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Colleen McCullough, a veterinary technician, separates a male dog that was attacking a female pit bull at the Polk County Animal Control facility in Southwest Lakeland.
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Most Pit Bulls Seized by Deputies to Be Killed
By Rick Rousos
MULBERRY -- Here's the unfortunate truth for the 139 dogs seized Thursday and Friday from what deputies described as a dog-fighting factory: All but a few will be euthanized.
"It's an ugly reality," said Polk County Sheriff's Lt. Robert Oakman, who supervises Polk County Animal Control.
Nineteen of the dogs were euthanized overnight Thursday and early Friday, and another 30 received the same fate later during the day Friday. Most of those dogs were malnourished and emaciated.
The remaining dogs are being kept at the Polk County Animal Control facility on State Road 540, between Lakeland and Winter Haven.
Almost all of the dogs, including 17 puppies, are pit bulls.
The dogs being euthanized are either malnourished beyond the possibility of returning to good health or fighting dogs or both. Fighting dogs often battle each other in so-called fighting pits, an event that usually involves gambling.
Deputies say many of the puppies found on the property were wearing heavy neck chains, a sign that they were already being trained to fight. Dr. Joe Ertel, in charge of veterinary services at the county's Animal Control facility, said the staff will keep an eye on each of the puppies to determine whether they exhibit fighting behavior. Only those that don't can be adopted.
Offers to adopt the animals poured into the Sheriff's Office and The Ledger on Friday.
The man accused of owning the dogs, Hewitt Grant, 38, of 2335 Pump Road in Mulberry, remained in the Polk County Jail late Friday on 19 counts of felony animal cruelty and 54 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. His bond is set at $47,000.
Sheriff's workers removed 73 mostly malnourished dogs from the property Thursday evening and early Friday morning. And after getting an emergency court order from County Judge Steven Selph on Friday, they removed the remaining 66.
Animal Services has borrowed extra cages from Hillsborough County to accommodate the overflow of dogs.
The dogs inside the cages have a variety of problems. Many exhibit the open sores, scars, damaged legs, scraped noses and facial damage of fighting dogs. A few of the dogs have parts of their jaws missing.
"They've all got problems -every single one of them," Ertel said.
Two sheriff's veterinary technicians, Colleen McCullough and Susie Long, said the conditions on Grant's property were deplorable. They worked from 2:30 p.m. Thursday until 3:30 a.m. Friday inspecting, tagging, caring for and removing dogs from the property.
"Dogs were everywhere and very close together. It was heartbreaking," Long said. "We had to be careful not to step on boards or in holes."
Rows of cages at Animal Control are back-to-back with a hard plastic door at the back of each cage preventing animals from going from one cage to another.
But one pit bull on Friday managed to raise the door that separated him from the dog on the other side -- and all kinds of trouble commenced.
The fight had to be broken up by Animal Control workers, which was no quick or easy task.
There's no question that the influx of what is now 90 dogs has strained the system at Animal Control. Sheriff Grady Judd described it as "stretching the system beyond its ability to properly function."
"It's a massive, expensive undertaking. We have to sue him in civil court to get possession of the animals, and we have to keep the animals until we get legal possession of them," Judd said.
Judd said the Sheriff's Office is researching the legality of confiscating Grant's home and property, not just dogs and dog-fighting paraphernalia, "because his property was instrumental in committing a felony."
Judd said Grant was part of a "black market" for fighting dogs. He suspects there are plenty more illegal dog-fighting businesses in Polk County.
Rick Rousos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7516.