In Limbo

Cathy Salustri

A local chihuahua rescue has come under fire for operating illegally in Gulfport, with county officials releasing a video of over 20 dogs, many in stacked in crates, of the inside of one Gulfport woman’s home. At least one crate had two dogs and the video shows evidence of dog waste on the floor.

At a hearing last month, the city’s Special Magistrate James Thaler ruled in favor of the city’s allegation that Mary Margaret Barrett operated a business out of her home.
“It could have been a bakery, it could have been a auto repair shop, it could have been a nonprofit thrift shop,” Special Magistrate Thaler said, adding that the purpose of the hearing was not to debate the merits of Limbo Chihuahua.
Following up on a complaint made by Pinellas County Animal Services, the City of Gulfport sent its code enforcement office to investigate Mary Margaret Barrett’s alleged violation of city code 22-40.2. In a certified letter, the city told Ms. Barrett that it found her in violation of using a residentially-zoned property “as a kennel for an animal rescue purpose.”
“At least 27 animals were in the house. Animal Control complaint verified via photos and video,” the letter reads. “This a non-permitted use in R-2 zoning district.”
Ms. Barrett’s attorney, Diane Griffith, told Special Master Thaler that Animal Services Officer Jason Anderson saw some of Limbo Chihuahua’s dogs listed on Petfinder and “decided she was running a puppy mill over there... came over on a mission and was very rude to her... and accused her of some terrible things.”
Attorney Griffith objected to the showing of the county’s video at the September 27 hearing.
“What goes on in her house with her puppies is between her and her puppies,” Griffith told the Special Master, “and I object to this video which was taken illegally and without probable cause.” Griffith said that since the county dismissed “most of the charges” against Barrett, the officer had no right to enter Ms. Barrett’s home and take video.
Griffith told the Special Master that Ms. Barrett had only four of her own dogs and “about” six rescue dogs. “Everything else is over with other volunteers, and they’re spread all over Pinellas County,” she told the Special Master.
“She, at no time, had 25 dogs in her house,” Attorney Griffith she said. The video (click here to watch it) shows a minimum of 21 dogs in Ms. Barrett’s home. Ms. Barrett and her attorney estimate roughly 12 dogs remain at Ms. Barrett’s residence.
“There were 21 dogs,” Ms. Barrett said. “Out of those 21, three were a foster that she dropped off that day, and three were going to another rescue, but they were dropped off so I could take them to the vet.”
Officer Alexander told the magistrate he initially investigated Ms. Barrett in response to concerns about animal hoarding.
“That was the reason we were there in the first place, a year ago, that we got a complaint as a possible animal hoarder,” he said. “Basically, we told her, ‘please obtain help’. There’s too many animals, it’s overwhelming, there’s not enough ventilation, we need to get some better treatment for the animals.
“In my opinion... the intentions were very good, there’s no ill will towards the animals or anything,  but things get out of hand, don’t know when to say no, and it’s hard to say no when an animal’s facing euthanasia, but at the same time it’s not right to house them in the conditions that they were being housed,” Officer Alexander said.
“I do know when to say no,” Ms. Barrett told the Gabber. “I hate having so many dogs in my house, but I’m not going to let them die.”
When he arrived most recently in response to a complaint, he said Ms. Barrett spent about 15 minutes “cleaning and removing bags full of feces... prior to allowing inspection.”
He also said that Ms. Barrett told him that she allowed unaltered male and unaltered female dogs to interact while she was not at home. Ms. Barrett told the Gabber that was not true.
He said he advised Barrett about “minimum standards for animal care facilities.”
Ms. Barrett said she put the dogs in crates when Animal Services wanted to come in the house “because I didn’t want my dogs to be threatened.” She says that some of the dogs came to the rescue with little or no socialization. She says she feared that if the dogs felt threatened and bit the Animal Services officer, he would take the dog and euthanize it.
“If one of those dogs had done a hint of anything to those dogs, I know he would have taken them in,” she said. “They don’t live in crates.”
Special Master Thaler did not address the care or conditions of the dogs, stressing repeatedly he could only make a decision as to whether or not Ms. Barrett operated a business out of her home.
Attorney Griffith told Special Master Thaler Ms. Barrett didn’t run a business.
“This is a nonprofit. These people are volunteers. No one takes a paycheck,” she said. “They’re crippled dogs, they’re blind dogs, you know, these aren’t puppy mill dogs that she’s going to turn around and sell for profit. The services that she’s doing for this community is amazing.”
“This is not an indictment on the service,” Special Master Thaler said. “It’s not an indictment on the process that you’re doing. Gulfport city ordinance defines a kennel as three or more dogs in your house.”
Special Master Thaler asked if she had more than three dogs and the attorney said Ms. Barrett did. Griffith said again that Ms. Barrett operated a nonprofit, not a business, and that she didn’t operate it out of her home. The State of Florida lists Limbo Chihuahua as a nonprofit corporation  with a principal business address as Ms. Barrett’s home address, on the 1600 block of 54th Street South, although Attorney Griffith told Thaler that Limbo Chihuahuas changed the address to a post office box. A search of nonprofits with IRS designation as did not show Limbo Chihuahuas as a 501c3, although Ms. Barrett said she’d applied for such status.
“It takes a long time,” she said.
“It doesn’t say profit, it doesn’t say non-profit,” Thaler said of the ordinance. He asked Attorney Griffith where nonprofits were exempt from zoning regulations; she told him she knew of no such exemption listed in the code.
