The Biscayne Times

Aug 11th
Animal House 2.0 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
September 2016

Miami-Dade County’s new, high-tech animal shelter is finally open for dogs and cats and you

OCover_Shot_animal_shelter_1029_Bn June 13, a sweltering Monday, some 300 people have made the trip to Doral and are waiting in the shade and under tents for the media ritual to begin. Large fans keep the air circulating, and volunteers hand out water bottles to politicians, reporters and camera crews, friends, and supporters.

But the close-up that matters most belongs to the converted warehouse behind them, its façade wrapped in a mesh-metal sleeve decorated with giant cat and dog-shaped cut-outs designed by New York artist David Brooks.

A dozen or more silhouettes, the very shapes that filled the cut-outs below, line the rooftop in various poses of rest or play. People marvel like tourists, snapping photos and taking in the whimsy of the frieze and façade.

It’s opening day for the brand-new Miami-Dade Pet Adoption and Protection Center, a day many people in this crowd have waited years to see. After 40 years, the old county-run shelter, at 7401 NW 74th St. in Medley, closed its doors on Wednesday, June 8. Over the past three days, the animals housed there were transferred here to their new digs just a five-minute, 2.8-mile drive south on the Palmetto Expressway.

The mammoth structure for the Miami-Dade Animal Services Department sits on 4.79 acres, with lots of parking, at 3599 NW 79th Ave. The building was gutted and retrofitted for the new animal protection center. Construction took two years. That was the easy part.

To illustrate how bad things were before the project got under way in 2004 with a county general-obligation bond setting aside $7 million for a new shelter, here are reviews from the two people who served as Animal Services’ directors at the old facility:

“Medley was a depressing facility,” says Alex Muñoz, the current director and former county assistant manager. “The smell was just awful.”

CoverStory_1_Lead_animal_shelter_1493Sara Pizano, a veterinarian and Muñoz’s predecessor in the position, minces no words. “An atrocity of a shelter,” she calls it.

Staff morale was low. There was no air-conditioning in the kennels. Clinic, surgery, and recovery spaces were cramped. Animals were routinely killed due to lack of space -- as many as 11,000 cats in 2010, according to Muñoz.

Adoptable cats were kept in small metal cages; feral cats were euthanized as soon as they were brought in. Conditions were so wretched; it was hard to keep volunteers.

Before 2005, Animal Services didn’t even exist as a stand-alone department, with its own budget and staff. It had started out as a division of Public Works until 2001, when it was absorbed into the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“Animal Services was an afterthought within another department,” explains county Commissioner Sally Heyman, who represents District 4, northeast Miami-Dade. “At that time, it was considered a punishment detail to work there.”

Those days should be behind us, just judging by the building’s appearance. Back at the opening-day ceremonies, it’s time for speeches from the local brass, led by director Muñoz.

“Completion of this new Pet Adoption and Protection Center is an important achievement in our continued efforts to increase spay/neuter services,” he says, “since it increases surgical capacity by more than 50 percent. Accessible and affordable spay-neuter surgeries are an important component in the efforts toward no-kill goals.”

CoverStory_2_animal_shelter_0289Credit, he adds by way of introducing the next speaker, goes to county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was elected to office the same year Muñoz took over as Animal Services director. The mayor, he says, was quick to approve funds for the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program, which works to reduce populations of free-roaming community cats through sterilization.

Gimenez, who owns three dogs, one of them rescued as a stray, takes the podium and offers short speeches in both English and Spanish. “This project was delayed for more than ten years prior to my administration,” he tells the crowd. “Soon after becoming mayor, I made it a priority to deliver this new facility. I can tell you that it wasn’t easy because of the funding challenges we had to face.”

The operating budget for Animal Services, he adds, was only $1.3 million when he took office. Since 2011, county commissioners have increased that to more than $10 million. “And I’m proud to say,” Gimenez declares, “that the total budget for the care and protection of our community’s animals is now almost $21 million.”

