LARGO — The dogs had rotten teeth. Their fur was matted and their skin was diseased. They were malnourished.
Friday morning, Teresita Hughes took responsibility for the condition of the 120 dogs found at her East Lake home in April 2008 by pleading guilty to 58 counts of animal neglect.
But under a plea deal with the State Attorney's Office, the 71-year-old will not serve prison time or pay restitution.
Instead, she was sentenced to five years probation by Judge Robert G. Dittmer of the 6th Circuit Court. Under the plea agreement, she will retain the ability to possess and breed dogs, but is limited to owning no more than three and breeding no more than 20. In addition, Hughes will not have a conviction on her record.
Hughes, who had faced up to one year in prison and up to a $5,000 fine on each of the misdemeanor charges, also was ordered to:
• Pay $500 in court costs and fees.
• Successfully complete American Kennel Club: Breeder's Symposium and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Animal Sheltering Operation Boot Camp Phase I, a two-day program.
• Adhere to a host of special conditions if she plans to have or breed animals. Among them, she must report to her probation officer and the SPCA every animal she owns or possesses and she must take the animals for a veterinarian checkup within 30 days of reporting the animals to her probation officer.
"With the terms of her probation, it's going to be very difficult for her to breed, but that was a disappointment to us," said Rick Chaboudy, the director of the Suncoast Animal League, the Palm Harbor organization that led authorities to Hughes home in April 2008.
David Parry, Hughes' attorney, was pleased with Friday's outcome.
"Teresita is able to continue to be a breeder and with no conviction on her record and she's not responsible for the vet bills," Parry said. "That's Suncoast's responsibility and the dogs will go to good homes and good people."
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In April 2008, officials of the Suncoast Animal League had the Pinellas Sheriff's Office accompany them to Hughes' home after receiving complaints about the living conditions of the dogs there. The league took possession of 121 Pomeranians, Yorkshire terriers and Maltese and went to court to gain custody.
But in August 2008, Pinellas County Judge Myra Scott McNary ordered the league to return 60 of the healthiest dogs because Chaboudy didn't have the legal authority to confiscate them. None of the dogs were ever returned to Hughes.
"Our main goal was to gain custody of the dogs," Chaboudy said.
There are now 119 dogs. Four of the original 121 dogs have died and two were born, Chaboudy said. The folks who have fostered the dogs will get first dibs on adopting them permanently. About 98 foster parents have said they want to keep their dogs, Chaboudy said.
The money raised from adopting the dogs out, at $200 apiece, will be used to pay the outstanding $38,000 veterinarian bill, Chaboudy said.
"I'm satisfied that the foster parents who took care of these animals and provided they love and care for them will get to keep them," said Greg Baird, the state prosecutor who handled the matter. "We are definitely going to prosecute people who abuse animals."
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There were about 30 people outside the courthouse Friday morning with the confiscated dogs they had been fostering since 2008.
Kari Mercaldi, 38, of Clearwater had been fostering three Pomeranians. She is going to keep two, Angel and Snowflake. She said when she first started fostering the animals, they were like "stuffed animals" and would stand in the middle of the room and barely move.
"It's wonderful," she said Friday, standing outside the courthouse with Angel in her arms. "It's awesome and I'm relieved that I get to keep my dogs."
Shenna Pender, 22, of Holiday is going to adopt the Yorkshire terrier that she's been fostering and named Symen. When Pender got the dog last year, it weighed "a pound and a quarter," smelled bad and had skin problems, she said.
"He's not leaving me," Pender said of the 7-year-old dog.
As for Hughes having the ability to breed dogs in the future, Pender said: "I don't think she should be able to own another animal in her whole life, not even an ant."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4174.