ST. PETERSBURG — Alarmed at reports of aggressive dogs running wild in some city neighborhoods, city leaders are calling on Pinellas County to hire more animal control officers.
The move could hardly be more timely.
This week, two aggressive pit bulls believed to have been trained for dog fighting were euthanized and their owner, a South St. Petersburg resident, arrested on charges of aggravated cruelty to animals.
Less than four miles away in another Southside neighborhood, two stray pit bulls were attacked by Africanized killer bees. One of the dogs died.
The deaths highlight what city leaders say is a growing number of aggressive dogs loose in the city. On Thursday, they passed a resolution expressing their concern at the level of service the city is receiving from the county.
“This week, I’ve had two neighborhood associations contact me about loose, aggressive dogs they were trying to protect themselves from,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. “It’s a combination of services being reduced and, for reasons I don’t understand, it’s become a bizarre status symbol to have a very aggressive dog in some neighborhoods.”
Complaints about nuisance dogs are referred to Animal Services, which is run by Pinellas County.
Yearly funding for the department was cut from a high of $5.7 million in 2007 to $4.1 million for the upcoming year, county records show. The loss of funding resulted in the department cutting roughly one third of its staff.
The cuts also meant eliminating Sunday and late shift staffing. Animal services officers no longer respond to routine calls after about 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. An on-call officer is available after hours for emergencies such as when an animal bites a person.
“You can’t hang onto the same level of service,” said Doug Brightwell, Animal Services field manager.
County leaders this year appointed former assistant county administrator Mo Freaney to head up the department.
She said she is increasing the number of hours that officers spend on the road and looking at other ways to maximize services the department can offer.
“We’re doing the best we can to be more responsive with the staff we’ve got,” Freaney said.
With the county’s 2014 financial year already underway, it would likely be a full year before the county could add more officers even if more money became available.
“We appreciate their concern,” said County Administrator Bob LaSala. “We’ll certainly be sensitive to that as we’re looking at service level priorities in 2014.”
While city officials have no say over how Animal Services is funded, its residents make up a substantial portion of the agency’s workload. More than half of the 16,000 calls made to the agency in 2012 were from St. Petersburg and the southern unincorporated part of the county.
“You’ve got a lot more urban areas – dogs are not vaccinated or cared for,” Brightwell said.
Mama, the dog that has so far survived the bee attack despite more than 100 stings, is an example of a dog that was loose on city streets with medical issues.
While treating the dog Thursday, staff at VCA Noah’s Place Animal Medical Center discovered that the dog has heartworm, a mosquito-borne parasite. Infection is easily prevented by adding medicine to the dog’s food.
“It’s going to be a long road from the heartworm treatment,” said hospital manager Yolanda Maqsoud.
So far, no one has come forward to claim the dog.