Miami Herald

Miami-Dade’s stray dog problem: Shelter’s so full Animal Services is turning some of them away

- BY DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiheral­

Miami-Dade County’s animal shelter was so full at the end of last year that even police officers were told not to expect help with stray dogs that they found roaming the streets.

“The shelter has reached a critical point in dangerous overpopula­tion,” Kathleen Labrada, assistant director of Animal Services, wrote in a Dec. 2 email. “The Department is unable to respond to 15’s involving contained stray dogs, whether in a police car or at a station.”

The shelter administra­tor was referring to a law enforcemen­t code for police requests for help with an animal in laying out new rules for how the county’s Animal Services Department would respond.

During a nationwide surge in homeless pets as a result of pandemic disruption­s, Miami-Dade’s tax-funded shelter in Doral is struggling — and sometimes failing — to meet demand for kennel space. It hit a record 507 dogs in November and continued to report high numbers of canines in custody as 2023 began.

“Every day I am in crisis,” Animal Services Director Bronwyn Stanford during an interview in the $15 million shelter MiamiDade opened in 2016.

The trends are adding to the pressure on Stanford, the newcomer to MiamiDade County government, appointed by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in November 2021. More than a year after starting the $198,000-a-year job, the former child-welfare administra­tor

is facing backlash from a non-profit supporter of Animal Services and an employee union, which complains of stressful conditions and management missteps.


But the highest source of friction remains the shelter’s less-welcoming approach to stray dogs, which began early in the pandemic when residents were discourage­d from bringing homeless dogs and cats to the Doral facility as many Miami-Dade government facilities closed their doors and limited services.

Along with the directives to Miami-Dade police, county operators have told

frustrated residents that dog catchers won’t be sent to retrieve canines wandering the streets.

“If you cannot take care of the dog, you can let it go back out and hopefully it will find its way back home,” an operator for Miami-Dade’s 311 helpline told a caller late last year who was asking the county to pick up a dog she found loose in the neighborho­od.

The operator also encouraged the caller to try to find the owner, or consider a trip to the shelter to see if the county would take in the animal.

The audio was provided by the Pets Trust, an advocacy group pushing the county to spend more sterilizin­g animals.

“So you want me to leave the dog in the street?” the caller responded.

“That’s crazy.”

While surrendere­d pet cats pose challenges for Animal Services, stray cats aren’t much of a problem because Miami-Dade’s long-standing policy is to sterilize homeless felines and place them back onto the streets. Stray dogs aren’t considered safe on the streets for the public or for themselves, leaving Miami-Dade to either take them in or encourage people who find them to take action themselves.

As 2023 began, Animal Services issued new instructio­ns to 311 operators designed to make the help line more welcoming to people dealing with stray

dogs. Operators will process stray-dog reports, and the Doral shelter has resumed accepting stray dogs after population numbers dropped in January, said Flora Beal, public affairs manager for Animal Services.

But residents showing up in Doral with a stray will usually be asked to go back home with it and try to find the owner, then offered free pet supplies and a second appointmen­t for turning in the dog as long as kennel space remains available, Beal said.

“If there’s no way they could possibly keep the dog, then we’re more than likely going to take it in,” Beal said. “But if the population goes back up again, we can’t. It’s day to day.”

Miami-Dade has a “nokill” policy for its shelter, which bans euthanizin­g animals for space purposes. The policy, along with the County Commission’s 2020 passage of “Save Charlie” legislatio­n, limits euthanasia to health issues and severe behavioral concerns. In 2021, MiamiDade reported only about 300 shelter dogs were euthanized, out of more than 8,500 taken in by the facility.

The shelter prioritize­s kennel space for dogs from enforcemen­t actions, such as those rescued from animal-cruelty investigat­ions or inhumane conditions. As intake slows, Miami-Dade sees its shelter population recede as daily adoptions are able to make dents in the numbers.

The latest population count for dogs was 407, about 20% below November’s peak but still close to what the shelter considers full, Beal said. But emergency kennel measures are no longer needed, such as the dog crates set up in conference rooms during the fall spike.

On a recent visit to the shelter, some cages were empty in the glass-walled room reserved for smaller and medium-sized dogs. Princess, a beige terrier, stood up as visitors entered, but Cameron, a chocolate-colored bulldog, stayed lying on his paws, staring out to the cages across from him.

A short walk away, frantic barking greeted the tour in the kennels reserved for the largest dogs. In the dusty window of one dog’s pen, a shelter worker had scrawled: “Play with me!”

Several cages down,

Brie, a black boxer weighing 100 pounds, was eager for attention, leaping near the top of the pen door. A printed note on her cage offered a mix of encouragem­ent and advisory to would-be owners: This strong, sweet beauty “needs an Experience­d Handler who will take the time to train her.”

The campaign to keep homeless dogs in their neighborho­ods reflects the grim outlook for a large dog taken to a municipal shelter, where demand for adopting bigger breeds is low and chances are slim an owner will end up reuniting with a lost pet.

