Tammy Brown lives off $508 a month. That's the Social Security disability payment she gets because of her degenerative bone disease and hypertension. About $300 goes to the mortgage and utilities at her Moon Lake mobile home, leaving $200 for food, medicines and whatever else comes up.
She didn't have money to take her dog, Harley, to the vet.
She applied an animal skin ointment that her daughter had given her called Nu-Stock, which didn't do much for Harley's dry skin or the baseball-sized growth dangling from the chow chow mix's neck.
Brown said Harley, 14, had lived with those tumors his entire life, and they would pop, and go away, and come back.
"He was like Eeyore," said Brown's daughter, Brandy Wadyka, referring to the popular character from Winnie the Pooh. "But he was a happy dog. Just nonchalant and old."
In 2011, an officer with Pasco Animal Services took Harley and had him put down. He had other obvious issues: pus coming out of his eyes and cracked, bleeding skin. Internally, he had heartworms and ear mites.
Brown, 47, was charged with animal cruelty.
Her lawyer, public defender Willie Pura, said in order to be guilty of animal cruelty, a person would need to intentionally harm an animal or repeatedly inflict unnecessary pain. Brown did none of these things, he argued. "She's not a criminal," he said. "She is, at most, guilty of neglect."
At a hearing last fall, however, the state argued Brown should have turned to a local animal shelter or dog rescue if she couldn't afford a vet.
"The problem is that she allowed things to get to a point where the dog suffered," Assistant State Attorney Chris Labruzzo said.
Labruzzo said the state offered Brown probation if she took a plea, but the defense wanted the charge dropped to a misdemeanor.
The case went to trial, and on March 20, a jury convicted her of animal cruelty. Circuit Judge William Webb remanded her to jail while she waits for sentencing, which is scheduled for Friday. She's been behind bars for more than a month.
"This is the worst thing I've ever experienced," Brown said from behind a glass pane Wednesday at the Land O'Lakes jail. "I'm in hell. I'm literally in hell. I'm in here on a charge that shouldn't be against me."
She could face up to five years in prison, but the state is seeking a lighter sentence.
"We're maintaining our request for probation," Labruzzo said. "She doesn't deserve to be incarcerated for any period of time."
Veterinarian Nilufer Wilkins testified at the trial that there was severe, long-term neglect in Harley's care. He had advanced heartworms, hookworms, anemia and infection in his ears and eyes. The vet said the owner should have sought professional medical care.
The vet also acknowledged having spent $10,000 to get care for her own cat, Pura said.
"I think there's kind of an elitist attitude about this," he said. "I guess poor people can't own dogs."
Brown has no previous felony charges, and said she's worried because now she has to register as one. "I would've never thought that jury would've burned me," she said. "I'm good. I don't do bad things. All I want to do is go home."
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Options to get more affordable animal care
Michelle Wagner, a vet technician at San Antonio Animal Hospital in east Pasco, said there are some low-cost options for spaying, neutering and basic pet care, including:
- PetLuv NonProfit Spay & Neuter Clinic, 7348 Broad St., Brooksville, (352) 799-9990
- Planned Pethood, 5053 Gall Blvd., Zephyrhills, (813) 779-7000
- Pasco Animal Welfare Society, 11720 U.S. 19, Suite 18, Port Richey, (727) 819-1910
- Animal Coalition of Tampa, 502 N Gilchrist Ave., Tampa, (813) 250-3900
Residents also can turn to breed-specific rescues, nonprofit animal groups or their local animal control agency for help. But if the animal's quality of life has deteriorated, she said, humane euthanasia may be the best option.