By Dan Christensen
“Vigilante trappers” and pet activists have improperly stuck Broward taxpayers with the tab to sterilize feral and stray cats.
An internal county report says Broward’s Stop Pet Overpopulation Together (S.P.O.T.) program was misused by animal rescue groups to have wild cats spayed and neutered at local clinics in violation of program rules.
No allegations of wrongdoing were leveled at any specific animal rescue group or clinic, but reports by Broward’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Professional Standards recommended better verification of pet ownership before S.P.O.T. sterilization vouchers are issued.
S.P.O.T. program coordinator Timothy Weihrauch said program fixes have already been made.
“This new process prevents vigilante trappers from trapping feral cats and presenting vouchers which they obtained by soliciting unknowing citizens in local neighborhoods,” Weihrauch said.
“I have already seen numbers from [animal] hospitals which had been questioned for ‘feral’ activity drop drastically.”
The investigative report, written April 20, was made public recently at Broward Bulldog’s request.
Low and moderate income pet owners who own and keep a dog or cat are eligible to obtain S.P.O.T. vouchers. But county officials believe some activists duped friends, neighbors or others to sign up for vouchers to sterilize feral cats that no one owns.
The county’s internal probe began last November after complaints were received that two clinics, Cats Exclusive of Margate and Discount Pet Clinic in Davie, had misused S.P.O.T. funds. Each of those clinics performed dozens of sterilizations in 2008 that were paid for by the county, the report said.
Investigators were suspicious because registered pet owners who received their annual license renewals in 2009 reported back that they didn’t own the neutered animal. Likewise, numerous S.P.O.T. applications submitted to the county for payment had similar handwriting, reports say.
“Each alleged S.P.O.T. pet owner brought in 2-4 cats at a time,” says one report.
At the county’s request, the clinics turned over S.P.O.T. surgery records for the period May-August 2008. In March, investigators interviewed 18 customers each from the two clinics.
Thirteen customers of the nonprofit Cats Exclusive and eight from Discount Pet said they did not own the animal registered to them.
Investigators did not attempt to determine how long program misspending occurred, or determine its breadth. But Professional Standards director Gretchen Harkins said the misuse had cost in the thousands of dollars.
Broward paid for about 2,000 S.P.O.T. sterilizations in 2008 at more than 20 veterinary clinics and nonprofit organizations. The procedures were funded by a $2 surcharge on animal license tags.
The S.P.O.T. program reimburses veterinarians $60 to neuter a male cat, and $86 to spay a female cat. Pet owners must pay an additional $10 at the clinic.
Feral cats are excluded from the program by county ordinance because they are not owned by anyone, said S.P.O.T coordinator Weihrauch.
While the rules are clear, the S.P.O.T. application form was “vague” in 2008, the reports say. The form was revised this year, and applicants must now certify they live in Broward and own the animal that’s to be sterilized. They must also present a photo ID.
Some pet owners told investigators they gave cats to several rescue groups to stop the killing of animals and to reduce the population of wild cats in their neighborhoods. The report on Cats Exclusive identifies two of those groups as Beyond Nine and Animal Aid.
“Other pet owners stated that they were being solicited by rescue organizations to bring in the cats for spaying/neutering,” says the report, adding that unidentified rescue workers also provided pet owners with “pre-completed S.P.O.T. applications” for them to sign.
The report concluded evidence “clearly supports the allegation that many of the S.P.O.T. application pet owners [at Cats Exclusive] were bringing feral/stray or rescue cats, in violation of the S.P.O.T. program eligibility requirements.”
A spokeswoman for Cats Exclusive said the clinic did not know of any misuse of the county’s vouchers.
“If anybody was misusing the vouchers they pretty much had nothing to do with us,” said manager Niuvi Liriano.
Investigators also found that Discount Pet customers did not own sterilized cats registered in their names. However, they found no cause to believe pre-completed forms were used at Discount Pet because all 18 pet owners they contacted said they signed their applications.
Clinic co-owner Sherry Norem said she supports the new county requirements and was unaware of any past voucher abuses.
The report is the latest problem for the section that runs Broward’s animal shelter. Three years ago, reports of animal abuse and poor management at the shelter prompted county commissioners to pay for an expensive audit that led to numerous recommendations for change.
Animal Care received an administrative shake up earlier this year when it was put under the control of the county’s Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Division. The move came after animal care mistakenly euthanized a cat with an embedded locator microchip that was owned by a Broward family. Animal Care’s former bureaucratic home, the Department of Community Services, is being disbanded Oct. 1.