LAND O'LAKES — Lisa Richardson thought she had her squirrel killer dead to rights.
"BB guns and pellet rifles are not allowed for taking wildlife," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation said on its website.
"Why is she getting off scot-free?" fumed Richardson, who wondered why the law enforcement officers who visited her neighbor last week didn't cite the woman for using a pellet gun to shoot a nuisance squirrel that was attacking her lanai screen.
Instead, the wildlife officer scolded Richardson for feeding the bushy-tailed critters peanuts.
"Now all of a sudden I'm the bad guy," said Richardson, who works for Karen Clark, founder of a licensed rescue operation for squirrels. She nurses injured squirrels back to health and raises orphans until they are old enough to be released into the wild.
As it turns out, no one did anything illegal. The information on the Fish and Wildlife website regarding the taking of nuisance wildlife is incorrect, said Gretchen Hochnedel, a biologist for the agency.
"Unfortunately, sometimes with some a large amount of information provided on our site some incorrect info will slip in," she said. "I can say with pretty good confidence no law was broken by the neighbor."
As for prohibitions on feeding, only bears, foxes, raccoons, cranes and alligators may not receive food from humans. Squirrels are not on the list. However, wildlife officers strongly advise against feeding wild animals.
"They aren't capable of abstract thought," said agency spokesman Gary Morse. "If you feed them, they lose their fear of humans and see people as a feeding opportunity. Then they can get aggressive."
He said Richardson's squirrel feeding probably caused the problem that 73-year-old Mary Crosson was trying to solve on Sept. 23 when she took her pellet gun and shot the squirrel that kept tearing at her back porch screen.
Crosson said this has been an ongoing problem. She tried to spray the squirrels with water "but they just hang there." If she had hired a licensed trapper, she would have to pay several hundred dollars.
She blames Richardson, who rehabs the squirrels in her laundry room and on the back porch.
"That woman is a fanatic," she said.
Not true, said Richardson, 50, an electrical contractor who started rescuing squirrels seven years ago after seeing firsthand how development decimates wildlife.
"It was my way of giving back," she said.
She said a teenage girl found the male squirrel that Crosson shot. It was "big, brown and beautiful," lying under a car.
"He dragged himself over there," Richardson said.
By the time she was able to take the squirrel to the East West Animal Hospital in Lutz, it was too late. X-rays showed the squirrel with two pellets in its body.
"Its spine appears to have been fractured," said Dr. Linda Register, the veterinarian who examined the squirrel. She said she is not a forensics expert but said the animal likely suffered. "I don't condone shooting any animal, but it would be almost better to use something like a .38 (caliber gun) so it would be killed instantly."
Richardson and Clark said they are sad but not surprised they got little sympathy.
"If this had been a cat that was found dragging itself along paralyzed by two bullets, the community would be up in arms," Clark said. "But because this is a squirrel nobody cares."
She is contacting lawmakers now to try to further clarify animal cruelty laws, which she says are subjective and say animals must be humanely destroyed.
"You get different answers depending on the officer you talk to," she said.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the law is pretty clear when it comes to dealing with a nuisance animal on your own property. You can shoot it, even with a pellet gun, at least in the county's jurisdiction. Cities might have different rules, so check first.
As for whether the method was humane, he said, intent or neglect would have to be proven to show cruelty laws had been violated.
"And what do most mammals do when shot (including humans?)" he said. "They run. Deer, hogs, and other animals flee all the time when shot, and hunters have to track them down."
People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, suggests alternatives for people to rid their yards of squirrels, such as trimming tree branches away from homes and power lines, spraying plants and trees with pepper-based repellents, wrapping trees and poles with aluminum or plastic sheeting, and keeping trash tightly sealed.
"Those are good, basic ways to deal with pests," said Register, the veterinarian.
Richardson worries that as more neighbors hear about what happened, they also might get pellet guns and start shooting. In May, a 9-year-old Maine boy was critically injured after his uncle used a pellet gun to shoot at squirrels in the back yard.
"What if a child gets shot?" she asked. "These bullets can travel 1,200 feet per second."