There’ll be more actual space now for the homeless animals -- dogs have 25 percent more inhabitable room, while cat capacity has doubled. “I’m happy that today we’re able to open the largest air-conditioned shelter in the country, here in Doral,” says the mayor. Not only does the air-conditioning keep things cool for staff, volunteers, and animals, it’s designed to control cross contamination of animal diseases.

Gimenez makes it clear that his administration shares the same goal as animal advocates: to make Miami-Dade a no-kill county. “When I became mayor, the annual save rate was around 51 percent for dogs and 25 percent for cats,” he continues. “Today we have a save rate for both cats and dogs at approximately 90 percent.”

Follow-on speakers include Heyman, an adopter of a Doberman named Mocha, and Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz, representing District 12 and accompanied by his Maltese, Elvis.

Coverstory_3_08232016_animal_shelter_1714Muñoz receives a congressional recognition certificate from the office of Sen. Bill Nelson. And Petco National Adoption Program manager Karen Meader presents a $90,000 donation to Animal Services from the Petco Foundation.

What we’re all really here for, though, is to get inside the 72,000-square-foot shelter and adoption center -- and after the ribbon cutting, an enthusiastic crowd clambers up the entry steps for their first look at the building. Lined up along the shelter’s entrance are smiling Animal Services staff, some of them handling dogs wearing “Adopt Me” vests.

There’s no denying it -- the animal facility looks spectacular. Dazzling features catch the eye from all directions. A dog- and cat-themed “chandelier” sculpture by local artist Carlos Betancourt and architect Alberto Latorre is suspended above the doorway. A Jean Cocteau quote -- “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its invisible soul” -- hangs high on the cat-adoption section wall.

The grand Adoption Mall is jaw-dropping. This vast open space is decorated overhead with photographic panels of dogs and cats. The section features glass-walled, furnished “living rooms” designed to allow the dogs -- especially dogs that have been at the shelter a long time -- higher visibility in more normalized surroundings. Several laptop stations throughout the mall are set up to create no-waiting, easy credit card adoptions.

Animal kennels are fronted with glass doors, instead of chain-link gates. Cats live and play in “condos,” and there’s piped-in music everywhere. “No rock and roll -- just calming music,” says communications manager Lilian Bohorquez, who’d been the marketing and media coordinator at the old Medley facility.

“Just look around you,” beams Mayor Gimenez. “This center sets a new standard for shelters in the U.S.”

ICoverStory_4_animal_shelter_0022n order to learn more about Medley, the BT exchanged e-mails with Pizano, who worked as director of veterinary services at the Humane Society of Broward County before Muñoz (then a county assistant manager) hired her in June 2005 to head the brand-new Animal Services Department.

The Animal Services Unit, as the division was known under county police control, had just been blasted in a damning September 2004 report by the Humane Society of the United States, which accused it, among many failures, of having no euthanasia guidelines, unnecessarily high kill and infectious disease rates, crowded cages, deplorable filth, and extreme neglect. There were also findings of fiscal mismanagement of shelter funds during the first two years of police control, according to a 2005 investigation by the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General.

Part of the challenge of operating Medley was its lack of county funding over the years. “There were zero budget dollars for Animal Services in 2002,” recalls Commissioner Heyman, “and the shelter was just bursting at the seams. Limited operating money came from rabies tags, adoption fees, and fines they collected. That was it. We were the largest county in Florida and we did the least of the 67 counties,” when it came to animal care and control.

“There was inadequate funding for the level of spay/neuter needed in the community,” explains Pizano, “and no infrastructure at the shelter or elsewhere.”

It’s not surprising that along with such extreme funding and operational shortfalls, she also inherited a lot of the lingering ill will. “When I began as director,” she says, “it was a very dysfunctional department, with many staff stealing animals and sabotaging my efforts. I had three bomb threats the first year and was physically threatened, among an endless list of other issues.”

