ST. PETERSBURG — Paul Morell says he would never hurt an animal.
He has been raising and caring for exotic birds and monkeys in his back yard for more than 30 years. He's licensed as a breeder by the federal government. Friends and strangers know him as the Monkey Man.
But Morell, 53, admits he doesn't know very much about horse husbandry. He knows they need love, and that's what he tried to give two miniature horses named Ginger and Kisses.
He kept them in a friend's back yard around the corner from his home. He fed them premium hay when he could and more often, carrots and apples.
On Aug. 30, authorities paid Ginger and Kisses a visit. Animal welfare officials said the horses were so skinny you could see their rib cages. Officials said that it appeared the horses had been eating grass in the back yard, which was barren, and that there was no water available.
The horses are now in a grassy range in Largo run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney is weighing animal cruelty charges.
A first-degree misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
The Monkey Man opened the door to his Lealman home last week with a 6-month-old capuchin monkey named Katie draped around his neck.
He wanted a chance to defend himself. He says animal control officials never gave him a warning that the horses were malnourished. He said times have been hard and he has had difficulty paying for hay, but has never had a problem feeding the animals.
"Everything is exactly wrong," he said. "They never asked me one question about feeding or care — nobody did."
The horses were gifts to his daughter, Brittany, 13, from her late grandfather, Frank Jordan, 62, who died in Kentucky in 2009. They are considered part of the family, Morell said.
Ginger, a palomino, is 2, and Kisses, a red and white pinto, is about 31/2 years old. He visited the horses two or three times a day to feed and walk them, sometimes late at night because he goes to school in the daytime. His two children visited with them and walked them around the neighborhood.
Morell said he sees no option but to fight for the horses.
"What am I going to do as a father?" he said.
But authorities say they interviewed the person whom Morell entrusted the animals to, Andrea Fraia, and that neither she nor Morell was doing enough to care for the horses. Fraia is not facing charges.
Morell is no stranger to his neighbors. His back yard is a jungle dominated by large, chain-link fence cages full of spider and capuchin monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, marmosets, parrots.
Since 2008, there have been at least 10 complaints to Pinellas County Animal Services about noises and odors, said Greg Andrews, operations manager for the agency.
Each time, an animal services agent visited Morell's home and found no violations, Andrews said. Morell said he is also regularly visited by agents from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Morell said he hasn't been cited by them, either. Spokesman Gary Morse could not be reached for comment.
Morell is licensed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is self-taught, and says he has supported himself through his home-based business, Morell's Jungle Pets, for years. He said he chose this profession because he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad.
"Everything I do is for the children or the animals," he said.
Megan Trethewey, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit SPCA of Tampa Bay, said the horses will remain in the agency's care until the investigation is completed. Bruce Bartlett, a spokesman for the state attorney, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.