Hundreds of dogs and cats euthanized

Of 2,200 dogs and cats placed in animal shelter last year, only 700 rescued

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News

OKEECHOBEE — An explosion in the unwanted pet population results in hundreds of dogs and cats being euthanized in Okeechobee County each year. At their Dec. 12 meeting, the Okeechobee County commissioners were asked to support a spay and neuter program to reduce the number of unwanted pets.

Anne O’Berry, of Nala’s Rescue, said during the past fiscal year, the Okeechobee County Animal Shelter took in about 2,200 dogs and cats. Of that number, about 700 were rescued. A few of the others were adopted directly from the shelter, but the majority of the remaining 1,500 dogs and cats were euthanized.

Of the 700 pets rescued, about 75 percent were helped by Nala’s Rescue of Palm City.

“My heart is here in Okeechobee for many reasons, primarily the animals that we rescue,” said Ms. O’Berry.

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She said Nala’s Rescue does not have a shelter. They work with foster families locally, and transport animals to partner organizations out of state.

On Thursday, as the issue was being discussed at the meeting, 15 Okeechobee dogs were on their way Virginia to a partner rescue, she explained.

For the past five years, Nala’s Rescue has been pulling dogs and cats regularly from the Okeechobee Animal Control Shelter and transporting them to partner rescues in Chicago, New York and Virginia, in areas where there is a shortage of adoptable pets.

The program is made possible with the help of organizations such as the Pegasus Foundation, she explained.

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Since March 2018, the veterinary bills for these transported animals totaled $26,000, she said. Nala’s Rescue receives no public funding and has to raise that money themselves.

“Basically it is from private donors,” she added.

The rescues cannot keep up with the explosion in the numbers of unwanted puppies and kittens, she said.

Ms. Berry urged to county to support more spay and neuter education and low-cost spay and neuter programs.

She said all kinds of dogs end up in the Okeechobee animal shelter. “Until Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office took over four years ago, nobody knew these animals existed,” she said. “Those beautiful animals were being euthanized.”

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She said OCSO has made big improvements in the shelter, and welcomes help from rescue organizations to find homes for the unwanted pets.

Operation SOS helps with a low cost spay and neuter program. But it’s just not enough to keep up with the unwanted pet population, Ms. Berry continued. When a spay and neuter van visit is scheduled, the dates fill up quickly.

She said they would like to see more low-cost spay and neuter programs in the county.

“We’re hoping how to get the numbers down in terms of euthanizations,” she explained.

Ms. Berry said the rescues and current spay/neuter programs just can’t keep up with the number of animals.

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“It’s like putting a finger in the dike,” she said. “We pulled out 15 dogs to go to Virginia today,” she said, but within a few days the kennels will be filled up again.

She said there are too many people who dump unwanted puppies at the shelter or in a ditch and then allow their dogs to continue breeding.

Ms. O’Berry said another problem is the lack of veterinary care. “About a third of the dogs we take are heart worm positive,” she said. These dogs are expensive to treat, but no one will adopt them unless they are treated.

She asked the county commission to do more to support low cost spay and neuter programs and to encourage pet owners to have their pets spayed or neutered.

“A disproportionate number of animals from this county are not spayed or neutered,” she said. “It’s just an explosion of animals.”

Ms. Berry added if you have an agricultural operation, you may have reason not to spay or neuter the working dogs. But those working dogs are not the ones that wind up dumped on the side of the road.

Barbara Birdsey, of Hobe Sound, is the founder of the Pegasus Foundation. She said the Pegasus Foundation became interested in Okeechobee County about three years ago.

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“We have put a lot of money and effort into the spay/neuter and transport piece of this,” she said. Ms. Birdsey said she encourages the county to implement their own spay and neuter program.

“I would love to see a major spay/neuter effort launched here in this county,” she said. “The No More Homeless Pets movement is very strong. I think it could be very good here,” she said. She encouraged the county to explore ways to fund more spay and neuter efforts, using programs in other parts of the state as a model.

“Okeechobee County’s lifeblood is animal agriculture,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “I would not be for any involvement of any of the radical animal rights groups. They seem to find a way to sneak in. I’m just a little leery of giving an animal rights group any way to stick their nose in.”

Ms. Birdsey said she is confident they can find a way to provide more spay and neuter services without involving radical groups.

“There’s just a huge number of animals that are considered of no value and left on the side of the road,” she said.

“I believe there is a special place in hell for those people,” said Commissioner Goodbread. He said if they don’t provide more low cost spay and neuter programs, the county will have the expense of caring for the animals in the shelter.

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“The fewer animals you have in your shelter, the less it will be cost-wise,” agreed Ms. Birdsey.

The commissioners asked Assistant County Administrator Louis Johnson to look at the models used by other Florida counties and bring a staff recommendation back to the board.

Ms. Birdsey said they are already working with Sheriff Noel Stephen. “The sheriff is very supportive of whatever they can do to make the situation better both for the residents and the pet population of this county,” she said.

“There has been a very nice shift in the attitude for what can be accomplished,” she said. “We are very thankful for that and want that to keep moving forward and do whatever we can to help.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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