TAMPA — An anonymous caller told deputies that three shots were fired Oct. 29 on Deerfield Drive. In the yard of a vacant home, a patch of white fur and two sad brown eyes stuck out from the freshly turned dirt.
The woefully underweight 2-year-old pit bull mix whimpered as Hillsborough County Animal Services Officer Rene Northrop dug with her hands, trying to unearth the pooch that had been buried alive up to her snout.
Animal Services officials made a public plea Wednesday for help finding those who not only buried the dog, but shot her twice in the head.
"This is sick," said Sgt. Pam Perry, investigations manager at Animal Services. "If they did this to a dog, they'll do it to another dog, a cat, a child or a person."
It took 15 minutes to free the dog, but much longer to assess her injuries. Her head was bloody, her body was too thin, but still she was loving and friendly, immediately bonding with Northrop on the way to the vet, Perry said.
At the emergency vet clinic, investigators discovered the dog — which they named Phoebe — had been shot twice in the head with a small-caliber weapon.
One bullet entered Phoebe's forehead and exited through the back. The other went in under an eye and came out through her neck. No shell casings or bullet fragments were found at the scene, Perry said.
The wounds were only to Phoebe's soft tissue — she suffered no brain damage. Still, it took four days in the emergency clinic to save the malnourished dog. Phoebe weighed only 30 pounds; she should be about 50 pounds. The $1,700 vet bill fell to taxpayers, which Perry called a hidden cost of animal abuse and abandonment.
Perry wasn't sure if Phoebe's caretaker was simply being cruel or sending a message to Animal Services. Investigators rounded up eight dogs from three vacant homes in the Clair-Mel neighborhood east of Tampa in the days before Phoebe's discovery.
"These dogs had dog-fighting wounds. They were hungry and they were inside these vacant homes," Perry said. "They didn't wander in there. Someone put them in there."
Phoebe is the second dog this year to be found at 3221 Deerfield Drive. The first was abandoned and tied to the carport. Perry said the mistreatment of animals is endemic to the neighborhood, but stressed that there are families in the area who also want to see the abuse stopped.
"There are citizens that live in this community who are just trying to survive in what some may call a war zone," she said. On Nov. 9, the Sheriff's Office arrested 25 people during a crime sweep in the neighborhood.
Someone made the call alerting authorities to Phoebe, so Perry holds out hope that the community will help them find and punish the person who hurt the friendly, quiet, curious dog.
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"Was the call a message to us? Or was it a cry for help?" she said.
Phoebe will be put up for adoption after she finishes recovering. Anyone with information about this case can contact Animal Services at (813) 744-5660.