In January, Fairbanks Animal Hospital staffers found an aggressive, malnourished canine lingering near their Winter Park clinic. They took the chow-chow mix in and spent months rehabilitating him. Finally the dog, whom they named Bear, was ready for adoption.
In early July, veterinarian Randall Cannon placed an adoption ad on Craigslist. A man named Stellios Billis, owner of Billis Auto Repair in Orlando, responded. He told Cannon a sad story about how he had lost his Rottweiler recently and was looking for another family pet. The vet clinic offered him a trial night, with the understanding that Billis would call to confirm whether he would keep the dog or return him. He never called.
A few days later one of Cannon's employees drove out to Billis' address and took pictures of an injured dog, whom she believed to be Bear, covered with bite wounds. Cannon thought it looked like Bear too, so he called the cops. The cops told Cannon they could do nothing, because he'd given the dog away and thus had no basis for a legal complaint. Cannon drove out to rescue Bear anyway.
When he arrived he saw three other dogs, some with bloody injuries, lying in a deplorable 5 foot-by-8 foot cage, swarming with flies, behind the auto shop. But Bear wasn't there. By then he was dead — attacked and killed by guard dogs, Cannon says Billis told him.
Cannon called Orange County Animal Services, who had cited Billis in 2006 for interference with an animal services investigation and for failing to obtain medical care for several animals after repeated animal abuse and neglect calls. He was told the agency couldn't do anything about Bear, though they would investigate abuse of the other dogs. Two months later, the investigation still isn't complete and Orange County Animal Services isn't commenting on this ongoing case.
Billis denies abusing animals and says he was on vacation when Bear died. He professes to have no idea what happened. He also claims Cannon had planned to euthanize the dog because no one would adopt him. Cannon disputes that.
"I have no idea why `Cannon` would say that," Billis says. "He makes it sound like I took a gun and killed the dog. Maybe he's doing it for publicity. I didn't do anything. I have other dogs and if I weren't treating them well, Animal Services would have taken them away."
Actually, they wouldn't have, and that's the sad truth of the matter. The agency doesn't have the time, resources or power to do much of anything. Animal Services hasn't been able to shelter the very animals it's supposed to protect. But even if the county agency did have the resources, a toothless state law still wouldn't allow them to do their jobs.
Per state law, animals are considered property, which means animal services typically can't remove neglected or abused animals. Under a very narrow set of guidelines, when a pet is under "extreme distress and severely neglected," the agency can ask the Orange County Sheriff's Office to remove animals, though generally a warning must first be posted on the property for the preceding 24 hours — even if a dog is starving and abandoned. Animal Services can't say how many times they've called the cops, but they do admit that it's rare.
"There's apathy on the part of Animal Services," says Cannon, who has picketed in front of Billis' business several times over the last two months. "When `Billis'` former tenant reported abuse, nothing was done either. They wrote at least three desperate letters `to Animal Services`, and when their dog was finally killed, `Animal Services` didn't investigate it, even though a neighbor witnessed it."
That former tenant, Dawn Phillips, office manager for A Reliable Towing, relocated to Bithlo after she reported Billis to Animal Services a final time in December 2006 — after which he told her to get out. She says at least 20 dogs and cats died during the 14 months she rented there, including two litters of puppies attacked by Billis' starved and aggressive dogs. "It's been a very bad situation and I don't know who to blame," she says. "Is it `Animal Services'` manpower? Or because they don't give a shit? I don't know."
Phillips, a former veterinary technician who has worked with several animal rescue organizations, says she made dozens of calls to Animal Services. One morning when she arrived at work two dogs were playing tug-of-war with a cat, and another day she spotted a dog with a severely swollen face, barely able to walk. She made six calls on behalf of a tied-up canine that was barely alive, whimpering and smelling of death, but by the time an Animal Services investigator made it out the dog was dead. All of these incidents occurred on Billis' property.
Animal Services spokeswoman Vanessa Bouffard attributes the lackluster responses to a shortage of investigators. She says the agency would need 58 investigators — more than double its current 28 — to be able to adequately serve the county. In fiscal year 2007, those 28 investigators handled 43,847 cases. The majority of those were investigations and reports of stray animals.
"We would love to be able to respond immediately to a call. The reality is that we can't," Bouffard says. "It's frustrating because we're trying to do our job with limited resources, and we don't have the authority to go in and remove animals. There are times when we feel like we should be able to do more."
The agency doesn't keep statistics on response times, nor does it require investigators to respond within a certain time frame. She says responses are prioritized based on the danger posed to people. She admits that at times animals are already dead by the time investigators respond to calls, though Animal Services doesn't keep statistics on how often that happens. Those cases are still investigated, she says.
Cannon thinks it's a matter of priorities. "There's always enough money for things that `Orange County Mayor Rich` Crotty wants, like the arena," says Cannon. "But there's never enough for basic services."firstname.lastname@example.org