Pizano had replaced 75 percent of the staff by the time she stepped down 2011. She now serves as program director of Target Zero, a charitable initiative that aims to end euthanasia at animal shelters nationwide.


The owner of two Humane Society cats, Sebastian and Bella, Pizano recalls the ongoing hunt for a new building during her tenure. There were five failed property-selection efforts.

“The others fell through because of the cost to retrofit, the location, inadequate parking, environmental issues, and/or not enough space,” she says. “It was a very frustrating process for me for the six years I was director -- until we found the Doral location. We closed on that property within a few days after I left, so I was relieved things could move forward.”

The BT was given a guided tour of the failed Medley facility on the day before it closed for good. Communications manager Bohorquez, the owner of mother/daughter Chihuahuas obtained through the shelter’s foster program, served as guide.

The Medley shelter wasn’t an environment conducive to a pleasant adoption experience. “The setting isn’t welcoming to adopters,” said Bohorquez. “When you see an animal here, it doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy. This has always been the challenge.”

The 32,000-square-foot facility had a capacity for 249 dogs and 50 cats, and the animals lived in cages in every nook and cranny. In 2010, according to records provided by Muñoz, 33,635 animals came into the shelter. Of that number, 18,886, including 7000 dogs, were killed. The save rate was a dismal 43 percent.

It had become a downward spiral: Animals were killed because there was no room to house them. There was no room to house them because they kept coming and there were no funds to put in place the kinds of programs that could help lower their populations.

The building itself was dismal. There was no air-conditioning for the kennel runs for large dogs, nor for the metal cage areas for small dogs, nor the cat cages. It came across as dimly lit, loud, and malodorous on that tour in June. Even the newer “west wing,” built in 2002, was in need of repair. An area of approximately 90 kennels for large “escape artist” dogs, it had a number of broken window screens and well-worn runs.

Only the surgical room, offices, and outside visitor clinic/waiting room were air-conditioned. The waiting room was also the reception area for both adoptions and the clinic. Public animal surgeries were mostly done in a mobile unit that had one table and little recovery space, severely limiting the number of pet spays/neuters that could be done per day.

In-house surgeries were performed in a space that appeared as if it could have been a storage area -- but that was all they had.

ICoverStory_6_animal_shelter_0813n July, a month after the grand opening, Alex Muñoz sits down with the BT to discuss efforts to improve the department’s animal care.

In 2011, he says, program funding finally began in earnest. This was the year, too, that the county bought the Doral property for $6.7 million. According to Pam Regula, public information officer for the Internal Services Department, whose Design and Construction Division managed the project, LIVS Associates in Coral Gables designed the state-of-the-art facility at a cost of $1.8 million.

Veterinarian Sandra Newbury, director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine, consulted on the project and was paid through funding from an ASPCA grant. Lynx Construction began the retrofit October 1, 2014, and completed the project with this past May 13, one month before opening day, at a price tag of $15.5 million.

Muñoz says three aspects of the new facility will best help with animal care: the air-conditioning system, designed to control cross-contamination of disease; the dog parks located outside the shelter; and an increase in clinic, surgical, and recovery space.

The air-conditioning at Doral is a big deal on several levels. It brought about an immediate improvement in staff morale, in no small part because it keeps the kennel areas cool and odor free.

“One of the items in that $15 million retrofit is over a million dollars in air-conditioning,” he says. “There are about nine huge A/C units on the roof. Our indoor kennel pods [dog runs] are built next to each other, but these rooms don’t connect by air-conditioning. The A/C is coming in separately in each space and going out separately, so there’s disease control.”

The new dog parks enhance the program called Dogs Playing for Life. “In the morning,” says Muñoz, “we’re taking all the dogs outside to the new dog parks while staff is cleaning the kennel rooms inside.”

