There was a record turnout at the May meeting to hear guest speaker Polk County Sheriff Detective Laurie Smith, who works in the Environmental Unit with loose/neglected/abused horses, cattle and other livestock as well as to break up dog fighting operations. She is one of 14 investigators who work all over Polk County in 3 shifts so they can respond quickly to help animals in distress. We are fortunate in Polk County that the laws to protect animals are good, the detectives are certified animal cruelty investigators, and a qualified vet is available when needed. Some of her information:
- The department receives many calls from concerned citizens, especially during the winter from snowbirds. Some of the best reports come from mailpersons, delivery people, real estate agents and cable “guys.”
- Many of the calls are from well-meaning people who don’t know what they are seeing, such as “blind-folded horses” (wearing fly masks), “dead” (sleeping) horses or cattle, or animals with their heads “caught” in fences (really determined animals sampling grass on the other side).
- Investigators are restricted in their abilities. They can’t go into barns or over fences without permission unless they see an animal in imminent danger (such as no water in August).
- Investigators must follow very specific guidelines. They cannot just seize animals unless it is clear that the animals are in such condition they will not survive without immediate intervention.
- Investigators respond quickly to loose horses/cattle. They will canvas the neighborhood to try to find the owners and, if not found, transport the animals to the “stockade” near Animal Control on Winter Lake Road. Interestingly enough, the deputies do not have the ability to scan for chips on site—hopefully this is done once the animals are brought to the stockade. Animals can only be held for 30 days; cattle go to auction, and horses placed with a rescue group. NOTE: Owners do not usually face any penalty/fines for loose animals unless a) it becomes a frequent occurrence or b) an accident results from the loose animal.
- Animals MUST show evidence of abuse or neglect before investigators can step in. If the owner is not feeding the animals but the neighbors are, there are no grounds upon which investigators can act.
- Neglected/abused animals CAN be confiscated. Investigators first try to work with the owners on 30-day monitored plans (which can be extended if progress is being made) to improve the horses’ health if too thin, needing medical care, etc. If the owners cannot/do not meet the plans, they are given the option to surrender the animals. If they do not choose to do so, the investigators can seize the animals. A civil case and a criminal case will then be filed against the owners.
- Written and oral testimony from witnesses can make or break a case against bad owners. Eyewitnesses turn a case from hearsay into fact.
- Hope Equine Rescue has been a godsend in preventing found/confiscated horses from going to auction. They have taken and rehabilitated all horses given to them by the investigators.
One successful investigation involved an individual who had starved 20 horses. The horses were confiscated, although 2 had to be euthanized because of their condition. She was found guilty in criminal court, and had an injunction against her that prohibited her from owning horses during her probation. She moved to Hillsborough County, but bought more horses that were being pastured in Polk. She was discovered with the animals and, having violated parole, ended back in jail—and the animals were saved.
All reports and inquiries are welcome. If you see an animal about which you have concerns in Polk County, please call Detective Smith and/or her colleagues at 863-534-7205.
Detective Smith also had some recommendations to protect our animals from thieves. Chain your gates, not just on the latch side but also the hinge side. Microchip your animals and get cameras for your property. Take good pictures of your horses from all sides, and have a written description that includes identifying marks and microchip number. Use a hitch lock on your trailers, both when attached to your vehicle as well as when parked. Leave halters out of sight.