TAMPA — To a soundtrack of yips and barks, county workers loaded dogs one by one into white vans parked in the driveway of Trish’s All Breeds Grooming.
By the time the two-day process ended Tuesday afternoon, Hillsborough County animal service workers had collected 352 dogs from the business tucked into a dusty dead-end street in Old Seminole Heights. The dogs — mostly small breeds such as poodles, Maltese, Shih Tzus and terriers — had been crammed into kennels, feces and urine staining their fur. One dog was already dead. Another had so many broken bones it had to be euthanized.
A similar scene has played out at the business at least three times during the past two decades. Since 1998, county workers have seized at least 800 dogs from Trish’s and from Toyland Pet Resort, another business that has operated on the site at 2507 E. Diana St. The property is owned by Alice Holt, who in 2011 was permanently barred from owning dogs in Hillsborough.
Holt is 83. She was in her early 60s when the trouble started there in 1998.
The news of the latest seizure both pleased and frustrated animal advocates like Dr. Ellen Alence, a Lithia veterinarian who over the last few years has voiced concerns to county officials about the businesses.
“This is something they’ve known about for a really long time,” Alence said. “On the one hand, I’m glad they finally did something, but I don’t know why it would take so long.”
The process required to build a solid case to seize someone’s animals can be lengthy and complex, said Scott Trebatoski, director of Hillsborough County Pet Resources. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of personnel hours have gone into building a case for criminal charges against the business owner and operators, he said.
“We wanted to make sure if and when we went in there, it was the end,” Trebatoski said.
The case that first grabbed headlines started in July 1998 with a 911 call from a neighbor. Animal service workers seized 48 dogs from the Diana Street site and warned Holt to correct conditions.
Officers were back at the business in January 1999, when they found dogs, some shivering and wet, crammed together in outdoor cages. One dog was dead. Many suffered from malnutrition, lice, and mange, among other problems. Workers seized more than 400 dogs.
Holt’s daughter Lisha Moore told a reporter at the time that her mother taught herself to breed and groom poodles and became a champion breeder. She called her mother a workaholic who cleaned and fed the dogs herself.
“To provide for the animals, she’s taken out every mortgage she could,” Moore said at the time.
Holt was found guilty of 102 charges of animal abuse and another 88 of improper confinement. A judge ordered her to perform community service hours and pay back more than $203,000 to Hillsborough County and the Tampa Police Department.
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She was also barred from owning dogs for 10 years, but then-County Judge Denise Pomponio judge stopped short of forbidding her to have contact, noting that she may have to rely on her experience as a dog groomer to support herself.
Holt got in trouble again in 2010 when she was hit with dozens of civil citations for improperly confining animals and failing to keep current rabies vaccinations and registrations, records show. A judge granted the county permanent custody of the dogs seized in that case — an exact number was not included in available records — so they could be put up for adoption.
As a result of that case, Holt was place on a list of people permanently barred from owning dogs in Hillsborough, records show.
Listed among five co-defendants in the case was Robert D. Royers, whose has been involved with Holt’s businesses for at least a decade. Royers, now 69, was charged 20 years ago with five animal-related crimes in Putnam County. Prosecutors dropped the charges in March 1998, according to court records.
The Diana Street businesses were back on the county’s radar by 2015, Trebatoski said. Complaints about conditions there prompted officials to get so-called inspection warrants to check out the site, but the warrants require 24-hour notice to the property owner.
In January of this year, the county sought a court order to address unsafe and unsanitary conditions on the property, records show. Royers and Holt were both listed as respondents, Royers as the owner and Holt as “employed or affiliated with" the business.
Trebatoski said Holt appeared to manage the day-to-day operations. She has been cooperative in recent months, turning over to animal services some dogs that she said were too old or sick for the business to care for, according to Trebatoski.
But overall conditions didn’t improve. On Friday, a judge signed a warrant allowing county officials to search the property and seize animals.
Trebatoski said his staff is continuing to gather evidence and will forward the findings to Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren to determine if criminal charges will be filed and if so, against whom.
“I feel like this is one of the best cases we’ve ever presented in terms of evidence,” Trebatoski said.
No one could be reached at the business Tuesday or Wednesday. Royers’ attorney also could not be reached.
Royers has 30 days to file an appeal to fight for custody of the dogs. Trebatoski said he expects the fees against Royers will surpass $100,000.
Some dogs were missing eyes or will have to have eyes removed, but the animals that survived will likely be adoptable, Trebatoski said.
“The fact that we went in and found only one animal dead, four critical condition and 18 in urgent condition out of 352 means we got there before it turned horrible,” he said. “In all, I think the court system worked to limit the amount of suffering that was there.”
Trebatoski said Holt showed signs of failing to grasp the severity of the situation, he said.
“When we finished out there and let her know we were leaving the property, her response to the investigator was, ‘When am I going to be able to start breeding again?’” he said. “I think she thinks she’s going to start this business up again after this case and that is not going to happen this time.”
The dogs seized recently won’t be adoptable for at least another month and probably closer to 60 days, but Trebatoski urged people interested in adopting to come to the already overcrowded shelter now to find one they can take home now.