To animal lovers, the headlines are horrifying: a cockfight busted up in Plant City, a dogfighting ring exposed in Seffner, a man charged with slaughtering horses for human consumption in Citrus Park.
Animal Services employees say fighting and other businesses that capitalize on animal cruelty are a growing problem in Hillsborough County. The department, hard-hit by layoffs in recent years, said it doesn't have the investigators to go after them all.
"We believe the problem, particularly cockfighting, is quite extensive in Hillsborough County, and dogfighting is also a significant problem," said Ian Hallett, director of Animal Services. "There are more cases than what we can handle out there."
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he has also read the headlines, and he wants to help. Hagan plans to introduce an ordinance Wednesday that would enable the county to confiscate assets from a business implicated in animal cruelty.
At the same time, Hagan wants the commission to ask the local legislative delegation to amend a state statute dealing with forfeitures from illegal enterprises so the assets can go to Animal Services, perhaps to finance more cruelty investigations.
"I think we must stop the seemingly increasing, deplorable acts of animal cruelty and neglect," Hagan said. "The goal is to target those that are running illegal enterprises with the goal of profiting from the torture and senseless deaths of animals."
Hallett said investigating and arresting people involved in cockfighting and dogfighting takes money and time from his department that could otherwise be used to care for animals at the county animal shelter, to promote animal adoptions and to reduce euthanasia rates.
Courts sometimes assess fines against animal cruelty offenders to pay for the costs of caring for and rehabilitating the animals they abused and neglected.
But Hallett said the agency has a hard time collecting the money. For instance, a judge awarded a $200,000 fine to the agency to take care of the animals confiscated from a puppy mill. So far, Animal Services has been unable to collect.
"That's the route I think Commissioner Hagan is trying to go: seize property to help pay for some of the costs involved in enforcement of a criminal activity," Hallett said.
Sherry Silk, executive director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, said she supports Hagan's forfeiture ordinance and agrees any seized assets should be given to Animal Services.
"They do a great job, but I think if they had more people, they could be even more proactive," Silk said. "The only people who are going to be mad about this are people who are breaking the law by dogfighting and cockfighting. Law-abiding citizens and animal lovers would certainly support this measure."
Animal fighting is a crime that affects neighborhoods as well as the poor creatures that are trained to kill each other, said Marti Ryan, communications director for Animal Services.
Wherever cockfighting and dogfighting rings are found, other crimes are often involved such as drugs and guns, Ryan said.
Ryan described the scene at the Plant City cockfighting bust on New Year's Day as "nasty, horrible" work for animal control officers who had to clean up the scene after 11 people were arrested.
The fighting roosters, which had to be euthanized, were unusually aggressive, scratching the officers. Ryan said fighters attach blades to the roosters, armed with substances to increase the birds' aggressiveness.
"There is no cultural excuse for it," Ryan said. "A lot of people think it tends to be harmless because we eat chickens. It's not."
In late November, Animal Services and county sheriff's investigators broke up a dogfighting operation that had been active for 20 years, located deep in a patch of scrub forest in Seffner.
The investigators found a massive dog graveyard along with seven flea-infested dogs, mostly pit bulls, with fresh, untreated wounds and other medical conditions.
Ryan said at the time that one of the operators of the fights showed no remorse.
"This person was so open and bold and entitled, to abuse and exploit these animals and just dispose of them," she said after the bust.