It has been four days since the white pit bull showed up out of nowhere in Linda Wallen’s neighborhood.
At first Wallen thought the muscular dog belonged to a construction crew working near her home on Third Street Northwest in Golden Gate Estates. But when the construction crew left, the dog stuck around, she said.
Eventually Wallen had enough.
“The dog has been hanging around for four days. Nobody has claimed it, and I have a dog of my own that is barking like crazy,” she said.
Just after noon Thursday, Paul Morris climbed into his van, which was packed tight with metal cages, to go pick up the dog.
As an animal control officer with Collier County Domestic Animal Services, it is Morris’s job to pick up stray domestic animals, to work with pet owners to make sure their animals are safe and secure, and, if necessary, to write citations to owners who can’t seem to play by the rules.
Morris, you could say, is on the front lines in Collier County’s battle over stray dogs.
Domestic Animal Services takes in thousands of dogs, cats and other animals each year, many of which are strays.
Some say the agency isn’t doing enough to curb the problem of stray animals running loose throughout Collier County, while others say animal control officers like Morris are doing the best they can with what they have.
In the past week, Morris was reassigned to work in Golden Gate Estates, where just over a month ago investigators say 71-year-old Carshena Benjamin was killed by dogs while she was walking near her home on Jung Boulevard.
Since that attack, Domestic Animal Services has added extra patrols to the area and is actively searching for the dog or dogs that may have killed Benjamin, Morris said.
“There were always patrols in the area ... but now we have more out there that work in shifts of two,” Morris said. “Every time we get a call in respect to animals, we respond to them.”
When Morris pulls into the driveway in front of Wallen’s home, Wallen is waiting with her 12-year-old daughter, Casey, and her 8-year-old neighbor, Jennifer Eanning. Also waiting is a white pit bull with brown spots, wagging its tail and, apparently, smiling.
Using a scanner, Morris determines that the pit bull has a microchip embedded in its back between its shoulder blades. The chip tells him that the dog belongs at a home on Birdsong Lane, miles from where it was found.
As a resident of Golden Gate Estates for 12 years, Wallen said it’s not unusual to see stray dogs running through the neighborhood.
“There’s always strays around,” she said. “I’ve had dogs come in the middle of the night and kill my cats. It’s not all the time. My main concern is they’re not getting run over.”
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Domestic Animal Services’ mission is to enforce county ordinances, protect citizens from diseases carried by animals and to promote the humane treatment of animals.
In February alone, animal control officers brought 156 dogs, 69 cats and nine other animals into the shelter on Davis Boulevard, a shelter report shows. An additional 248 animals were dropped off at the shelter by the public in February, the report said.
Those 482 animals were down from the 565 taken in during February 2006, and the 605 taken in during February 2005, reports show.
Tom Kepp, a member of the Domestic Animal Services advisory board, said he believes the agency has done great work when it comes to finding new homes for the animals it takes in. But Kepp said he doesn’t believe Domestic Animal Services is aggressive enough with irresponsible owners, which contributes to the problem of strays in the Estates.
“Obviously there is a problem,” Kepp said. “There is a lady dead. It doesn’t get much more serious than that.”
Ultimately, it is Domestic Animal Services’ problem to solve, he said.
Kepp said he would support mandatory spay and neuter laws in Collier County, and would like to see harsher fines for pet owners.
Notice of Violation fees, which are handed out when an animal is found running loose, start at $25 for a first offense and increase to $50 for a third offense, according to Domestic Animal Services records.
Court citations, which are handed out for the more-severe offenses such as a dog bite or destruction of property, start at $100 for a first offense and increase to $500 for a third offense. Pick-up fees at the shelter range from $25 for the first impoundment of a neutered pet to $125 for the third impoundment of a non-neutered pet.
The current enforcement strategy isn’t working, Kepp said.
“They don’t fine them,” he said. “They give them warnings. ... They have to make people responsible for their animals, period. They have to find a way to do it.”
Other advisory board members, however, said that improving the situation in the Estates is easier said than done.
