NEW PORT RICHEY — Over the years, Maleka Sharay's home has become a haven for stray cats and dogs.
She feeds them. Takes them to the veterinarian. Puts ads in the newspaper to find them permanent homes. She figures she's adopted out hundreds of cats and dogs over the past decade, with names like Frosty and Boo Boo.
But her neighbors along Star Trail complain the animals are a nuisance, and Animal Control has told her to get rid of some of them. When officials discovered she still had 17 cats and 16 dogs in her 1,368-square-foot home earlier this month, they slapped her with a citation.
"I don't have $12,000," Sharay said Tuesday. "I am going to fight it."
John Arias, the county code enforcement officer who wrote the citation, said he's an animal lover, too. He said he tried to sympathize with Sharay, but he's been warning her since October that under county codes she's only allowed to have nine pets.
"I understand she's trying to do a good thing," he said. "But I told her, I've got my job I'm trying to do. This is against county code."
Sharay is 45. She used to be a secretary for an attorney. A car accident last year injured her neck and lower back. Now, her sole income is disability checks.
For years she has essentially run her own animal shelter out of her house. She adopts the animals out through Patron of St. Francis Animal Rescue and Support, a local volunteer group that cares for stray animals.
She estimates she's spent thousands of dollars spaying, neutering and feeding countless cats and dogs over the years.
"I have a really strong conviction and love for animals," she said. "I want to do what I can for them. Ever since I was a kid, I found comfort in the animals."
But her love of animals has come at a price.
Neighbors have complained of ripped screens and destroyed gardens. And Animal Control officials know her by first name.
Arias issued Sharay a warning in October for having too many animals at her home.
"She admitted she had over nine," Arias said. "I dropped by several times after that. She said she was trying to find homes to get them out."
After half a dozen visits from Arias, Sharay's time ran out on April 10.
The $12,013 fine may seem high, Arias said, but Sharay was given a chance to adopt out her animals and didn't.
She faces 24 counts of violating county code. With 33 cats and dogs — 24 over the county limit of nine — Sharay was charged $500 for each extra animal. That's $12,000, plus $13 in court costs.
Sharay is due in court at 9:30 a.m. May 20.
She will enter a plea, and a judge will give her a deadline for reducing the number of animals in her home to nine. If she doesn't, she could face jail time.
She's relying on word of mouth and an ad in the Times to get rid of the excess animals. She won't say how many she has now, but says some of the animals have been adopted since she was cited.
"I don't even want to think about the $12,000 ticket and the outcome," Sharay said. "I'm just hoping I can resolve this."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.