TAMPA — Friends warned Veronica Faulseit she couldn't save the world, but still she tried.
She got a permit to rehabilitate wildlife and founded a nonprofit, but soon realized her rescue was not sustainable. The donations, Faulseit told police, would grow if she expanded to domestic animals, and in August she did. Using social media, she began to tap the hearts and purse strings of cat and dog lovers.
Just eight months later, Faulseit and another woman were charged with animal cruelty. Officials found more than 60 cats, dogs, raccoons and an opossum living in their own filth, without food and water, at Faulseit's St. Petersburg home.
She adopted many from the Hillsborough County shelter and was selling others at a local pet store, possibly for profit, but police say it's hard to prove.
The case has shed light on an animal control system and crowdfunding culture that operates on good faith, allowing collaborative rescue efforts to flourish while enabling shady ones.
Every evening, the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center — the county's shelter — emails out a list of animals with less than a day to live.
Advocates independent from the shelter then post the information to the Facebook page "Urgent Cats of Tampa Bay" and others like it, calling on the rescue community for help.
"SIGNED OFF FOR EUTH," the post will read, with a photo of the feline and its euthanasia date. In the comment threads below, advocates desperate to help will pledge money via PayPal to the rescue group willing to save the animal. It's only $10 for rescues to take an animal from the shelter, but pledges often exceed that.
Faulseit and her charity, All Creatures Great and Small, were active on the page.
It's an efficient system, said Bill Gray, president of two dog rescues in the Tampa Bay area, but added that donors should be wary of any organization that relies on pledge funds to operate.
"It's a very ripe (space) to be taken advantage of because you're talking about people's emotions," he said.
Donors should be certain the rescue organization is a registered nonprofit, he said. In Florida, organizations must also obtain a permit to solicit money.
According to the Gift Givers' Guide on the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website, Faulseit's charity did not have a permit.
"You hear anecdotally of stories all the time of organizations that are using animals as the fundraising source through sympathy," said Doug Brightwell, field services manager for Pinellas County Animal Services.
He said donors should physically visit the rescue facility, rather than rely on online photos.
Nick Atwood, campaigns coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said this Facebook fad is just the newest way scammers target gullible but well-intentioned folks, no different from collection cans that litter gas station counters.
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"It seems every day there's a new fundraising website that pops up," he said. "It's hard to tell what is legitimate and what is fraud."
The same goes for rescue groups. There is no statewide rating system specific to rescues, and neither the Hillsborough nor Pinellas shelters have their own system.
Representatives from both shelters said a rating system would be ideal but would require staffing and money.
"It would be great if some private agency stepped up to do that," said Scott Trebatoski, director of the Hillsborough shelter. "It would be a relatively complex startup, but if someone could master it, it could be a fantastic tool for everybody to use."
Days after Faulseit's arrest, Trebatoski said he would review the shelter's policies to determine whether this case could have been prevented, since Faulseit rescued 70 animals from the shelter between January and March.
On Friday, Trebatoski said an informal poll of shelters across the state proved his shelter's policies followed industry standards. Although Pinellas conducts annual on-site inspections of its in-county rescue partners, Trebatoski said such a system may be unrealistic in Hillsborough. Resources are too sparse.
"There's never going to be a perfect system," he said.
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Faulseit and Patricia Scites, the other woman arrested, insist they are not at fault, St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said.
It remains unclear whether the women were using the animals for money or simply became overwhelmed. Their fundraising methods were a subject of the investigation, police said, but additional fraud charges cannot be brought against them unless there is a crime victim.
On April 1, Faulseit entered a not-guilty plea to the cruelty charges and filed an injunction that, if granted, would prevent the neglected animals at the Pinellas shelter from being adopted until her case is resolved.
Brightwell, the Pinellas animal services spokesman, said the shelter is prepared to house the animals for as long as needed.
Three animals seized from Faulseit's home have been euthanized, Brightwell said, because they were too ill. But euthanasia is not an option for the remaining critters.
Steve Silk, owner of Animal House pet store in St. Petersburg, had allowed Faulseit to sell her rescues at his store for months and said it wasn't until the end that he grew suspicious.
"Something happened in her life," he said.
In the future, Silk said he'll be more diligent about vetting the rescues he partners with, including checking with authorities and visiting the rescue facilities himself. He wishes he'd done more to help Faulseit.
"She did try to save the world," he said. "I think as this thing got bigger she couldn't say no."
Contact Katie Mettler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.