the help that compassionate people want to offer,'' Pizano said. ``But only the community can solve this crisis by spaying and neutering their pets.''
OK-- This is me commenting. My hope is that someone out there has a couple of properly-zoned acres that Robbie can rent for a reasonable charge. If you want to help, go to sabbathrescue.org.