By Penny Fletcher, The Observer News
Some large-breed dogs that were once rescued may need rescued again.
Frances Poirrier has taken in two rescue dogs in the last few years that have now gone missing.
So has Jessica Urbanski.
And when they started putting up posters and asking neighbor’s questions, it didn’t take them long to find out that many of their Wimauma neighbors were also missing dogs. They were all medium to large breeds.
Frances, who was born in Alabama but raised in Ruskin and has lived in South County most of her life, said when she lost her first dog — a German shepherd named Stripes in January — she didn’t think he had been stolen.
“Living next to hundreds of acres of woods and an agricultural reclamation area we have a lot of wild animals, including hogs, and I figured maybe Stripes had gotten in a fight and been killed,” she told me in an interview following a meeting she arranged at Denny’s restaurant Aug. 3. “But then May 23 I lost Bodie too. I had found him by the side of the road and a neighbor said he had been dropped off there. He was only a year and a half old.”
When Bodie went missing, Frances made 200 posters and started putting them up around town. While doing this, she met people who told her about Jessica Urbanski who had organized a similar poster.
Jessica had lost a husky-pit-bull mix that was 5 years old and weighed about 60 pounds.
When the two began putting up posters with photographs of lost dogs all over Wimauma and the surrounding area, people began to tell them stories of their own lost dogs.
“It was much bigger than we knew,” Frances said. So she scheduled a meeting at the local Denny’s restaurant. Three amazing things happened almost immediately.
Even though the posters advertising the meeting had only been on the street 24 hours, more than 20 people showed up. Secondly, a sheriff’s office’s environmental deputy read them and contacted Cpl. Steve Billor, chief of detectives for the area, who showed up at the meeting.
The third good thing that came about because of the posters was that Denny’s restaurant, that usually charges a $50 fee for the meeting room, waived the charge as a donation.
People gathered and promised to spread the word. They swapped stories and were advised by Cpl. Billor what they should do next.
“I have never gotten a report on a stolen dog in that area,” Billor told the crowd. I meet regularly with deputies from around the county and from the neighboring counties too and it would have been easy for me to mention this. But I didn’t know. How will anyone know if you don’t make reports? We have 250-square miles to cover with fewer than 100 deputies.”
Organized dog fights are a third-degree felony, he said. And since there have been arrests for dog fights in both Tampa and Brandon in the last six months, those at the meeting said they think there is cause to think this could be the reason for the missing dogs. Especially since no small breeds have been reported missing.
One police report has now been made. It is # 11-378158. People may add their names and dogs to this report if they wish. The number of the main desk is 813-247-8200, he said but his private line is 813-545-8329.
“This would make it much easier for the sheriff’s office to follow,” Billor said.
The dogs don’t go missing in the dead of night. They’re being taken in broad open daylight. Some of the people at the meeting live on farms and on hundreds of acres or by wooded areas, so their dogs run free.
But others were stolen from behind fenced areas.
Maria Lepochat had a beautiful family pet: a mixed-breed German shepherd that weighed around 40 pounds. This is similar in size and weight to many of the dogs taken, although some are much larger. She said her gate had been opened.
Many of the people who had lost dogs said they had been rescue dogs — meaning they had gotten them from the Humane Society, and places of refuge like C.A.R.E and Lost Angels no-kill shelters.
Christy Clark had rescued an abandoned dog recently and taken it to her vet, finding out it had Parvo. “Twenty-five hundred dollars later it was well. And now it is gone,”
Sue Killigsworth told a different kind of tale.
“I’ve always had trouble getting anybody in the county to respond to reports about dogs,” Killingsworth said. “Two winters ago we had brutal cold and there were packs of loose feral dogs running in our neighborhood — maybe 50 or 60 of them together. It took getting Pinellas County involved finally because nobody in Hillsborough said they could help with this.”
Billor said now that a report has been made, if people call and add to it, their claims will be investigated.
What frightens people like Debbie Chapman is that dogs like hers cannot always obey commands and therefore may be beaten or killed. “There is no way the thieves will know my dog is deaf,” she said, almost in tears.
“All the dogs were males — many boxers and pit bulls — except for two of the four boxers stolen from my sister,” said Connie Ciani. “She had four boxers with shock collars on.”
People who have lost dogs or who are interested in this cause may attend the next meeting. It is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at the South Shore Library on Beth Shields Way (off 19th Avenue) that runs east and west between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 in Ruskin.
“Perhaps someone has a description of the people who are stealing the dogs,” Christy Clark said.
So far, a black Chevrolet diesel pick-up truck and a smaller red pick-up are the only descriptions of vehicles described anywhere near any of the scenes.