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Neighbors complain about loose dogs

The five big dogs have killed cats and a rabbit, and the stench is unbearable, Palm Harbor residents say. But complaints have yet to collar the animals.

Kathy Van Dyck was out jogging two weeks ago when she heard the familiar cry: "The dogs are loose!"

Three large dogs _ a malamute, a Siberian husky and a husky-German shepherd mix _ rounded a corner, sniffing from house to house.

Around the neighborhood, residents ducked indoors, grabbing pets and small children.

Van Dyck was just over a block from home, so there was no need to pull out the Mace she carries for just such occasions. She got in her van and headed out to pick up a cross-town neighbor who was walking his small dog.

Residents of the Lakeshore community, mostly built around canals to Lake Tarpon, say this scene is all too familiar. Many say they feel like they are being held hostage by the irresponsible owner of a handful of blood-thirsty pets.

Immediate neighbors say that's only the half of it. The dogs howl constantly, they say, and the stench wafting from their yard is unbearable.

Frustrated by what some see as law enforcement that lacks bite, some residents now say they are considering taking matters into their own hands by shooting the dogs. Several other residents are thinking about moving.

Many residents had hoped the long situation involving the dogs, also including a pit bullterrier and a Rottweiler, kept at 199 E Canal Drive was over in September, when the animals were impounded by Pinellas County Animal Services. But the dogs' owner, Mike Gilbert, simply paid a $140 fine and freed the animals.

Since then, neighbors say, the dogs have continued to get loose regularly, terrorizing the neighborhood.

Gilbert could not be reached for comment for this report. In a Times interview in September, he said he had tried to keep the dogs in his yard and insisted the dogs would never hurt anyone. Gilbert's live-in girlfriend, Heather Bartley, said she had no comment.

Gilbert's dogs have been impounded six times since 1997, said Welch Agnew, assistant director for the county's Animal Services department. Twice in 1997, the dogs were impounded when Gilbert lived in Clearwater. The last four times, including on April 4, Gilbert was living in Palm Harbor. Each time, Gilbert was charged $25 for each impounded animal, plus $5 a day for boarding.

Twice, Animal Services has cited and fined Gilbert for public nuisance related to his dogs. The most recent incident, on April 10, cost Gilbert $140.

"What he has constantly done is not fight anything," Agnew said. "He pays the fees and gets the dogs released. We're obligated to give them back."

The Sheriff's Office has also taken an interest.

On April 19, sheriff's deputies responded after neighbors complained the dogs were again roaming the neighborhood. Bartley told deputies that she was the one who lived there and that the dogs were hers, so she was issued a citation, said Kristine Gilmore, a community officer with the Sheriff's Office.

Gilmore said she subsequently learned Bartley had been issued a similar citation in 1997 for an at-large dog in downtown Palm Harbor. So Bartley will be reissued a citation with a higher fine, $140, for a second offense, Gilmore said.

Next-door neighbor Brenda Seals said attempts to resolve the problem with Gilbert face-to-face have been fruitless.

"He won't talk to me," Seals said. "He won't even look at me."

Seals said the smell coming from Gilbert's back yard is so bad her family doesn't open the windows on that side of the house.

She's afraid to let her 8-pound dog, Pity, outside for fear he will become a meal for the large dogs next door. Her son is also reluctant to go outside, she said.

Although the back yard is surrounded by a solid wooden fence, a chain-link fence and an electric wire, the dogs burrow beneath the fence and get out, Seals said. The dogs once ripped through a back door screen trying to get at Pity, she said.

"I am getting a gun, and I will shoot them when they're in my yard," Seals said.

Repeated calls to Animal Services, the Sheriff's Office, the Humane Society and anyone else she can think of haven't worked, she said.

"We've tried everything," she said. "I'm going to put my house up for sale. I can't stay here with these dogs."

The next-door neighbors on the other side of Gilbert's home also are considering moving after living there for 12 years.

"It's just driving us crazy," Neil Crane said.

Howling keeps them up most nights, he said.

"And it's been one breakout after another," Crane said. "The whole neighborhood has been upset. They scare the hell out of people."

One day Crane was so upset he pounded on Gilbert's front door and begged him to quiet the dogs. No one ever came to the front door, Crane said, but the dogs eventually fell silent.

Residents as far as eight blocks away say they have been terrorized by the dogs.

Karen Frohlich said she and her husband witnessed the dogs tear up a 20-year-old stray cat left behind when someone moved out of the neighborhood. The Frohlichs brought the cat to a veterinarian, but it had to be destroyed, she said.

Shannon Sullivan, who lives two streets away, said she saw the dogs maul her cat, tossing it around like a rag doll.

"It's obvious they can get out of their fenced area when they want," Sullivan said. "That yard is just too small for them. . . . It's getting to the point, a kid is going to get killed."

Nancy Lincoln is convinced the dogs killed her daughter's pet rabbit, which was kept in a hutch outside her house.

Lincoln's 7-year-old daughter now says she is ready for another rabbit. But Lincoln won't let her have one as long as the dogs keep roaming the neighborhood and sniffing around the cage.

"It's very unfair that we can't have a pet because these dogs live eight blocks away," Lincoln said.

Like many in the neighborhood, Lincoln has been frustrated with law enforcement's response to the problem.

It takes one to three hours for Animal Control to respond, she said, enough time for the dogs to disappear or go home. And sheriff's deputies often don't have the time to deal with loose dogs that have never bitten a person, she said.

Agnew of Animal Services said part of the problem is that many of the complaints from residents have been anonymous. Complainants who give their name are given a higher priority, Agnew said, because it makes enforcement easier.

And often, he said, neighbors will call 911.

"That's not us," Agnew said.

That's the Sheriff's Office, he said, and Animal Services often isn't even notified of such calls. He recommends people call Animal Services with complaints, unless there is a need for an immediate response.

Animal Services averages about 900 calls a day, Agnew said. Five to six trucks serve the county at any given time, but response is not going to happen in 10 minutes, he said, unless a driver happens to be in the neighborhood.

To issue a nuisance citation, at least two neighbors need to sign affidavits, he said. Animal Services has collected one signed affidavit of complaint about the dogs, from Seals.

Gilmore of the Sheriff's Office recommends the neighbors fill out affidavits attesting to excessive barking, foul smells or dogs at large. She has provided forms to some neighbors. Now it's up to the residents, she said.

Gilmore began to look into the matter last month and became convinced it was a major problem in the neighborhood. She had hoped to bring the dogs' owners to court, where a judge might be convinced to levy the maximum $500 fine.

But an assistant state attorney she met with last week said if Bartley opts to pay the fines, she can't be forced into a hearing _ where neighbors could ask a judge for a stiffer penalty.

But fines rise with each offense, Gilmore noted, and violators end up in court on a fourth offense.

Other than trying to increase the fines, Agnew said, there is little else the agency can do, unless the dogs were deemed dangerous under the law.

There are four criteria to determine if a dog is dangerous: if a dog has aggressively bitten or attacked a person; if a dog has at least twice attacked another animal off the owner's property; if a dog has been trained to fight; and if a dog, unprovoked, has chased people in a menacing fashion.

That last condition may seem like a catch-all, Agnew said, but is very difficult to prove. Dogs found to be dangerous are destroyed, but so far it's unlikely the dogs in question are dangerous, he said.

"It looks to me like there's not a lot of danger to the public," Agnew said. "There is no history of any bites to humans. There are no affidavits indicating aggressive behavior.

"It's a difficult neighborhood situation," he said.

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