The SPCA Tampa Bay has received a steady stream of phone calls and emails from people interested in adopting the three surviving kittens that were found in a freezer in St. Petersburg in December.
But the kittens are not yet available for adoption. It's not because of the kittens' health, but because of the legal process that must be followed, said Nora Hawkins of the SPCA.
The SPCA Tampa Bay typically serves as the advocate for the animals in such cases.
"Animals are helpless; they are totally dependent on their owners for care ... There's a public outrage when pets and innocents are battered and abused," said Jim Helinger, attorney for the SPCA Tampa Bay.
The process typically starts when the SPCA Tampa Bay gets a phone call to assist Pinellas County Animal Services or law enforcement in animal abuse or neglect cases. A trained officer accompanies law enforcement, assesses the situation and takes evidence of any neglect or abuse, Helinger said.
The officer then tries to get the pet owner to surrender ownership of the pet to the SPCA, to get the pet necessary medical treatment, assess it to see if the pet can live in a family and place the pet when possible up for adoption, Helinger said.
The surrender process includes a legal form, which the owners must sign which gives ownership to the animal rescue agency. In some cases, the SPCA may have seized the animals — as was the case with the freezer kittens, because their lives were at risk — but they still do not have the legal ownership, which the execution of this form gives them, Helinger said.
If an owner won't surrender their pets, then the SPCA Tampa Bay must go to court. The forfeiture process through the courts, which will grant the SPCA Tampa Bay ownership of the animal, typically takes about a month, Helinger said.
The Challenge of Animal Cruelty Charges
The prosecution of animal cruelty charges also takes time. Law enforcement and the SPCA Tampa Bay provide the documentation they collected to the state's attorney, who then investigates to determine if it is appropriate to file charges based on the evidence and facts in the case, Helinger said.
If the state's attorney decides to move forward, the person is arrested. The defense attorney completes a discovery process of the collected evidence and deposes witness, somewhat like people see in TV legal shows, Helinger said.
At the pre-trial conference, "the court gives an idea of what it would do for a plea," Helinger said.
Fighting animals and cruelty to animals can carry sentences up to five years based on Florida statute. If a defendant decides not to take a plea, then a jury trial follows, with the whole criminal process sometimes taking a year, Helinger said.
The courts are busier, compared to when Helinger started practicing law 40 years ago. Helinger volunteers his time on the cases. The courts have more cases including the increase of housing foreclosures and budget cuts have reduced staff. But the courts in Pinellas work very hard on the cases, Helinger said.
Education helps in about 95 percent of the suspected animal cruelty or neglect cases the SPCA Tampa Bay sees. In some cases, people are just overwhelmed and need help. In other cases they don't understand what shelter is, and the animal officers monitor for the owner to improve the animal's living conditions. When nothing gets done, then law enforcement gets involved, Hawkins said.
How You Can Help
Suspected animal cruelty can be reported to the SPCA Tampa Bay anytime. The phone number is 727-586-3591, ext. 9135.
The SPCA Tampa Bay is a nonprofit. The SPCA Tampa Bay website provides more information on ways to help and services they provide.