On one side of the building are seven individual parks designed with artificial turf, kiddie pools, and stylish canvas shading overhead. The opposite side of the building has four cement parks. The director says he’s thrilled that dogs get the chance to go outside off the leash here -- plus he can consolidate staff man-hours.

“We’re trying to handle both exercise and cleaning at the same time,” he explains. “At Medley, we had one little dog park that was used for meet-and-greets with dogs. We also walked dogs on leash in a field. Now we have a great space to take animals out to.”

CoverStory_7_animal_shelter_0134Finally, the increased clinic space will mean more spay and neuter surgeries. “We’re not there yet -- we’re just getting adjusted to the new building right now,” he says. “In the long run, it will provide more capacity for spay and neuter. We have more space, more tables, more recovery space.”

The new Wellness Clinic has two examination rooms, compared to just one at Medley. Now people will be able to get their pets’ shots and tags with less waiting time. The in-house surgical area has three treatment tables and three surgical tables. Outside surgeries for the public are done in a separate unit with two surgical tables, where the BT watched a life-saving leg amputation of an adopted dog suffering from cancer. Instead of euthanizing the pet, the adoptive family was given this option -- something that couldn’t have taken place at the Medley facility.

There are 14 new adoption counselors and 20 more kennel staff. The new shelter also has a Rescue and Transport Room, where a rescue coordinator connects with rescue groups to move animals out of the shelter. In the Reflection Room, families surrendering pets can say their goodbyes in private. Have a fine to pay? Head on over to the Code Compliance Room.

The center has installed high-tech security swipes for entering sensitive areas; fingerprint recognition for employees; a long glassed-in catwalk/play area near the shelter entrance for high visibility; meet-and-greet rooms so adopters can interact with animals; kitchens; closed-circuit TV monitors with marketing messages -- the well-thought out details are endless.

When Muñoz became director 2011, there was still no money for programs to facilitate adoptions; no programs to increase spay/neuter of cats and dogs; no marketing dollars to sell the idea of the shelter as a place to adopt and bring your pets to have them neutered.

He has become a driving force in the uptick of these programs. Adoption, spay/neuter, fostering, coordination with rescue groups, Trap-Neuter-Return for community cats, and a first-time marketing budget -- all these were made possible by the huge community response to the 2012 Pets’ Trust Initiative, which inspired more funding for services by the mayor and county commissioners.

The Trap-Neuter-Return program began in 2012; within three years, more than 10,000 cats a year were being saved. According to Muñoz’s statistics, 40 animals a day were saved in 2010; five years later, nearly 72 animals a day were saved. In 2015, a total of 26,230 animals were saved at Animal Services; 2521 were euthanized for reasons of injury, sickness, or aggressive behavior; only two dogs were euthanized for space, as had been a common practice there for years. The save rate soared from 51 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2015 -- 90 percent being the golden no-kill number.

ICoverStory_8_heyman_0079t was back in early 2011 that local pet advocate Michael Rosenberg forced himself to spend a day in the old Medley facility, in Ward A, where he watched as 15 healthy dogs were euthanized for lack of space.

After that experience, he and pet advocate Rita Schwartz co-founded Pets’ Trust Miami, a grassroots nonprofit with the goal of creating a permanent source of funding to help prevent Miami-Dade animal overpopulation and stop the killing of adoptable pets. It had hoped to raise program funding through a voter-approved property tax increase, in the same way as the county’s Children’s Trust and Homeless Trust.

“In the beginning, Alex Muñoz and I worked together,” says Rosenberg, owner of four cats -- two strays, one rescue, and one adopted from Animal Services -- in a phone interview with the BT. In fact, it was the Pets’ Trust that came up with the idea of an initiative to raise millions to upgrade the county’s animal shelter programs and spay/neuter programs. Muñoz was an enthusiastic ally.

