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Trio of dogs creating terror, killing pets, neighbors say

The owner of the dogs admits they killed a cat, and neighbors fear a pet rabbit may have been their most recent victim.

Mike Gilbert says his dogs are gentle giants _ playful, lovable and not a bit dangerous.

His neighbors say the canine trio _ a malamute, a Siberian husky and a husky-German shepherd mix _ are responsible for the deaths of at least two neighborhood cats and a pet rabbit. They fear a person could be next.

Pinellas County Animal Services has waded into the fray 11 times since 1998, but neighbors in the Lakeshore community east of U.S. 19 and north of Alderman Road say the situation has only gotten worse.

The mysterious death of a rabbit named Sara this week seemed to be the breaking point for some.

"I have to go pick up my daughter from school right now and explain why there's a hole in her bunny cage and the bunny is dead," said an irate Nancy Lincoln on Monday afternoon.

Jennifer Lincoln, 7, was supposed to take the rabbit to summer camp Tuesday morning for show-and-tell. But sometime late Sunday night or early Monday, something chewed a hole in Sara's chicken wire hutch, pulled the rabbit out and left it dead on the Lincolns' side yard.

No one witnessed the attack on the rabbit. But to Lincoln, the large paw prints around the rabbit's cage and the chew marks in the chicken wire implicate Gilbert's dogs.

"All we're asking is to keep them inside or move somewhere where you can let them roam," Lincoln said.

Gilbert admits that his dogs, Caesar, Sierra and Shian, killed a stray cat once. But he said he had not heard about the second cat or the rabbit. He said he did not recall his dogs being loose around the time that the rabbit was killed.

He also insisted that his dogs would never hurt a person.

Gilbert said he is putting them up for adoption because he does not have enough time to spend with them.

"If you want to bring your kids to play with my dogs, that's fine. They're very friendly," he said. "They've never scratched another kid ever. There is no problem."

Under state law and a county ordinance, a dog that strays from its own property and kills or severely injures more than one other domestic animal can be declared dangerous. The dog's owner can appeal that decision to a hearing officer.

If the hearing officer, a retired judge, upholds the decision by Animal Services, the dog can be destroyed within 24 hours.

"It's important for people to call and let us know these things if there's an aggressive animal out there," said Greg Andrews, administrative specialist with Animal Services. "We certainly don't want to lead into a situation where the animals are left at large and attack a child or something."

Before Animal Services can act, it needs affidavits signed by at least two neighbors, Andrews said. He said his agency passed out forms in the Lakeshore neighborhood before, but no one filled them out.

Officers have picked up Gilbert's dogs at least twice for roaming the neighborhood and have cited Gilbert once for allowing the dogs to bark and create a public nuisance. The dogs are properly licensed and up to date on their rabies shots, Andrews said.

"They appear to be responsible pet owners," Andrews said. "They just need to keep the animals under control and in a fenced-in area."

Gilbert says he is doing everything he can to keep his dogs in his yard.

He purchased an electric wire to put around the fenced-in back yard shortly after moving into the neighborhood about a year ago, he said. Whenever he leaves the house, he said he puts the dogs in his garage.

"All they want to do is run and go play," he said. "When they get done playing, they come home. They've only gotten out probably once in the past I don't know how many months."

Shannon Sullivan said she watched Gilbert's three dogs pull her 18-year-old cat, Shadow, out from under a car in her driveway and kill him last August.

"They literally mauled it. They were playing with it, throwing it up in the air," Sullivan said. "They were throwing him like a limp rag."

Not long after that, Sullivan said she saw the dogs go after another neighborhood cat. She intervened and forced the dogs onto Gilbert's porch, she said.

As the president of the Lakeshore Club residents' organization, Sindy Todd said she hears often from upset residents about the roaming dogs.

"My kids are scared to death to go out and play. They're (the dogs) very intimidating," Todd said. "They protest to love these dogs so much. If they love them, take care of them."

Mary Austin said she gets complaints too. Austin owns the house that Gilbert and his girlfriend, Heather Bartley, live in.

Austin said that other homeowners have tried to persuade her to evict the couple because of the dogs, but she refuses.

"My tenant did put an electric fence up and he does come home every time he hears they're out," she said. "If he wasn't doing anything, that would be a different story."

Sullivan said the dogs are friendly one-on-one. But she worries that when they run in a pack around the neighborhood, they pose a danger.

"I blame the owners. I don't blame the animals," Sullivan said. "When they're let loose like that, when they pack like that, I don't care how well they're trained, they're going to kill. They're doing what comes naturally to them."