Ten eight-week-old bloodhound puppies -- hyped up as only puppies can be -- surround Debbie Roknich as she enters her Wellington yard. Sinking to the ground, she lets the dogs bury her with love. They plant wet licks on her face and gently nip on her clothes.
"I love this," says Roknich, a slender, dark-haired woman clad in denim shorts, sneakers, and a sleeveless shirt. "This is the best."
As she sneaks away and walks toward her home, Roknich is greeted by another hound -- this one wearing a plastic cone the size of a lampshade around his neck. The cone will keep him from scratching his injured eye.
Stepping inside, a band of four large dogs runs to greet her, practically knocking her over with their enthusiasm. Three are her own and one, Daisy, is the mother of the litter outside. Daisy likes to gaze deeply into a human's eyes with her sad brown eyes and shows her affection by climbing on people as they sit on the couch, stretching her paws over their arms and throwing her full weight on them.
Roknich sidesteps the dogs to scoop up a three-week-old puppy named Montana out of the kiddie pool that doubles as the dogs' bed. Montana is the family's favorite, and her three sons vie for turns holding her.
When Roknich found her, Daisy was pregnant, homeless, and sick with heartworm -- an awful, fatal canine disease in which worms attack the dog's heart, causing it to explode. She probably would have died if Roknich, a volunteer with the group Puppies Under Protection (PUP), had not taken her in and nursed her back to health.
PUP is one of a dozen or more volunteer "rescue groups" in Palm Beach County that take in sick, newborn, and pregnant dogs -- all categories of dogs that are not easily adopted and would otherwise die on the streets or be put to sleep at Palm Beach County Animal Care & Control (ACC). The groups -- from the Tri-County Humane Society to Akita Rescue to Animal Rescue Force -- have worked hard over the last 15 to 20 years to establish a good working relationship with the former, long-time director of ACC, Dennis Moore. Before he left this spring, Moore would routinely call the various rescue groups and fax them daily listings of stray animals and "last resorts" -- animals about to be euthanized -- so group members could come pick them up.
But then a new director, Dr. Becky Rhoades, took over and immediately implemented massive procedural changes without informing the rescue groups. They quickly noticed that facility staffers stopped calling them. PUP, which used to pick up ten dogs a week at the shelter, received only three dogs in the last two and a half months. A group called Matterdorm that had been rescuing dogs for some 20 years got an average of eight sick dogs a month from animal control until Rhoades arrived. In May Matterdorm received two dogs, and in June and July, none.
The groups feared Rhoades was putting the dogs to sleep. That fear was compounded by the fact that, since Rhoades started, their access has been cut off from Kennel 2 -- where the newly found strays and "unadoptable" dogs that are likely to be euthanized are kept.
The conflict between rescue groups and Rhoades ignited when an ACC staffer leaked to PUP a memo Rhoades wrote setting forth guidelines on which dogs would be euthanized. The list included pregnant dogs that don't give birth within five days and newborns that are labeled TYTS (Too Young to Survive), meaning less than eight weeks old. (That's when spaying or neutering can occur.) PUP added heat to the controversy by providing the memo to a television reporter, who showed it on the air.
"It's a crime to kill a pregnant dog," says one rescuer who did not want to be identified for fear that Rhoades would no longer give her dogs. "We're here, willing to take them. We weren't going to sit back and let that happen."
One group was particularly furious because they had just met with Rhoades and been assured she would call before putting any dogs to sleep.
Rhoades says the memo was a rough draft, and the rescuers say she was enraged with them for going to the media. "She said, 'If anyone badmouths me, I will not work with them,'" says one volunteer.
Image is clearly uppermost in the new director's mind. Rhoades, who came from the Hawaiian Humane Society, says her goal is to make Palm Beach County Animal Care & Control "the coolest place in town to adopt an animal" and to maintain "the highest standard of care." When rescue groups tell the public they are saving dogs from death at the hands of animal control, that is not the image she wants.
"I don't want to run just a clearinghouse," she says.
Rhoades does want the animals returned to animal control after they are fostered by the volunteers -- and that is simply not acceptable to some of the groups, which say that, after they have spent weeks and months caring for the dogs, often painstakingly nursing them back to health, they want to know to what homes the dogs and cats are going. They also want the small compensation that adopting out provides as repayment for all the medicine and food they buy.
"I am the one who has responsibility for all the animals," counters Rhoades, who wants to find her own foster homes and bypass the rescue groups that have volunteered nights, weekends, and holidays to rush out and save the lives of dogs and cats over the last 20 years.
The rescuers say Rhoades is on a power trip and playing God, deciding which animals die and which live. "She thinks that if there are less puppies born more people will adopt older animals," says Jeanne Strack, president of PUP. Other groups feel Rhoades does not want adoption competition from other agencies. Rhoades acknowledges euthanasias were up by 9 percent this year but says so are intakes.
About a dozen rescue groups met with Rhoades last Thursday at the shelter to try to get some answers and thaw relations. They brought along an aide to Palm Beach County commissioner Maude Ford Lee. Rhoades set the tone of the meeting at the beginning, saying, "I don't mean to sound defensive, but a lot of horrible things have been said in the last three months. A lot of changes are going to be made here. I encourage you not to criticize us unless you know what we do here."
The meeting turned tense when Jeanette Christos of the Tri-County Humane Society hammered Rhoades with questions. She was particularly concerned about who determines whether a dog is a "fear biter" -- likely to bite and therefore immediately put to sleep -- and angrily disputed Rhoades' answer that a veterinarian will make the final decision.
"You're paid by the people with tax dollars," Christos protested.
Christos also quibbled with Rhoades' desire for fosters to give the animals back to animal control after the animals are well. "Why would they give their heart and soul to these dogs and then give them back to you -- who would do that?" she cried. "I want to know where my puppies are."
"The rescues feel disenfranchised," says Mary Beth McManus, a rescuer and member of the Palm Beach County Commission's appointed animal-control advisory board. "They feel they got to know [Rhoades] better and hope she will take advantage of their services. But they came away with nothing. We don't have the option of rescuing the animals that are unadoptable."
But they're still maintaining hope that they can work with animal control. Roknich, in fact, is moving to a bigger house in Loxahatchee just so she can have more land for the dogs and a special "puppy room." Even if she doesn't get called by animal control, Roknich says her group is getting loads of calls from private owners.
"A lot of people dump pregnant dogs and newborns," says Strack, who cares for 70 dogs at her home. "It's sad."
Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address:
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