Pets’ Trust persuaded newly elected Mayor Gimenez and the commissioners to place a straw-vote initiative on the November 2012 ballot. In the days before the vote, Rosenberg pleaded with the public in a Miami Herald editorial. “For anyone unsure of how to vote on the Pets’ Trust referendum,” he wrote, “go spend five minutes in Ward A. You’ll never get over it.”

To raise public awareness, he also got the mayor’s okay to be “surrendered,” as a dog would be, and to live in a cage at Animal Services. He spent a weekend in October there, and as a result the Pets’ Trust raised tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

The ballot question asked if voters would favor a small property-tax increase of $10 per $100,000 assessment in order to fund spay/neuter, build more shelters, and put a stop to euthanasia of adoptable animals. The vote was nonbinding; even so, a staggering 65 percent of voters were in favor of it -- 487,000 residents voted yes.

Rosenberg recalls a meeting with the mayor after the vote, during which Gimenez told the Pets’ Trust group that he would implement the full amount. “We were ecstatic,” he says.


But by the summer of 2013, the mayor had distanced himself from the Pets’ Trust initiative.

“When it came time for the commissioners to vote on it -- without the mayor’s support, it just fizzled out,” he says. “Spay/neuter would’ve gotten $12 million of the $20 million. We would’ve been able to do 100,000 to 120,000 surgeries a year.”

What happened?

On June 18, 2013, everything seemed to be going well. County commissioners unanimously accepted a proposal from Muñoz for a “no-kill” action plan that would put to use funds from the initiative.

That plan, which had been designed with Pets’ Trust input, called for increasing veterinary staff, keeping the mobile surgery unit open seven days a week, greater public education, expanding TNR and other programs, allowing nonprofit rescues to apply for grants, adding programs, free and low-cost spay/neuters, and an advisory board to oversee the funding of programs.

Excised from the proposal was a plan to add high-volume spay/neuter clinics in underserved areas. The South Florida Veterinary Medical Association was said to have lobbied against this language; area vets reportedly wanted to handle the subsidized spay/neuters themselves.

But by July, when the commission was set to implement the tax increase favored by the public, the mayor and eight commissioners had a change of heart. Commission members stated they weren’t convinced that residents were really in favor of a property tax increase.

Mayor Gimenez, according to a Miami Herald report at the time, argued that residents didn’t really know what they were supporting with their yes vote, and that “common sense” told him more people would be against the measure than those who actually voted. (The ballot language read: “Would you be in favor of the County Commission increasing the countywide general fund millage by 0.1079 mills and applying the additional ad valorem tax revenues generated thereby to fund improved animal services?”)

Voting against the measure were Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Lynda Bell, Esteban Bovo, Pepe Diaz, Rebecca Sosa, Javier Souto, Xavier Suarez, and Juan Carlos Zapata.

Voting in favor of the tax increase were Sally Heyman, Dennis Moss, Barbara Jordan, and Jean Monestime. Commissioner Audrey Edmonson was absent.

CoverStory_10_animal_shelter_1302Uber lobbyist Ron Book had been hired by the Pets’ Trust to lobby the commission. According to Rosenberg: “We had to raise $25,000 to pay him. Maybe the problem we had was he was also paid through the county. He said he wasn’t conflicted by that.

“He was actually a lobbyist for both sides,” Rosenberg adds, “but he did believe in our cause, for sure. Maybe we unfairly burdened him with the challenge of also having to work for the other side.” (Book didn’t respond to the BT’s requests for comment.)

Heyman explains that she supported the tax-increase because her interests “were in spay/neuter and TNR with our existing vets and clinicians in the community. A lot of my colleagues maintained the sentiment they ran on, that said no new taxes in the recovery stage of a recession, so they didn’t want to implement it, especially when it became apparent that most of the money initially was going to be used to build buildings, after we already had passed the general-obligation bond for that purpose, and it would be years before we would start the delivery of service in those buildings.”

