‘Anyone can start one, and run one.’ Florida dog rescues have little regulation, leaving consumers to discover new pet’s temperament

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At one moment, Wesley, a 52-pound bull terrier, was resting peacefully with his head in Ariel Sackett’s lap. A short time later, with little warning, Wesley attacked, biting her right hand, right biceps and right calf.

“My arm is finally starting to look like it doesn’t have a big dent in it,” said Sackett, who was attacked in May after applying to foster Wesley and then adopt the dog.

Wesley probably shouldn’t have been eligible for Sackett to adopt or foster. The shelter where he was housed had documented Wesley’s bad behavior and medication. But the dog rescue serving as the middle man in the transaction, Noah’s Rescue, which is based on Fort Lauderdale, was under no legal obligation to share such information with Sackett.

Florida dog rescues, unlike shelters, adoption agencies and kennels, aren’t under much legal obligation at all. Almost anyone can open a dog rescue. Many aren’t even brick-and-mortar facilities.

No one knows how many dog rescues are in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

No one knows how many dog rescues are in Florida.

No one knows how many dogs they receive, how many dogs they send out for fostering or adoption, and whether those dogs are fit to live with other animals or people.

“I think what is a shame about Florida is that it doesn’t require that there be any registration of these organizations,” said Julie Levy, professor of shelter medicine for the University of Florida. “So, we don’t even know where they are.”

And if the rescue meets the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services standard as a nonprofit charitable organization, it can solicit public donations and do almost anything it wants with the money. No one will check how the funds are used unless there’s a complaint and/or investigation, which doesn’t happen often.

“All of the funds that are there can be used for whatever they want to use them for,” said Adam Leath, a board member of the National Animal Care and Control Association as well as director of Volusia County Animal Services.

Whistleblowers claim the donations are sometimes abused, or used for personal purposes such as jewelry and fancy dinners, as opposed to dog rescue business. They point to tax returns that show six- and seven-figure incomes and facilities and resources that don’t line up with such funding.

In some cases, social media videos blur the line between properly using animals to solicit donations and exploiting animals to finance a lavish lifestyle.

“And it’s not an easy thing to prove that,” Leath said.

Still, the majority of dog rescues do honest work that makes dogs’ welfare their priority. But the lack of oversight grants dog rescues a loophole big enough to fit a busload of bad intentions.

Sackett is fortunate. She’s still alive. Pam Robb, a 71-year-old volunteer at 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, wasn’t as fortunate. She died from a dog attack last month at the dog rescue in Oakland Park. The dog that attacked Robb was euthanized. Its background and upbringing were unknown at the time of its rescue, according to Facebook posts from 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida.

The idea of regulating dog rescues has created a schism between many people directly and indirectly involved in the business.

Some who are closely involved in the dog rescue business, such as Leath, Levy, and private investigators, think more regulation, and enforcement of such regulations, could save lives, both human and canine. Others closely involved in the dog rescue business, such as Michele Lazarow, a Hallandale Beach commissioner, and dog rescue operators, question the practicality of bureaucracy.

“Rescuing is hard,” said Ylena Arias, live release manager for Palm Beach County animal care and control. “They’re taking animals from different shelters across the nation at times, even internationally, and they’re trying to find the best possible home for them. And they’re mostly just donation based.

“It’s awfully scary to think about regulating them because, if they’re heavily regulated, you almost put a hindrance on the work they can do.”

Chapter 4 of the Broward County Code of Ordinances dictates how dogs and cats should be treated. But investigators in Broward, as in most Florida counties, usually must be asked to investigate, according to Emily Wood, director of the Broward County Animal Care and Adoption Division.

“Largely our inspections are complaint-driven,” she said.

Wood said Broward County has field officers to investigate animal complaints, but it’s “very rare” they investigate a dog rescue.

Palm Beach County requires rescues to report each adoption and euthanasia, according to Arias. But there’s no active enforcement.

Many counties don’t have enough personnel to investigate dog rescues. And no agencies — city, county, or state — are likely to step forward to accept the additional responsibility of overseeing rescues.

“There are not a lot of resources to go around,” Leath said.

On top of everything else, there’s a cost associated with governing rescues. Leath used to work for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He recalled the Caboodle Ranch case in 2012, which included removing 673 cats from a Madison County property in north Florida.

“We spent over $4.5 million sheltering those cats for six months,” he said.

A more recent case rung up a significantly less hefty, but still noteworthy, bill. Shortly after becoming director of Volusia County Animal Services in 2019, Leath’s agency removed more than 200 cats from the Journey’s End rescue facility. Three months’ worth of medical costs for the cats was $60,000.

And if a rescue facility contests a government agency’s desire to take its dogs, the agency must sue. In the meantime, it’s the agency’s responsibility to house the dogs for at least 30 days.

“The bill gets dropped on the taxpayers,” Leath said.

Every year the University of Florida collects data from shelters around the state documenting how many dogs and cats they take in, and how many they send out.

“We gave up on rescues because they come and go, and many of them are quite disorganized,” Levy said. “They don’t keep the data in the first place.”

No one penalizes the rescues for not keeping such data.

“And even though they now require shelters and rescues to disclose their statistics on request,” she said, “nobody is collecting that at the state level.”

Georgia and North Carolina regulate dog rescues. Those states are examples of how Florida should handle its dog rescues, according to Levy and Leath, because regulation and inspection are at the state level. And any details about dogs are available on publicly accessible websites.

Florida’s Agriculture and Consumer Services agency indirectly regulates dog rescues because it oversees animal diseases as well as sales and imports. But if the rescue doesn’t require regulation in any of those areas it’s not likely to encounter state oversight. Florida has never had laws devoted to regulating dog rescues; it only regulates animal health.

At this point, if individuals don’t seek such inform such as Wesley, they’ll continue being sent out to foster homes and adoptive homes.es.

At this point, if individuals don’t seek such information on dogs such as Wesley, who was eventually euthanized after another unprovoked attack, the dogs will continue being sent out to foster homes and adoptive homes.

“I did not vet the rescue,” said Sackett, who had wrist surgery about 10 days ago because of that attack.

Sackett said she was told Wesley wasn’t on medication when she had her meet-and-greet before taking him to her house for fostering. He had a good attitude and played the role of a loving dog.

Sackett said perhaps she should have demanded all the relevant information not required by law.

“Maybe shame on me because I didn’t read this,” Sackett said in reference to Wesley’s daily behavioral reviews.

Sackett, who has two Yorkies, thinks Wesley was trying to prevent her from leaving the room when he attacked, not trying to hurt her. Regardless, she wishes she was told about his behavior and medications.

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But the way things stand, people must do their own research.

The same is true for donating money to dog rescues.

A few, such as 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, have been investigated by the state for misuse of donations. That investigation resulted in 100+ reaching a $5,000 settlement in 2017.

The bottom line, experts say, is people who get dogs from rescues and donate to rescues must do their own homework. Regulation of dog rescues in Florida is lax.

“Anybody can start one, and run one,” Levy said. “No one will be looking over their shoulder.”

Chris Perkins can be reached at chperkins@sunsentinel.com

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