Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Public safety

Almost 300 animals taken from Oldsmar home strain capacity of SPCA

LARGO — The door opened, revealing a room lined with cages of rats. Several dozen rats.

"Is this all the rats?" a visitor asked Martha Boden, CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay. She smiled.

"No. This is only the beginning."

Boden continued the Monday afternoon tour of her facility, its resources strained by Sunday's arrival of nearly 300 animals from the home of an Oldsmar couple accused of animal cruelty and child abuse.

The dazzling (or terrifying, depending on one's opinion of lizards and rodents) array of animals presented SPCA staffers with challenges as they continued to catalog and care for an unexpected influx that, in one day, doubled the 10-acre shelter's population.

As Boden showed off the hedgehogs, snakes, lizards, gerbils, finches and dogs taken from 206 Lee St. Sunday, the animals' owners sat in Pinellas County Jail. Jeffrey O'Neil, 28, and Jennifer Kovacs, 26, were arrested after they reported their 16-month-old daughter missing around 6 a.m. Sunday.

A relative had taken the child to O'Neil's mother's house hours before, and left a note neither parent saw. O'Neil and Kovacs were both intoxicated when deputies arrived, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which termed conditions in the home "deplorable." A judge set bond at $10,000 each for O'Neil and Kovacs, and neither was able to pay Monday, according to Kovacs' mother, Joyce, who also lived in the home.

The SPCA cleared up initial misreporting by authorities Monday about the types of snakes owned by Kovacs and O'Neil, who on Facebook listed himself as the owner of "J&J's Reptile/Rodent Shack & Rescue." There were no Burmese pythons, which can top 15 feet long. However, there were two Colombian red-tail boas, one of them 71/2 feet long.

Burmese pythons are among eight species the state of Florida considers "conditional snakes or lizards" — animals no one can own without licenses and microchips. There are not similar requirements for owning red-tail boas.

Most of the animals were recovering well Monday, despite having lived in conditions SPCA officers called "filthy," most of their cages smeared with feces and lacking proper water and food. A handful of rats and hamsters died or were euthanized, but some of the death was offset by birth: Finch eggs hatched Monday morning. It was hard to tell exactly how many because the mother refused to leave the nest, even at the prodding of SPCA staffers trying to count. The other finches in the cage picked at food, fluttered and sang.

"It's so heartbreaking, but it's also rewarding, because you don't have to do much to improve their lives vastly," Boden said. "But then exhaustion sets in, when you realize how much work it's going to be caring for all these animals."

Boden is asking pet stores for donated goods and other organizations for grant money. She hopes O'Neil and Kovacs sign custody of the animals over to the SPCA, so Boden can begin the long process of finding them homes.

If O'Neil and Kovacs try to keep the animals, though, a potentially expensive critter custody battle could ensue. The SPCA charges an average of $10 per animal per day for boarding, so the 299 animals taken are rolling up a bill of $2,990 per day, not including veterinary care. At that rate, O'Neil and Kovacs could face a bill close to $90,000 if it takes them a month to win custody. Neither is employed, according to Joyce Kovacs, Jennifer's mother.

The 63-year-old retiree adamantly maintained Monday that the conditions in her home were not as bad as authorities said. The animals smelled, but the home was safe for her grandchild, O'Neil and Jennifer Kovacs' baby girl, she said.

"Jennifer and Jeff had a love of animals," Joyce Kovacs said. "I didn't really get involved with what they were doing. It just got out of hand."

Joyce Kovacs stripped carpet from a few of her rooms Monday and swept up sawdust left behind by the cages. If Jennifer Kovacs remains in jail until trial, Joyce Kovacs wants custody of her granddaughter, who is with O'Neil's mother.

"I don't know if they'll let her be here because of what happened, but nothing's here anymore," Kovacs said. "The animals are all gone."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]

Comments
He spent 17 years in prison. Now he’s a free man.

He spent 17 years in prison. Now he’s a free man.

TAMPA — Dwight DuBose walked out of the Orient Road Jail on Tuesday night after trading an orange jumpsuit for a brand new polo shirt and slacks.It was about 9 p.m. He flashed a broad smile and hug staff members of the Innocence Project of Florida wh...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Pasco teen killed after SUV runs red light; man who fled scene captured

Pasco teen killed after SUV runs red light; man who fled scene captured

NEW PORT RICHEY — A 17-year-old girl was killed Tuesday when her car was hit by a sport-utility vehicle that ran a red light, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.One of the occupants of the SUV who ran from the crash scene was captured hours late...
Updated: 11 minutes ago
Days before graduation, crash kills Lakewood High senior, injures two others

Days before graduation, crash kills Lakewood High senior, injures two others

ST. PETERSBURG — Caps and gowns were in the future for Bryson Welton-Williams and his two friends.Then came Tuesday’s horrific car crash.The three 18-year-old Lakewood High School seniors drove off from school a few minutes early, just 22 days away f...
Updated: 2 hours ago
He tried to rob two pharmacies. Both times he left empty-handed.

He tried to rob two pharmacies. Both times he left empty-handed.

TAMPA — Police are looking for a man who failed to rob two pharmacies last week.No one was harmed during the botched heists, but the man may be armed with a handgun, police said.Detectives on Tuesday released surveillance video that showed the man in...
Published: 04/24/18
FHP: Riverview motorcyclist critically injured in crash on I-4

FHP: Riverview motorcyclist critically injured in crash on I-4

TAMPA — A 41-year-old motorcyclist was critically injured in a Monday night crash on Interstate 4, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place at about 7:15 p.m. Cristobal Padilla, of Riverview, was riding a 2004 Suzuki motorcycle in...
Published: 04/24/18
St. Pete police identify man wanted for stealing car — and baby

St. Pete police identify man wanted for stealing car — and baby

ST. PETERSBURG — Police are searching for a 19-year-old man accused of stealing a car left running with an 8-month-old baby left in the back on Monday.The baby was found unharmed by two WFLA-Ch. 8 journalists a short time later, according to St. Pete...
Published: 04/24/18
A Sarasota girl nearly dies after accidentally ingesting pool water

A Sarasota girl nearly dies after accidentally ingesting pool water

It started off like a regular pool day at her grandparent’s home. Elianna Grace, 4, and other kids were having fun, blowing water out of pool noodles at each other.Then, as Elianna was blowing water out one end of the noodle, someone else accidentall...
Published: 04/24/18
Buckhorn urged to name woman as fire chief in wake of discrimination suit

Buckhorn urged to name woman as fire chief in wake of discrimination suit

TAMPA — In the wake of a female firefighter’s victory against the city in a discrimination lawsuit, Mayor Bob Buckhorn is being urged to name a high-ranking woman to replace retiring fire Chief Tom Forward.Earlier this month, Buckhorn said he will na...
Published: 04/24/18
Tampa man faces murder charge in September slaying

Tampa man faces murder charge in September slaying

TAMPA — A 68-year-old Tampa man faces a charge of first-degree murder following his arrest Monday in the September death of an Osceola County woman.Evidence from the crime scene led officers to James Jackson, police said.According to police, the body...
Published: 04/24/18
Florida man said sex addiction caused him to attack two women

Florida man said sex addiction caused him to attack two women

CORAL SPRINGS — Police say a security guard arrested in connection with two attacks on women in a Florida neighborhood has told investigators he has a problem. The police report on the Sunday arrest of 25-year-old Dante M. Collins says he admitted tr...
Published: 04/24/18