1. Opinion

Editorial: Animal rescue groups should be vetted

Published Apr. 24, 2015

Animal shelters should do a better job vetting individuals and groups that repeatedly rescue animals. The recent arrests of two St. Petersburg women on animal cruelty charges illustrates what can happen when rescue groups take on more pets than they can handle. It is understandable that animal shelters want to spare the lives of as many pets as possible. But they cannot discharge animals without taking care to ensure that rescuers have reputable, clean and safe shelters with sound business practices.

St. Petersburg police arrested Veronica Faulseit and Patricia Scites on misdemeanor animal cruelty charges last month after they discovered that Faulseit had more than 60 cats, dogs, raccoons and an opossum living in fetid conditions without food and water. Both women have said they are not guilty. Faulseit runs the nonprofit rescue group All Creatures Great and Small Wildlife Inc. and was licensed by the state to care for animals at an address in Tampa. But she kept animals at her St. Petersburg home. She got a great many of them from the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center, the county's public shelter. Since January, the resource center transferred 49 animals to Faulseit. Separately, they allowed her to foster 21 animals, though the privilege to adopt or foster animals that were not sterilized was revoked just weeks before Faulseit's arrest because she did not bring the animals in for veterinary services as required by program rules.

Officials with Pinellas County Animal Services visited Faulseit's house six times between November and February to investigate complaints. They finally gained entry in February, when officers saw a handful of animals in the carport that appeared to be well cared for. Hillsborough County's animal shelter did not make any visits. The agency says it does not have the resources to do so, an irresponsible stance that can unintentionally bring harm to the very animals they are trying to save if rescue groups are overwhelmed but continue to take in new animals.

The Tampa Bay Times' Katie Mettler raised questions in a recent article about Faulseit's finances. Like a growing number of rescue groups, Faulseit and her charity used crowdfunding on the Internet to compel donors to save animals facing euthanasia. While often deployed in support of a noble cause, the fundraising method can mask rescue groups' inability to operate outside of the receipt of pledge funds, which could be a signal that rescuers are in financial trouble. Donors should be wary of such techniques and perform due diligence to ensure that requesting organizations perform the services advertised and that money is spent on animals' care. It would be helpful if there were a statewide rating system that would allow donors to easily scrutinize the worthiness of the requesting charities. Such a system also would incentivize nonprofits to maintain shipshape operations.

In recent years, Hillsborough County has worked to significantly decrease its shelter's kill rate. Those efforts are working, and the agency is making great strides to improve its services. But the county should do more to make sure it isn't removing animals from one dismal situation and placing them in another by failing to vet rescue groups. Anything less is a disservice to animals and to well-meaning people who attempt to rescue them.