By 9 a.m., the van already held one dog, a malnourished shepherd mix found chained to a post and left in the sun.
The van crawled forward, through the quiet streets of north Sulphur Springs on a recent weekday morning. From the front seat, Sgt. Pam Perry and Cpl. Ken Vetzel, both Hillsborough County Animal Services workers, peered out over chain-link fences, through narrow side yards, looking for movement close to the ground. They spotted a flash of a tail, a fuzzy head, and got out.
"What's up, puppy?" Vetzel cooed, offering the top of his hand to the big, fluffy dog who was behind a fence.
Vetzel knocked on the house's door while Perry checked for food, water and shade. When a man answered the door and couldn't show proof of vaccinations and rabies shots, Vetzel wrote out a citation.
Vetzel and Perry were conducting neighborhood visits called Quality of Life Sweeps. The sweeps, under way for the past four years, usually involve three teams of Animal Services workers, local law enforcement and code enforcement officers.
The teams turn up everything from abused and neglected dogs and strays to illegal gambling, cockfighting and drug rings.
The sweeps target the county's problem areas for strays and dog complaints: Sulphur Springs, Wimauma, Dover, the University area and Town 'N Country. Often the sweeps occur simultaneously with presentations by Animal Services officers in nearby elementary schools. The most recent presentation, called Operation Safe Kid, was held in early April at Dover Elementary, where school officials reported a rash of stray dogs.
The office plans to hold another sweep the third week of May, during National Dog Bite Prevention Week. Animal Services workers call the sweeps a proactive step to check on the dogs.
"Sometimes (neighbors) don't call to complain because they are afraid of retaliation," said Dennis McCullough, operations manager at Animal Services. "This enables us to go in without complaints or putting people in harm's way."
Often, owners, who move or grow tired of their dogs, abandon them. Sometimes, they dump them in a field to fend for themselves.
Parents in Wimauma regularly see packs of roaming dogs while walking their children to Wimauma Elementary School.
"They like to run the streets in the morning when it's still cool outside, but that's when the children are walking to school," said Alicia Orenday, who walks with her 6-year-old daughter.
Some of the dogs stand almost as tall as the children, she said.
"They look hungry," Orenday said. "I want to feed them, but if they bite someone, people will say it's my dog."
While some might be hungry, abandoned dogs, others get picked up because the owner failed to keep them fenced in or on a leash.
"You get people who need education and some people who don't need to have a dog," Perry said.
Owners can pick up their dogs at Animal Services after paying a fine. Other times, if the dog is abused or neglected, Animal Services obtains custody, tries to nurse the dog back to health and puts it up for adoption. If the animal is too sick or deemed too dangerous, it will be euthanized.
Perry and Vetzel know well the dangers stray dogs pose. Both worked a case several years ago near Sulphur Springs where two children, running from a stray dog, dashed into traffic on 40th Street. Cars struck both children, severely injuring them.
On the recent morning sweep through north Sulphur Springs, a collarless, large brown shepherd mix dashed through a front yard.
Perry approached slowly with a pole collar. Using a soft voice, Vetzel tried to coax it over. The dog crouched and took off, dashing between houses to the next block.
The sweep team sprang into action.
They sped around the block and stopped in front of a house whose front gates stood wide open. The fence also bore a warning sign: "Beware of dog."
Vetzel walked with his tranquilizer gun aloft. The team found the dog in the back yard, and Vetzel fired.
The dog yelped, scrambled to the front yard and disappeared.
Vetzel used a flash light to look under the house.
Moments later, Perry's radio crackled.
"Did you just dart a dog?" asked a Tampa police officer, who was working five blocks away with another sweeps team.
The Animal Services workers jumped in their vehicles and raced to the railroad tracks, where the dog, named Bo, lay on his side in the grass. The effects of the tranquilizer finally knocked him out.
Perry and Vetzel picked him up and settled him in a carrier in the back of the van. Now they had to contend with Bo's owner.
"He's going to get some tickets," Perry said.
Back at the house, no one came to the door. The officers kept knocking. Finally two men emerged. Earlier, one of the men said Bo belonged to him. But now, neither would claim the dog.
Undaunted, Vetzel asked for one of the men's driver's license. Against the men's protestations, he wrote two tickets to Chris Cook, 41. The fines for the citations, a dog running at large and for no tags or proof of vaccination, totaled $500.
Cook refused to take them.
Lisa Sheppard, the team's police officer, stepped forward. Cook could go to jail if he didn't take them, she said.
"I'd rather go to jail," he said. "I have to take responsibility for someone else's dog?"
"Okay," Sheppard said, unsnapping the handcuffs from her belt.
Facing jail, Cook relented. His companion videotaped the incident.
Vetzel told the men they could come down to the Animal Services center to claim Bo.
"You can kill it," Cook yelled as the officers left.
Perry pursed her lips and shook her head. The team members climbed back into their vehicles. The caravan crept forward, slowly in search of more animals in need.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.