Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Clearwater family had dozens of animals in home

CLEARWATER — Victor and Julie Vu didn't know that what they were doing was wrong. Their two-story house south of Curlew Road in Clearwater is a pastoral-looking place, with butter-yellow clapboard siding and a veranda overlooking a drainage pond. It seemed right to have chickens in the yard.

And why just chickens?

"Honestly, we love animals," Julie Vu said on Thursday, staring at the spread that, according to police, had recently been occupied by 22 birds, 21 turtles, a pot-bellied pig and an American alligator. "We didn't know that the neighbors had a problem."

The neighbors, needless to say, had a problem.

On Thursday morning, their complaints about animal noises and smells led to the end of the peaceable kingdom the Vus had established on their spacious, grassy property at 2606 Brewton Court, south of Curlew Road and east of U.S. 19.

Clearwater police, accompanied by officials from SPCA Tampa Bay, Pinellas County Animal Services and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, discovered and confiscated the beasts.

Investigators are referring misdemeanor charges of animal abuse and illegal possession of an alligator to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which will decide whether to prosecute, according to Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts. The Vus have also committed multiple city ordinance violations, she said.

Neither Victor nor Julie Vu has any criminal record in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Victor Vu bought the house in 2005, property records show.

It is unclear which of the Vus' neighbors complained. One resident of the subdivision, an amateur nature photographer named Seth Dennis, said he had long noticed the animals but didn't mind their presence. To the contrary, they had been his subjects.

"I would walk down here to take photographs," Dennis said. "I could look into the yard and see all kinds of exotic birds walking around."

Watts said the animals were being kept in unsanitary conditions, without proper access to water, though the turtles had the run of the couple's swimming pool. The American alligator was caged in violation of state law, which prohibits unauthorized possession of the species.

"It's not a rural piece of property," Watts said at a press conference outside the Vus' house Thursday. "It's in city jurisdiction."

Watts is right. But turtles and pigs know nothing of the municipal code, and it was impossible to ignore the dolorous air that settled over the Vus' property as animals were evacuated.

First came the fowl — chickens, ducks and pheasants — and the pig, carted off in trucks by Animal Services and the SPCA. As they departed, a rooster that had somehow escaped scrutiny crowed in ragged defiance from an unseen place. A hawk circled overhead.

But these signs of a burgeoning resistance could not survive the loss of the menagerie's centerpiece. There was no crowing as Largo wildlife trapper Vernon Yates arrived and loaded the Vus' furiously wriggling alligator into his van, binding its jaws with tape. The gator was just under 4 feet long and about 3 years old, Yates estimated.

Vu said she and her husband (who was not at home Thursday afternoon) captured the alligator in the drainage pond. She said many of the other animals had been gifts. They were all pets, she said, though the couple did eat eggs from the chickens.

"We didn't know it was illegal," Vu said. "It's just sad that it's not good to have them in the city."

Vu stood on the balcony of her stately home. Chickens, turtles, gator — they were gone. Mossy oaks spread over the scene of loss, which could have been something out of Faulkner if more humans were involved.

Not all the animals had been confiscated. Beside Vu stood a small, portly quadruped. Earlier in the day, from a distance, news cameramen had speculated it might be a second pig. It stared with its mistress at the empty yard, the drainage pond.

It was not a pig, but a French bulldog, named Lucky.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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