But Heyman also blames Pets’ Trust for not wanting to compromise. “The no votes were also because of an independent group that didn’t want accountability,” she charges. “We can’t give taxpayer dollars freely, without control and rules and parameters and regulations and accountability and an audit of the group. And Pets’ Trust Miami didn’t want that. They wanted to be independent.”

Instead, the mayor and commission added $4 million to the $10 million Animal Services budget for spay/neuter programs in 2013 and 2014. That extra funding rose to $7 million in 2015. Animal Services currently receives $19 million from the county; and in 2017 the budget will total $21 million. Rising property values in the county have resulted in more tax revenue -- without having to raise the tax rate through a ballot measure.

In August 2015, Commissioner Suarez proposed an even greater increase in funding for Animal Services to enhance spay/neuter services in areas of need. The proposal was rejected by the county’s Metropolitan Services Committee in a 2-2 vote. Commissioners Jordan and Zapata voted yes. Commissioners Diaz and Heyman voted no, citing already improving save rates and a 45 percent increase in funding in four years.

And those 90 percent save-rate statistics? Rosenberg is not convinced.

“Isn’t that a miracle?” he counters. “Without much extra money, all of a sudden it went to 90 percent? Well, 90 percent is the number where you can say you’re a no-kill facility. Nobody in the animal world that I know believes their numbers. They believe it’s run by a budget person who is really good at manipulating numbers.”

The BT asks Animal Services director Muñoz for his take on the failure to implement the Pets’ Trust initiative. “The commissioners are the policymakers,” he replies. “I’m the one who implements it. I don’t get into the politics of it.”

“For me,” he continues, “it was: We got a great opportunity with an extra $4 million in the 2013-2014 budget, and we made that work for spay/neuter, and that’s when our save rate went up. There’s the impact of that money. We don’t have a spay/neuter clinic at this point, but we have a spay/neuter network with over 30 county vets.” (In December 2014, the South Florida Veterinary Foundation announced it had received an “initial” $100,000 grant from the county to provide low-cost neutering services for “income-qualified” residents.)

OCoverStory_11_animal_shelter_0411n June 13, the day the new Doral shelter opened its doors, Pets’ Trust filed a civil lawsuit against the mayor and the county, alleging that Animal Services has been manipulating its save-kill statistics by mislabeling animals as sick or aggressive, keeping inaccurate records of animal intakes and killings, and “removing volunteers who whistle blow on what is really occurring at the Miami-Dade Animal Shelter.”

Among other things, the lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction “restraining the Defendants from carrying out the continued euthanasia of adoptable animals.” The new Animal Services facility, according to the lawsuit, is merely a “pretty Band-Aid” on a severe problem.

Also that same day, a Pets’ Trust editorial appeared in the Herald, praising the new shelter but pointing to the continuing problems with feral cat populations, the need for more spay/neuters per year, and stray dogs in south Miami-Dade.

Pets’ Trust Miami believes the mayor timed the opening of the new shelter to bolster his re-election campaign before the August 30 primary. Rosenberg says, “This election, vote ABC -- Anyone but Carlos.”

He, the Pets’ Trust, and its Animal Power Party PAC endorsed Raquel Regalado for Miami-Dade County mayor, who has stated she will implement the Pets’ Trust initiatives without raising taxes.

Says Commissioner Heyman: “Pets’ Trust did increase awareness of the problems that existed for decades. And give credit where credit is due -- they really energized the Miami-Dade pet people. Their issue also mobilized more rescue groups to partner with us and to increase funding of spay/neuter. It’s continued to keep a lot of people engaged.”

Heyman also notes that Animal Services has started working with other groups the county no longer views as competition. “They’re part of the solution and are now our partners -- the Humane Society, the Cat Network, ASPCA, and licensed vets all over the county that are willing to work with us at cost plus a stipend from us to do spay/neuters.”

With the new shelter and programs now in place, it should be easier for people to choose to adopt, spay and neuter, vaccinate, tag, and microchip their pets.


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