In less than a week, the champagne and noisemakers will come out. We'll lift a glass and toast the new year, hopeful of better days ahead. For now, though, let's look back at some of the memorable stories and images in eastern Hillsborough County. It was a year of challenge and change — neighborhoods altered by foreclosures, parents vs. principal at a Valrico elementary school and all of us feeling the bite of a bad economy. Still, not all the news was bad: A 4-year-old crash victim inspired us with her determination. A local businessman stepped forward to adopt a maimed dog and pay its vet bills. An underweight elephant moved on to a better life. Here, in words and pictures, is a look at the year that was 2008.
. . . vultures
The pesky vultures that ripped at the rubber parts on vehicles parked at Edward Medard Park are no longer bothering the unsuspecting boaters.
Shortly after a story appeared in the Times in August, rangers at the park on Turkey Creek Road started firing loud, whistling flares each morning. The noise would scare the birds from their perches in the trees next to the boat ramp, but they'd come back in a few minutes.
The boaters aren't sure if that's keeping the vultures off the vehicles, or if they're simply taking a break from their destructive activities. Bird experts say pulling at windshield wipers and window stripping is gratifying because the rubber is a similar texture to the carrion that vultures eat.
Either way, fisherman John C. Hood is not going to risk anything. He still parks his new black Ford F-150 truck by the picnic area, away from the boat ramp where the vultures congregate.
Jessica Vander Velde, Times staff writer
. . . vandalism
Dozens of grave sites that were destroyed when vandals hit Serenity Meadows cemetery in Riverview have been repaired, but at a hefty cost: $30,000.
Two boys, ages 14 and 15, faced felony charges of criminal mischief and damaging a tomb for their role in the May incident, sheriff's deputies said. Because the accused vandals are minors, the State Attorney's Office wouldn't say whether they were convicted, but Serenity Meadows president Michael Wick said the boys were both ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution, the average cost of a gravestone. Wick said insurance covered the remaining costs.
"We have had everything repaired and restored to all the families' satisfaction at no cost to the families," Wick said.
Soon after the vandalism occurred at the Providence Road cemetery, the 14-year-old's mother said she wanted her son to write apologies to the affected families. But more than six months after the incident, Wick said neither the cemetery nor the families had heard from the boys.
Kevin Smetana, Times staff writer
. . . Ned the elephant
Ned the elephant was severely underweight when U.S. Department of Agriculture officials confiscated him in November from animal trainer Lancelot Kollmann's home in Balm.
He was transported to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee to recover under the care of Carol Buckley, who says he's doing much better now.
Pictures show his sides are much fuller. He's no longer the gaunt elephant with protruding bones that was hauled off by the federal agency.
Ned is fed lots of hay and produce. His favorite foods are watermelon and oranges, Buckley said.
His favorite toy is a tire, which he drags with him when he walks.
"He keeps his tire underneath him all the time," she said.
Investigators said Kollmann wasn't caring for Ned, who weighed a ton less than he should have when he was confiscated. Kollmann defended himself, saying Ned was a picky eater with stomach problems.
Ned ate well for the first few weeks at the Elephant Sanctuary, but recently he's been showing signs of stomach problems, which a vet thinks may be a sign of sand in his stomach, Buckley said.
He's undergoing some tests now, Buckley said, and she hopes they'll figure out what's bothering him soon.
"Our goal is to make sure everything internally is working as it should," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde, Times staff writer
. . . Bindi the dog
Dispatchers got the call at 9:20 a.m. on July 30.
A dog was seen hopping around a phosphate plant near Plant City. Workers said it appeared to be injured. An animal control officer found a female shepherd mix near some swampy pits often inhabited by alligators.
Authorities think that's why the dog had nothing left of its left front leg but bone. The dog's jaw was also broken.
Hillsborough County Animal Services workers named the dog Bindi, after the daughter of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. Businessman Bob Reina paid for Bindi's surgery at a private clinic and adopted her a few days later.
Today, Bindi shares a Brandon home with Reina, two basset hounds and an aging Rottweiler mix named Shadow, who moves far more slowly on four legs than Bindi does on three.
Each day, Reina brings Bindi and Shadow to work with him at Talk Fusion, a video e-mail company on Kingsway Road. On a recent day, Bindi bounded through the office at full speed while the 14-year-old Shadow followed her patiently from room to room.
She stops at each employee's work station, just in case one of them is ready to part with another treat. More often than not, the workers are ready.
"They all have stashes," Reina said.
Kathi Lowe, the company's marketing director, feeds Bindi a treat from a bag. "She begs off everyone," Lowe said. "The second she hears anyone crinkle or rustle a paper, she's there."
Even the postman leaves goodies.
Watching Bindi get all of the attention is a little wearing on Shadow, who thinks long and hard before she sits down anywhere. But the dog that lost her leg to a gator has found a home, and turned everyone around her into a supporter.
"She does not know she has physical limitations," Reina said.
Andrew Meacham, Times staff writer
. . . Summer Moll
Three things were on Summer Moll's Christmas list this year.
A puppy, a guitar and a whistle. But everyone knew the dog was a top priority for the little girl in the bad car accident.
When her mother was alive, 4-year-old Summer constantly asked for her own dog.
One day, promised Jennifer O'Boyle, when they moved into their own house. To save money while she worked and went to school, the pair moved in with O'Boyle's mother. For fun, they often went to the beach. Summer loved the water.
That's where they were headed the afternoon of Sept. 10. An accused drunk driver went the wrong way on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. She smashed head-on into the car Summer and her mother were in.
O'Boyle, 24, died. Summer suffered a fractured skull and broken arms, along with a broken thigh, knee and ankle.
For weeks, she hovered in critical condition. Casts went on both arms. Doctors put a plate in her head and 12 pins in her legs. She went home to her grandparents and not long after that, her father came back into her life.
But months later, the casts are off. The pins are out. Her smiles and chatter are back.
She's started therapy to learn how to walk and run again.
Someone's going to have to chase after that puppy.
Chandra Broadwater, Times staff writer
. . . doggy business
Angie Frazier and Kendall Duncan were great friends who left jobs working with exotic animals to launch a dream. This spring — after three years of research and planning — they opened Canine Cabana, a dog day care business that tapped into their animal-behavior expertise by offering off-leash play.
The dogs get to play and romp in 5,000 square feet of fenced yards, which are cut in two by another fence to separate the big dogs from the little guys. The newcomers undergo a physical exam and evaluation to make sure they're compatible with group play, and then they are introduced to the other dogs one by one.
When Canine Cabana opened in May, there were 12 boarders and 15 dogs awaiting day care. The women aimed for a maximum of 40 day care members.
Then the economy started to tank. Some customers started to cut back on the number of days their dogs came to day care, Frazier said this month. Still, enough new customers found Canine Cabana to make it busier than the women expected.
Most weekdays see anywhere from 20 dogs to 35 in day care, and the weekend boarding is usually booked solid, she said. Dog owners find the business mostly through word of mouth. Frazier thinks they have been able to weather the economic hard times because owners see how the group play improves the dogs' quality of life.
In January, they're planning to offer puppy training classes.
"We're always finding new things to add and different niches to move into," she said.
Saundra Amrhein, Times staff writer