“We’ve worked so hard to train our community to bring their stray dogs to us and not think of us as this harsh euthanasia place.

But I’m not sure we’ve done our community a good service in that,” said Emily Wood, director of Broward’s Animal Care and Adoption Division, which runs the county’s pet shelter. “If an animal comes here, there’s a 17% chance they’ll get home. Even if we weren’t full.”

Tasha, a 65-pound terrier mix, has been waiting in Doral for adoption since June. Found as a stray, she was spooked by MiamiDade’s shelter from Day One, said Barbara Delgado, an Animal Services employee giving Tasha her daily time in a play area outside the kennels.

“She was so fearful,” Delgado said. “Now she’s so sweet.”

While the start of the pandemic sparked some households to take in new pets, overall adoption numbers dropped in Miami-Dade County from about 16 a day in 2019 to 12 in 2020. Statistics through October show the daily adoption figure dropped more in 2022, to just 10 dogs finding new homes on an average day. Meanwhile, 19 new dogs came in on an average day last year.

As shelters decline to pick up found dogs, residents are complainin­g of strays becoming neighborho­od fixtures.

Caprice Brown said she’s worried about the larger dogs that run loose in her Liberty City neighborho­od when she’s walking Tyrese, a Maltese-Shih Tzu mix. Her repellent of choice: a spray can of air freshener.

“That runs them off,” said Brown, a former cafeteria worker for MiamiDade schools. “I’m trying to protect myself, and my dog.”

At the Redland Dog Sanctuary, the non-profit is housing about 60 dogs, a

surge from the couple of dozen that would be there on a typical day before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Amy Spadaro, the group’s president. “We get them tied to our fence, because our address is on the website. We’ll find crates of puppies outside,” she said. “We’re doing all we can. It’s a really sad situation.”

Shelter managers cite multiple factors making it harder to keep dog population­s manageable, among them:

Housing market: The surge of rents last year gave landlords more leverage to turn away tenants with pets or tighten the rules on the size of dogs allowed. “Landlords are a big issue,” said Cherie Watcher, vice president of marketing for the Humane Society of Broward County. She said the nonprofit recently took in an 82pound bulldog that would be fine for apartment life if allowed. “He listens and rarely barks. He waits by the door when he wants to go out,” she said. “The owner surrendere­d him. And the reason is the landlord said no pets.”

Sterilizat­ion ‘deficit’ during the pandemic: In 2020, Miami-Dade and other government­s paused or cut back on sterilizat­ion procedures for dogs and cats, and veterinary clinics faced shortages on anesthesia, medical gear and other supplies needed to spay and neuter dogs and cats. That’s likely led to more pet births in the subsequent years, adding to the pressure on shelters. “There was a deficit in spaying and neutering over


the pandemic,” said Wood, the Animal Care director in Broward.

Full shelters elsewhere:

Before the pandemic, Miami-Dade relied on sending large dogs out of Florida, where they were more likely to be adopted, utilizing a network of non-profits and rescue transport groups in the Northeast and Canada. The pandemic disrupted that option. In 2019, an average day saw MiamiDade transport nine dogs somewhere else. In 2022, that figure plunged to four a day — the lowest in at least six years. “It’s pretty dire out there right now,” said Ric Browde, president of Wings of Rescue, a nonprofit that pairs shelters with too many dogs with shelters and rescue groups willing to take them. He said one wellregard­ed Pennsylvan­ia shelter that usually can take in large dogs is more crowded than ever. “They might have 10 kennel spaces available this week,” he said. “Where they’d have 80 spaces two or three years ago.”

Staffing shortages: Miami-Dade’s Animal Services Department saw the same kind of job vacancies plaguing other county department­s, including Transporta­tion, where bus service was reduced for a shortage of drivers. The discount spayand-neuter clinic at the Doral shelter is “Closed Until Further Notice,” according to the Animal Services website, with limited appointmen­ts offered only at the county’s Homestead clinic. Animal Services plans to reopen the Doral sterilizat­ion clinic in mid-February once it brings another veterinari­an onto the schedule, Stanford said.

To compensate for staffing shortages, Stanford tapped volunteers from other county department­s to spend time working at the Doral shelter. She also converted an Animal Services position to focus solely on recruiting entry-level shelter workers, including developing future workers by promoting the jobs to high school students.

She gave a 5% pay increase for some kennel positions and switched them to be on the “Dog Enrichment Team,” with a

focus on walking and playing with dogs twice a day at the shelter.

She also shifted the shelter to an intake system designed to discourage people from leaving dogs there. Known as “managed admissions,” it’s endorsed by the National Animal Care and Control Associatio­n and establishe­s what’s basically a waiting period for surrenderi­ng a pet.