“I think that Tom and I probably agree, but to different extents,” said Randy Eisel, president of the advisory board. “Tom is very pro-harsh punishment; very, very, very high fines for infractions. I believe there should be fines ... but you reach a point of diminishing returns where if you make the fines so high, nobody is going to pay it.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1979 and 1998 there were 25 breeds of dog involved in 238 fatal dog bites. More than 50 percent of the deaths for which the breed was known were caused by pit bulls and Rottweilers.
Though he doesn’t support an all-out ban on any one particular breed, Eisel said he would support additional requirements, such as special licenses, for certain breeds.
“It’s important to me that dogs be suitable for particular families,” said Eisel, who is a veterinarian. “If somebody comes into my office pushing a stroller with a two-month-old baby and towing along a three-year-old kid and they bring in a pit bull puppy, I’m going to have a conversation with them.”
Domestic Animal Services has a $3,225,000 budget in 2007, which advisory board members said isn’t a lot considering the agency’s 10 animal control officers have to patrol the largest county in the state. The agency also has a number of vacancies, including two for animal control officers, that it can’t fill due to a hiring freeze, officials said.
“It’s not enough,” Eisel said. “The Estates is huge. It’s like the wild west out there.”
Another problem, advisory board member Karen Acquard said, is the laws in Collier County. Many laws, including mandatory licensing laws, are unenforceable without a house-to-house search, she said.
There also are constraints on the animal control officers. If an officer responds to an animal complaint and finds the animal confined to its property, the officer cannot enter the property without permission, Acquard said.
“DAS does the very best they can with the budgets that they have and the number of people they have working,” Acquard said. “It’s going to take changes in the law, with some teeth, to make the big changes.”
The biggest issue, Acquard said, is people who don’t spay or neuter their animals and don’t take care of them.
“I would love to have a system where a sheriff’s deputy went around with one of ours and took them away in handcuffs,” Acquard said of negligent pet owners. “I would love it. I would love it if once and for all they learned you can’t mistreat animals any more than you can mistreat children.”
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With the white pit bull caged in the back of his van, Morris begins his trek back to the shelter.
But before he even turns back onto Golden Gate Boulevard, Morris gets a call about a brown-and-white shepherd-mix running loose behind a home on 15th Street Southwest.
When he arrives he finds two dogs — definitely not shepherd mixes — barking behind a nearby fence. A neighbor said these dogs have been enclosed all day and haven’t been a problem.
Morris grabs his catch pole — a long pole with a noose at the end — and his snappy, which is just a large noose, and walks behind the house from where the complaint was called in.
Suddenly, while Morris is behind the house, a mangy brown-and-white dog comes tearing around the front yard. For more than 20 minutes, Morris attempts to corner the dog, but the dog keeps running away. Eventually he corners it next to the front gate.
Speaking to the dog in a quiet, mannered tone, Morris slowly slips the noose of his catch pole around the pooch’s neck. With sweat beading on his face, Morris brings the brown-and-white dog back to the van. Because of the fight in this dog, Morris said, he will wait to try to scan for a microchip back at the shelter.
“I think the heat tired this dog out more than us chasing it around,” Morris said, his shirt wet with sweat.
After four years with Domestic Animal Services and a number of years at another agency up North, Morris said he’s still never been bitten. In his experiences, any dog has the potential to be aggressive, Morris said.
“Any dog can be dangerous,” he said. “It’s all about the training. That’s why good dogs are good dogs. It’s usually lack of training that makes a bad dog.”
Records show that in February 2007, Domestic Animal Services euthanized 172 animals. That, Morris said, is the hardest part of the job.
“Our main duty is to serve the public and the animals,” Morris said. “We like to find good pets good homes.”
Laws for pet owners
Collier County laws state that:
-- All dogs and cats must be licensed with the county and vaccinated for rabies by the age of three months. This must be done annually.
-- All licenses must be attached to the collar of the animal.
-- Dogs and cats aren’t allowed to run loose. Animals must be confined or walked on a leash.
-- Beaches, parks and school grounds are off limits.
-- Dogs aren’t allowed to snap, growl, jump on, or otherwise threaten people using the public rights of way.
-- Dogs and cats aren’t allowed to create a sanitary nuisance.
-- Animals aren’t allowed to disturb the peace and quiet of the neighborhood.