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Saturday, Aug 30, 2014

County Uses Civil Law To Combat Suspected Dog-Fighting Ring.

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ST. PETERSBURG -

A Pinellas County animal control officer seized two pit bulls at a South St. Petersburg house this month, telling police he believed any canines at the home were part of a dog-fighting ring operating in Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Sarasota counties.

LaRae Bryant, 25, wasn’t home when Jason Anderson showed up to take his pit bulls, Oreo and Tupoc.

He also wasn’t charged with a crime.

The seizure relied on a state law that’s not used very much in Pinellas County. It allows authorities to seize dogs even when their owners haven’t been charged with a crime, such as animal neglect or cruelty.

Before Anderson took Oreo and Tupoc on March 6, the last time the law was used here was in May, when Zederick Givens’ pit bull and six pit bull puppies were seized the same day he was arrested on an animal cruelty charge. More than a week later, the county followed up with a petition to gain legal possession of the dogs.

Things work differently across the bay, where Hillsborough County Animal Services filed 25 petitions for custody during the 2012 fiscal year, according to agency spokeswoman Marti Ryan.

Maureen Freaney, the interim director of Pinellas County Animal Services, said it would be hard for her to draw any kind of conclusion regarding the different numbers at the two counties.

“Our geography is very different,” Freaney said. “Our demographics are very different.”

Hillsborough is, among other things, more rural and more spacious.

The seizures in Pinellas were business as usual. Sometimes animal control officers resort to a county ordinance to write citations that carry fines, while on other occasions they utilize the state law empowering them to seize animals such as Oreo and Tupoc, Freaney said. It depends on the situation.

“There hasn’t been some trigger switch for us,” she said.

The law utilized in the seizures allows an animal control officer to seize an animal that appears to be mistreated or neglected. A court hearing is then held to determine whether the owner is capable of taking care of the animal and is fit to have custody of the animal.

Even if an owner avoids criminal punishment and gets his animal back, he can be ordered to pay whatever the county spent taking care of the animal.

Anderson asked St. Petersburg police to meet him at Bryant’s house on March 6, according to a police report. Anderson told police he was there as part of an animal cruelty investigation involving possible dog fighting and said he believed the dogs at Bryant’s house were used for fights or had been injured in fights.

There were seven dogs in all at the house, all but one of them in crates. The seventh was chained to a heavy car part. None of them had food or water, though there was a large bag of dog food in the backyard, the police report states.

Anderson told police he was there to see if any of the dogs needed veterinary care. Five of the seven had scarring evidence of dog-fighting; of those, one had suffered a severe injury on his snout, another one on its neck.

After Bryant showed up, Anderson asked to get a closer look at the animals, and decided to seize two of them. He also cited Bryant for abandonment because there was no water for the animals.

Anderson told police that Bryant and Bryant’s father, Larry, who lives at the house, were both suspects in the dog-fighting enterprise, as was Bryant’s roommate and four other people. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s department was also involved, he said.

Bryant did not return a telephone call for this story. He told police that some of the dogs belong to him, others to friends. He said he takes good care of the dogs, feeding and walking them daily.

He also said he didn’t think Pinellas County Animal Services should be investigating him.

“Bryant stated he didn’t want the dogs seized because he would have to pay a large amount of money to get the dogs back from Pinellas County Animal Services,” a police report states.

Oreo and Tupoc were in bad shape, according to the petition the county filed March 15 to gain ownership of the dogs.

Oreo had a puncture wound on the left side of her face that was draining pus; her face, neck and forelimbs were covered with dog-fighting scars, and she was covered in fleas, according to the petition. Tupoc had a swollen nose draining pus, a fever and scars on his head, neck, ears, eyelids, forelimbs and hind limbs.


In addition to Oreo and Tupoc, the county wants any other animals Bryant owns.

In Givens’ case, county officials claimed the mother pit bull, Diamond, had fleas, and that she and her six puppies were infested with worms.

Givens’ animal cruelty charge was reduced to animal neglect, and he was sentenced to probation. He did not get Diamond back, but he did get back the puppies, said his attorney Jorge Angulo, who called the seizure “100 percent over-reaction.”

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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