When someone arrives to give up their dog or cat, they’re provided informatio­n on how they might be able to continue providing a home for an animal, or takes steps on their own to find it an owner. Animal Services then gives them a second appointmen­t to actually turn over the pet to Miami-Dade if they want to go through with it.

“It puts a little more onus on the person dropping off the dog,” Stanford said. “If you had a dog to surrender, wouldn’t it be better for you to post it first on Facebook and Nextdoor?”

“If you find a dog, we’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you a kennel, we’ll give you food, we’ll give you everything: Are you willing to foster for a few weeks? Can you hold onto the dog?’ ” Stanford said.

“That’s one less dog that comes into the shelter,” she said. “It frees up space so that we can focus on the animals that are really in need. An animal that is part of a cruelty case, or found on I-95 at risk — whoever brings that dog in, we’re going to say, ‘Oh, that’s an emergency.’ We’ll take that dog.”

The new reluctance by Animal Services to seek out stray dogs or accept surrendere­d pets has added fodder to Stanford’s critics.

Yolanda Berkowitz is one of the county shelter’s most active private benefactor­s. Her foundation, Friends of Miami Animals, funds improvemen­ts at the shelter and dog transports through Wings of Rescue.

She said under Stanford, it’s been difficult to continue coordinati­ng transports, pet-food drives and other efforts with Miami-Dade because of new restrictio­ns on communicat­ing with staff and a general reluctance to accept help.

“The director has told me I’m her only point of contact,” Berkowitz said. She said that’s a change from the previous director, Alex Muñoz, when Berkowitz would coordinate efforts with various administra­tors and shelter staff. In an Oct. 24 email to Levine Cava, Berkowitz called Stanford’s tenure “catastroph­ic” by limiting intake and sabotaging

efforts by non-profits. On Tuesday, Berkowitz called Miami-Dade “the cornerston­e” of animal welfare and said she wants to keep helping Animal Services. “I’m going to continue doing this work,” she said.

SeAdoreia Brown is the president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees chapter that represents kennel workers at Animal Services. She said employees have complained about dire working conditions as the facility reached maximum capacity, and of management not prioritizi­ng improving the situation for staff. While she credited Stanford for making progress on filling vacancies,

Brown said morale remains a problem.

“A lot of the folks feel they don’t get the support from leadership,” Brown said. “So naturally they leave and go to other places in the county.”

Michael Rosenberg, a longtime critic of Animal Services, is the founder of the Pets Trust advocacy group. He said the shelter hitting capacity with its dog population reflects a broader failure of MiamiDade to invest in widespread dog and cat sterilizat­ion efforts.

“They’re not attacking the root of the problem, which is over-population,” he said.. “They’ve got to spay and neuter 100,000 animals a year to get on top of the situation.”

Stanford said she agrees Miami-Dade needs to ramp up spaying and neutering, and that she’s got plans for more sterilizat­ion events in 2023. She acknowledg­ed staffing has been a huge challenge. “I think we managed it as well as possible,” she said.

On Berkowitz’s criticism, Stanford said she’s made it easier for nonprofits to help with the shelter’s work, including by converting a daunting eight-page liability waiver to a single sheet that’s helped expand Miami-Dade’s rescue network. “I’ll partner with anyone. I go out in the community,” she said.

“I’m always up for listening to people’s ideas and solutions.”

One of the longest stays in the shelter belongs to Samantha, a brown-and-white bulldog brought in as a stray in early 2022. Out for a walk in a blue “Adopt Me” vest with Beal, Samantha sits for a beef treat and gets praise for not pulling on the leash and staying calm among visitors.

“Such a good girl, Samantha,” Beal said. “Amazing.”

 ?? SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ ?? Viserys attends a press conference at the Miami-Dade Animal Services Pet Adoption & Protection Center in Doral.
SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ Viserys attends a press conference at the Miami-Dade Animal Services Pet Adoption & Protection Center in Doral.
 ?? D.A. VARELA dvarela@miamiheral­ ?? Thanos, a 140-pound Canary mastiff, rests at the Miami-Dade Animal Services Pet Adoption & Protection Center in Doral.
D.A. VARELA dvarela@miamiheral­ Thanos, a 140-pound Canary mastiff, rests at the Miami-Dade Animal Services Pet Adoption & Protection Center in Doral.
 ?? SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ ?? Miami-Dade Commission­er Kionne McGhee and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava give dogs love during a press conference at Miami-Dade Animal Services.
SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ Miami-Dade Commission­er Kionne McGhee and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava give dogs love during a press conference at Miami-Dade Animal Services.
 ?? SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ ?? Tasha plays outside with a volunteer at Miami-Dade Animal Services.
SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ Tasha plays outside with a volunteer at Miami-Dade Animal Services.
 ?? SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ ?? As of December, Samantha had been at Miami-Dade Animal Services the longest, more than 300 days.
SYDNEY WALSH swalsh@miamiheral­ As of December, Samantha had been at Miami-Dade Animal Services the longest, more than 300 days.

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