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SPCA program helps pay medical costs for animals

(ran East, West, Beach)

Three weeks ago on Sunday at 5:30 a.m., a Labrador mix named Boo walked outside her owners' home on four legs. She came back home Thursday with three.

Human cruelty maimed her. Human kindness saved her life.

Boo, who is owned by Jay and Diane Chesnutt, was shot by an unknown assailant in the shoulder of her right front leg as she walked in Chesnutt's fenced yard in the Child's Park neighborhood.

"I let her out while I was getting up," said Diane Chesnutt. "I heard her barking and went for the door. Then I heard the shot."

After the attack that morning, the Chesnutts took Boo to the Animal Emergency Clinic where Dr. Aimee Wade removed the bullet that had lodged in soft tissue just below Boo's heart. X-rays revealed a shattered humerus. The leg could have been pinned, said Dr. Wade, but because of extensive injury to the bone, success was questionable. The recommended treatment was amputation of the entire leg.

The Chesnutts had spent more than $500 in emergency treatment, a significant amount since he is undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer and collects disability payments and she is a prep cook at Leverock's Seafood House on St. Pete Beach.

"We were told that the surgery would cost another $1,000," Diane Chesnutt said. "We just didn't have any more money. We were going to have to put her to sleep."

At that point, Dr. Wade and Dr. Mac McGlamery, who owns Park Animal Hospital where Boo is a regular patient, intervened.

"They called the SPCA and told them about our problem, and the SPCA paid the entire bill," Chesnutt said.

That bill, along with many others for emergency animal medical treatment in this area, was paid with funds from the Crisis Care Program of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Pinellas County.

The program was started five years ago, said SPCA executive director Beth Lockwood, "for people that have been responsible pet owners and have an emergency medical need."

The program is funded solely through donations and proceeds from fund-raisers. One charity event this month raised more than $25,000.

When the agency receives a funding request, "applicants are required to show proof of income and demonstrate that an effort has been made to keep pets current on annual vaccinations," Lockwood said.

The Chesnutts, who adopted Boo about two years ago from the SPCA, were "model pet owners," Lockwood said.

Lockwood said that the number of crisis care cases has risen, from 27 in 1996 to 50 so far this year.

Cases of animal cruelty "have become more outrageous in recent years," she said.

Lockwood cited another incident, also about three weeks ago, in which a 50-pound German shepherd mix was stuffed into an oven and almost baked to death.

"I've been here 15 years and I've never seen a dog put in an oven," she said. "We saved the dog. The police aren't pressing charges against the woman because she is mentally ill. But we're going to court to seek an injunction against her owning any more animals."

Animal cruelty carries stiff penalties in Florida. Intentional cruelty is a third-degree felony and unintentional cruelty is a first-degree misdemeanor. Both are punishable by fines and jail time.

When a case of animal neglect or cruelty is reported to the SPCA, the agency conducts a confidential investigation.

"We investigate about 600 cases a year," Lockwood said. "Of those, about 10 percent go to the State Attorney's Office for prosecution."

Lockwood says that anyone witnessing animal cruelty should call a law enforcement agency immediately.

"Law enforcement is more enlightened now about animal cruelty," she said. "Officers often take extra steps to investigate animal abuse, especially in domestic violence incidents."

Lockwood suggests anyone suspecting animal cruelty or neglect should call the SPCA.

Boo's assailant was never caught.

"We suspect it was a burglar who was in the back yard, maybe trying to steal something from our tool shed and Boo surprised the person," Diane Chesnutt said.

Boo is perhaps one of the luckier victims of animal cruelty. She returned to a familiar home and loving owners. Still, the attack changed her.

"She sleeps in the closet now, and won't go outside after dark by herself," Diane Chesnutt said. "Last night, she heard a gunshot on TV and started crying. Physically, she's going to be okay. I don't know about emotionally."

For more information about the SPCA, call 586-3591.

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