ST. PETERSBURG — People who know Carla Ann Thomas as a dog lover are flabbergasted.
An animal cruelty arrest, mug shot and handcuffs belie their sense of a woman who has made a profession of training and rescuing animals.
"She's very active and she's very responsible," said her mother, Teena Parravani.
Police arrested Thomas on April 18 after finding her 5-year-old Akita, Sache, dead inside her pet health food store. Police say they found the dog without food, water or air conditioning. Thomas, 30, had been keeping the dog in a locked room at her shop, Healthy Paws, at 2250 Central Ave.
He stayed behind that weekend as she worked with other dogs in an agility tournament in Palmetto. She returned when her mother called to say Sache had died and police were asking questions.
Thomas said she didn't leave food because Saturday was Sache's fast day, a practice she said she uses to cleanse her dogs. She thought she left the air conditioning on.
Police never ordered a necropsy, leaving Thomas' defenders irate: How can you arrest someone for animal cruelty without knowing how the animal died?
Some say that could be irrelevant under Florida law: That Sache was found without food, water, ventilation and oversight might prove cruelty.
Amid the questions, Thomas suddenly finds her career at stake.
"This," she said, "is my entire life they're trying to ruin."
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Thomas opened Healthy Paws in 2003 and moved to Central Avenue in November.
She said she kept Sache there because the dog was aggressive and couldn't be trusted around her five dogs at home.
She said she fed Sache 4 cups of soaked bison and sweet potato and left 14 cups of water in two bowls on April 16, a Friday night. She locked the door and turned on a floor fan.
She returned home Saturday but did not check on Sache. She hurt her back in Saturday's competition, so she went straight to bed and returned to the Palmetto tournament early Sunday. She rushed back after learning Sache was dead.
Officer Timothy Rutherford said he was hit by a strong odor of animal feces as he entered the business. He found the dog motionless in a small room, said police spokesman George Kajtsa. The door's metal knob had been severely chewed "in what appeared to be an effort to escape the room," he said.
Thomas said it wasn't unusual for Sache to chew on the doorknob; she said she replaced two doorknobs because of his aggressive chewing.
Kajtsa said the "totality of the situation" led to Thomas sitting perplexed in a police cruiser.
"I just know the dog was perfectly healthy when I left him," she said.
The officer did not mention a fan in his report and noted the air conditioning was off. Thomas thinks her landlord, Abraham Reid, turned it off while working on the building. Reid denies that.
The two have a strained relationship. Thomas said they've clashed since February, when she told him she was moving out in May. They since have had disputes about rent, move-out dates and building improvements.
Reid and a small construction team recently started installing a firewall to bring the two-story building up to code. Thomas said her dog would become anxious and gnaw at the wall, window latches and doorknob when workers showed up.
On April 17, one of the workers told Reid the dog was whining and did "not look good." Reid asked a tenant upstairs to call Thomas. Thomas said she never got that call.
The next day, Reid said he called police after finding the lifeless dog on the floor. He said he never intended for Thomas to be arrested.
"I am hurt," he said, ''for Carla's situation."
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Some experts question the practice of fasting for dogs.
"That's not something that veterinarians would recommend typically," said Dr. Don Woodman, owner of Animal Hospital of Northwood in Safety Harbor. He prescribes fasting only in cases of surgery, blood draws or acute vomiting.
On the other hand, say Thomas' supporters, it is unlikely Sache could have starved in less than 40 hours.
"They cannot prove that a fasting kills an animal," said Don Fudens, owner of Affinity Holistic Clinic in Clearwater. "No dog dies when it doesn't have food for two days. Come on."
Fudens, who gave up his license because he thought conventional medicine was hurting animals, said a necropsy should have been done.
"That would have answered a lot of questions," he said, "or at least certainly eliminated a lot of possibilities."
At Thomas' request, city sanitation workers took the dog away April 19 and disposed of the remains. She said she called a couple of veterinarians who said a necropsy would be pointless because by that time, the body had begun to decompose.
Police spokesman Kajtsa said he did not know why investigators did not order a necropsy, or whether it is routine.
"I think it leaves a gaping hole in the case against her," said Thomas' attorney, Dwight Dudley. "Proof is what is supposed to be required when you have an accusation against somebody."
Thomas' case has been referred to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which has not filed a formal charge. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also is investigating.
Thomas, who was hoping to open a new store devoted to grooming, instead directs her money to her legal defense.
CORRECTION: Dr. Don Woodman's name was misspelled in earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online.