The abandoned: South Florida’s population of forlorn dogs vexes Tampa Bay rescue

There was no way of knowing how long she had been out here, let alone what her name had been.

But as she (slowly) walked toward the people bearing chicken, hamburger meat and kibble who were gathered at the entryway to the warehouse, three things became obvious: she was hungry, she was scared and she was quite pregnant.

Nearby, workers looked on as they prepared potted houseplants and loaded them onto a semi. They were presumably migrant farmworkers, and also presumably had been feeding her pieces of their lunch every day.

For every couple of steps the dog took toward the volunteer animal rescuers and their offer of food, she took a step back.

She shrieked and tried to shake off the leash that was eventually looped around her neck. She was so petrified she had to be carried.

This rescue was just one of dozens made over three days by volunteers from Palm Harbor-based Suncoast Animal League in the vast rural expanse that constitutes Redland and other towns southwest of Miami. They made the journey to help carry out the mission of the Redlands RockPit Abandoned Dog Project, a group that helps feed an abandoned dog population some estimate to be around 400.

The owner of the nursery where the pregnant dog was rescued had asked RockPit to pick up multiple dogs that were roaming the countryside, as well as a cat. Abandonment, according to nursery worker Henry Marza, is sadly the norm out here.

“It’s incredible, how many dogs come in,” he said. “They just kind of, like, drive by and drop them off. It’s terrible.”

click to enlarge DOG’S BEST FRIEND: Suncoast Animal League volunteer Clint Wilson comforts a new rescue. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
DOG’S BEST FRIEND: Suncoast Animal League volunteer Clint Wilson comforts a new rescue.
A German shepherd was brought in with her litter of puppies, apparently having survived some 10 weeks amongst the rows of rosemary and bromeliads that blanket the area. There was an elderly dachshund, and a Jack Russell terrier mix with its tongue permanently sticking out, due to abuse or even torture. And so many more.

It’s a stark contrast to densely populated Pinellas County, where it’s rare to see a stray dog roaming the streets.

“You come into different areas, you come into different cultures, people do things differently,” said Rick Chaboudy, director of Suncoast Animal League. “Everybody here has a lot of acreage and there are a lot of nurseries and a lot of crops and there’s all kinds of space.”

In all, the League rescued 70 dogs on this trip, all of which are now in the Tampa Bay area, available for foster and, soon, adoption.

Those 70 dogs, though a fraction of the abandoned animal population here, signify a sad epidemic in rural South Florida: the practice of abandoning family pets out in the farmlands.

There are numerous factors at play.

“Due to different economic factors and such, the housing market contributing to a lot of it, foreclosures and such, people can no longer keep their dogs,” Suncoast volunteer Eric King said. “You get a lot of animals dumped out here.”

It’s tough to know why so many families eschew local shelters. Having a dog is expensive and probably more work than many expect. Many shelters are full, and there’s a public perception that they're a death sentence. Elderly Floridians may find themselves in facilities that don’t allow pets. An aging pet’s medical expenses may be daunting. And even if there weren't a perception that shelters euthanize animals shortly after surrender, there’s little room for new dogs.

“Miami-Dade Animal Services is always at capacity, so they’re not exactly very easy to get animals into,” King said. “And, so, unfortunately, the byproduct of that has been people dumping animals out here.”

Excuses and rationalizations suggest a widespread lack of understanding of domesticated dogs and their ability to survive after abandonment. Even as more and more families in the U.S. are treating their pets like family, some people clearly lack compassion.

“These dogs, and some cats, but mainly dogs, are being looked at by people in South Florida as disposable items, just like a rag or a carton of milk that’s empty,” said Jennifer Dietz, an adjunct professor of law at Stetson University whose background includes a concentration in animal law.

What these people don’t know, Dietz said, is that dropping off a domesticated animal in a remote area is far more cruel than one
might expect.

“Literally in a week they will die of starvation and dehydration. It’s horrible. It’s a very, very painful way to die,” she said.

Even if they manage to stumble upon a stable food and water source, they have to fend off dangerous predators, including alligators.

All one needs to do is drive through the countryside to see the scope of the problem.
Dogs of every age, shape and size roam in mango orchards and along roadsides where large trucks zoom past at dangerous speeds.

“On a day-to-day basis I see dogs that are hit by cars, packs of dogs, seven at a time,” said Justin Wagner, a Redlands RockPit volunteer. “Last week I came to a corner, maybe half a mile away, and there were five labs, all black, all together. As soon as I got out of the car they all ran. But that’s how they are here. A lot of them are scared, have been dumped, they come, they get pregnant, a lot of them are not [spayed/neutered]. So it just turns into a vicious cycle.”

Rescuing abandoned dogs en masse can get tricky. Suncoast Animal League conducts plenty of rescue missions, but this was unlike anything they had done before.

“A lot of times they’re more controlled,” Chaboudy said. “And what I mean by that is, it may be a puppy mill or something like it. It may be a hoarder house where you walk into that kind of environment. You don’t always know what you’re going to see, but you have a general idea of how many dogs, what the dogs are, things like that. This is completely unknown.”

While many farm and nursery owners contact Redlands RockPit directly to alert them of dogs roaming their properties, others might not want a handful of strangers poking around.

“Some of them will let you on their property, but a lot of them here don’t want the public on their property,” Wagner said.

The dogs are always at risk of harm if a property owner finds that one of them has destroyed crops or livestock.

“They shoot them. They poison them,” said Yleana Escobar, the project’s education director.

In talking about cruelty he’s seen, Wagner gets choked up.

“In one span a few months ago, we found maybe four bags with dogs inside the bags on the side of the road. ” he said. “And you know they were put in there alive because the bag was [scratched] from the inside.”

These aren’t poorly behaved dogs, either, for the most part; they’re domesticated and typically well-mannered family dogs.

A small group of volunteers, Redlands RockPit does what it can to help the animals, but since it’s not a shelter, it’s limited to feeding the dogs and buying them medicine if needed.

“Grassroots efforts, the locals, have set up feeding stations, the thinking being, if you keep them fed, if you keep them content, they don’t pack up,” King said. “They don’t get aggressive, they don’t go out and mess with livestock, pets, anything like that. It’s a Band-Aid, but not a solution to the problem.”

But there’s only so much they can do, which is why they enlisted Suncoast Animal League, which — after putting the dogs through a vetting process, checkups by two vet techs and baths — put them on a plane to the Tampa Bay area.

The two groups set up a makeshift staging area on the property of a sympathetic farmer. Dog crates lined the back wall of a small wooden building. New rescues awaited their departure in some of these, which were also stocked with food, water and towels. One volunteer brought a horse trailer, which also held several crates.

Those familiar with the scale of abandonment in Redland and the surrounding area say the rescue missions are key, but that more preventive effort could be made at the state and local levels.

“The problem is that the statutes and some ordinances talk about neglect and they talk about cruelty to animals, but they don’t talk about abandonment, because that’s a new word in our vocabulary with animals, abandonment,” Dietz said. “If we can get the legislators to change the cruelty statute to have the word abandonment in there as a reason you could serve jail time or pay a fine, that would be a godsend.”

Whoever it was that dropped off the skittish mother-to-be who was roaming the nursery will never face a fine or jail time. No one will ever know who they are or why they did such a cruel thing.

But while we don’t know anything about her prior life, we do know this now: She is being fostered locally by a family that has a chihuahua and a Great Dane. According to a Facebook post by Chaboudy, the new pet has warmed up to the family’s 9-year-old daughter.

The dog's name is now Shelby. 

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