Dog beaten with chain. Dog shot in head, left in road to suffer and die. Sick dog tied outside without water for three days while owner visits Disney World. Pigs stabbed and mutilated. Calf stolen, roped, dragged, killed. Roosters fitted with razor blades, coerced into slashing each other to death.
These things happened in Hillsborough County. They are a mere fraction of the animal-cruelty cases to make news in the past 12 months. The subject comes up so often that some may wonder:
Is something abnormal happening here?
The answer is yes.
More people — at least 271 — were arrested on animal cruelty charges in Hillsborough County than anywhere else in Florida from 2003 to 2007, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It wasn't even close. The county in second place, Miami-Dade, had barely half the number of Hillsborough's arrests, even though its population is more than twice as large.
Not only that.
While official national numbers don't exist, the advocacy group Pet-Abuse.com keeps a database, drawn largely from media reports, that has nearly 13,000 cases of animal abuse. Last year Florida led the nation in known cases.
And Hillsborough led Florida.
There are many possible explanations for these numbers. The most obvious is also the most ominous: Hillsborough County is the American epicenter for cruelty to animals.
But there is good reason to believe otherwise.
In fact, local authorities are convinced the opposite is true.
They say the numbers are a positive sign.
• • •
Let's assume the worst for a moment: that Hillsborough — a sand-covered county by a blue-green bay, home to pirates and phosphate plants and pasture land, population 1.16-million, fourth-largest in Florida, 32nd-largest in the United States — is an especially bad place to be an animal.
This would have dire implications for humans.
Even if you don't care about animals, you should mistrust those who mistreat them. Researchers have concluded that people who hurt animals are more likely than average to also hurt people.
Several studies connect animal abuse with domestic violence. For example, a national survey from Utah State University in 1997 found that in 85 percent of battered-women's shelters, clients said their pets had been battered as well.
As it turns out, Hillsborough does have an unusually high rate of domestic violence. It led the state in simple domestic battery in 2006 and ranked third among the 20 largest counties in per-capita domestic violence. Pinellas, which also had an above-average rate of animal-cruelty arrests, was first. (In January, for example, a man in Indian Rocks Beach locked two dogs inside a Ford Explorer and set it on fire, apparently to punish his estranged girlfriend.)
But closer inspection reveals cracks in the epicenter hypothesis.
"You can't interpret anything from arrest numbers," said Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University. "They reflect a mixture of how often an event occurs and how often people report it and whether police actually do something about it."
In other words, the priorities of local authorities can affect local crime statistics.
What if a county's top prosecutor made animal-abuse prosecution one of his top priorities?
This is where Bambi comes in.
• • •
Bambi was a deer — not a cartoon deer, but a real deer. An unwanted fawn with an injured hip. Bambi lived at Busch Gardens, where a veterinarian named Jess Ober worked. Ober took Bambi home to Brandon, where he also kept horses, pigs, dogs and cats. Bambi grew up there, in a pasture out back, and learned to follow Ober's son, Mark, like a pet dog follows its master.
Mark Ober remembers this fondly. He grew up to become State Attorney of Hillsborough County. More than 130 lawyers work for him, and more than 90,000 cases passed through his office last year. He doesn't have time to check on all of them. But every time an animal cruelty case comes in, Ober says he follows it from beginning to end.
In November, the Florida Animal Control Association gave Ober its first Sentinel Award —recognizing his "compassion, advocacy and guardianship" for animals — and in his acceptance speech, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by how well its animals are treated."
If the arrest numbers gauge Hillsborough's moral progress, they may actually be a hopeful sign. This can't be proved with the available evidence, but the numbers could suggest that animal abusers are more likely to be caught in Hillsborough than elsewhere.
The agency most likely to catch them is Hillsborough County Animal Services, whose director, Bill Armstrong, is a former Air Force colonel, and whose field operations manager, Dennis McCullough, is a former Secret Service agent who points out that he is neither a vegetarian nor a member of PETA. McCullough sees the protection of animals as nothing less than patriotic.
"Part of the American way is that we defend the weak and defenseless," he said. "And this is just another example."
Animal-services managers throughout Florida consider Hillsborough a model of excellence. Officers from other counties visit for training. Hillsborough has the three most recent state animal control officers of the year: Steve Scanlon, Cpl. Ken Vetzel and Cpl. Loretta Magee. And among the state's largest counties, Hillsborough is near the top in both per-capita spending on animal services and number of dedicated animal investigators.
The most prolific is Magee, a grandmother in heart-shaped earrings, 5 feet tall, 107 pounds. She turns 50 in August. She rises at 4 a.m. to lift weights. Her primary tool is something called a Ketch-All pole: three feet of aircraft-grade aluminum pockmarked by the teeth of ferocious dogs.
On the morning of Feb. 21, Magee drove to East Knollwood Street in Tampa to check out a complaint. A neighbor showed her surveillance footage of a big dog in a small cage, barking in the dark.
Magee knocked on the dog owner's door. Nobody home but the dog.
"Nastygram time," she said, and began to write. Just then a blue Honda Civic pulled up and a man got out.
"The crate is not considered adequate shelter," Magee told him. "If you tie him out, he has to have water, and he has to have a doghouse."
You are the law, the man said.
He led her in to see the dog, a pointer mix.
"The crate's way too small," she said. "Way too small."
The man apologized.
Magee's cases often lead to arrests. Cockfighters. Dogfighters. Dog-starvers. People who leave their pets to bleed and die without medical care. But Animal Services has a saying: Solution before prosecution. No one would go to jail today.
"Just get a new crate and watch the barking," Magee said. She got back in her van, where Renuzit Super Odor Neutralizer covered the smell of cats.
She returned the next week to inspect the dog's new kennel. It was big enough for a Great Dane.
Thomas Lake can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3416.