EAST LAKE — Field enforcement officers from Pinellas County Animal Services who inspected Teresita Hughes' home dog breeding business in February said they didn't find anything wrong.
"She passed with flying colors," Linda Britland, the field enforcement manager, said Tuesday. "Everything looked clean, was odor-free and the animals were in good condition."
Hughes, a longtime breeder, had good inspections, her paperwork was up to date and she took pride in making sure the dogs were well cared for, Britland said.
But when Pinellas sheriff's deputies entered Hughes' home at 339 Ranch Road on Monday afternoon, they found a very different scenario.
The house reeked of urine. The 121 small breed dogs found at the home were packed two to eight per cage and many were malnourished. One had a broken leg. The dogs — mostly Pomeranians, Yorkshire terriers and Maltese — had skin and breathing problems. Some had deformities and growths in their smelly fur.
Mary Ann Engelmann, owner of the Sheldegren Pet Resort in Safety Harbor, said there was no way the dogs' deplorable conditions occurred in two months.
"Their nails could have gotten long, but a lot of hair has fallen out because of the conditions," said Engelmann, who is sheltering about 60 of the dogs at her facility. "We have bathed some of the dogs once already and the smell still permeates them."
Pinellas County sheriff's deputies, an inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a representative from the nonprofit Suncoast Animal League removed the dogs from Hughes' home Monday.
In addition to Engelmann's shelter, some dogs are at the Suncoast Animal League while others are at medical facilities undergoing treatment.
"We are trying to get them all checked and we are finding more problems," said Rick Chaboudy, director of the Suncoast Animal League. "Some have had to go back to the emergency clinic and some have had to be put in oxygen cages for breathing problems."
Hughes couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but a man who answered the phone at her home and identified himself as Mr. Hughes said: "We deny the descriptions and a lot of it is fabricated."
The Sheriff's Office is conducting an investigation to determine whether Teresita Hughes should be charged with criminal neglect. Their findings will be forwarded to the State Attorney's Office, said Sgt. Jim Bordner.
At the same time, Chaboudy has 30 days to present a case to a judge that would give Suncoast Animal League custody of the dogs.
"If a judge rules in favor of us, we can start spaying and neutering animals and find homes," Chaboudy said. "If we have to wait until a criminal hearing, we are sitting on the animals for a while."
The investigation into Hughes' breeding operation began a few months ago when a veterinarian went to the home to give rabies shots to 83 dogs. The veterinarian was concerned about the conditions and notified Chaboudy. But he had waited too long to get a search warrant, Chaboudy said.
Monday, an inspector with the USDA went by Hughes' home for a regular search of records. She also was concerned about the condition of the dogs and called Chaboudy. That's when Chaboudy notified the Sheriff's Office.
This isn't the first time Hughes has encountered trouble with her dog breeding business. In 2003, the American Kennel Club suspended her for 10 years and fined her $2,000 for refusing an inspection, said Michelle Barlak, a spokeswoman for the organization.
The next year, Hughes was suspended again after a DNA test found she listed the wrong parents on a puppy's paperwork. Hughes is suspended from registering litters with the AKC until 2018.
That means she hasn't been allowed to say her dogs are AKC registered since 2003, Barlak said.
On Tuesday, some of the dogs got their first-ever taste of freedom. Engelmann said it was obvious many of the dogs had never been outside their cages.
"They were leery about grass," Engelmann said. "It's a totally different atmosphere for them but we are trying to work on it."