“She is in the business of just petting dogs, and feeding dogs, and picking up dog poop, and that is not a business in my opinion,” Griffith said.
“We really don’t enforce that to the point of saying it’s a kennel, unless it’s for profit. If they’re breeding dogs, selling dogs, collecting funds, we consider it a kennel,” Code Enforcement Officer (CEO) Bruce Earling said. He also said that when he responded to the county’s complaint, he smelled the animals from outside the home.
“As I approached the property I could smell the odor of urine and feces emitting from the structure itself,” CEO Earling said of his August 9 visit. He said no one answered his knock, so he walked around the house, where he told the Special Master the odor increased and the back porch “had feces on it and was it pretty much disarray.
“The conditions are not ones that anyone who cares about animals would continue to keep any residence or property in that type of condition,” he added, which Attorney Griffith protested.
“He is not in control of animal welfare. He is code enforcement. His job description does not include giving his opinion on how people care for dogs inside their homes,” she said.
Special Master Thaler ruled that “there is an improper use of R2 zoned property in the city of Gulfport.” He also said that “based on what the law states... this process be stopped on that property. I know it’s not easy moving dogs around. If nowadays there’s only about 12 dogs on the premises, I feel it should be reduced.”
Ms. Barrett, he said, could keep her four personal dogs.
“The rest of the dogs will need to be removed from the property,” he said, giving her two weeks to do so, although the city later opted to wait until Ms. Barrett’s appeal in circuit court to require compliance.
Attorney Griffith said Ms. Barrett would not allow the city inside her home to confirm compliance.
Gulfport City Attorney Salzman said the burden of proof of compliance lies with Ms. Barrett or face a $250 per day fine in addition to the $238 costs Ms. Barrett already owed. Thaler also added a $100 fine because the city could not determine if she was in compliance on the hearing date.
Ms. Barrett told this reporter (on Facebook) that “hoarding is not the concern of the city - zoning is their concern. If the city was concerned that I was hoarding, they would ask for the vet records. I just took in dogs from a hoarder - a true hoarder - all in very bad shape. The city does not care about that - the health and care of the dogs is not in question and has never been in question. The city wants money - that is what it comes down to. While I understand that - it is not appropriate. The 'city' questions that I have a business and am making a profit because I ask for a donation to cover vet costs which all rescues do.”
To date, Ms. Barrett owes $750.50.
“That will bankrupt the organization and that will euthanize probably 14 dogs,” Attorney Griffith said. She then laughed and added, “Congratulations. Is that what you wanted?”
“I really, Counselor, totally don’t appreciate that statement, and you are way out of order in making that statement, Counselor and truthfully that is not a very professional things to say,” he said. “I am a member of the bar also, Counselor. You will show me, the city, and those dogs respect. To damn those dogs by saying they will be euthanized is on your shoulders, OK, Counselor? and I’m going to put this back on you.”
He added that the rescue could find new homes for the dogs.
“This is on TV, and if people want to help they know how to contact Miss Barrett. I started off today by being very respectful and saying this is not about the dogs and I let you all talk about the dogs and I shouldn‘t have. If this comes back again before me, I’m not going to be so patient. This is a nonprofit business. I don’t give a darn what kind of business it is. You should not have said that, Counselor. I don’t like games, and I’m not going to put up with games. This is not on anybody’s back. You talked about just showing pictures?... I don’t know that that’s going to make them feel happy. And if they don’t feel happy, then the fine’s are going to start again, and it’s going to attach against your property, not the nonprofit.”
The Special Master said Ms. Barrett could apply for a conditional use permit to operate a rescue but also encouraged her to seek new legal counsel.
“I appreciate rescues. We have a rescue; my family loves dogs. Everybody in this city loves dogs. I don’t want you all using that as some excuse to run it out of a piece of property that you know is not zoned for a nonprofit org. There are ways to do this. Conditional Use Permits allow civic organizations to do this and you refuse to go get some sort of conditional use permit to do that,” he said. When Ms. Barrett told him she hadn’t known she could get such a permit – or that she needed one – he interrupted her.
“Well, you’ve got a lawyer here … I really think you should go seek some other counsel,” he said.
After the hearing, Ms. Barrett said the city needed to change the codes.
“There are other fosters in this area for other organizations that can now be harassed. The absolute final decision was made on a statement that determined the business status is that I have a volunteer at my home. Later that day I went to the Presidential Election meeting for volunteers. There will be a person who will use their address as a staging place for all volunteers for the elections campaign and we will meet at their home to do phone banks, et cetera,” Ms. Barrett said. “Am I to assume that they also are running a business because they are using their addresses as physical points for communication and having volunteers over? At best the magistrate’s decision is murky and opens up more questions concerning non profit organizations in general.”
She also called the decision “predetermined.”
“I think, egged on by Animal Control who does not want to see rescues proceed, [it was] determined before the proceedings that they were going to 'win' this one. It was pretty one sided and not the best moment for democracy in action. I find it funny that I have been at my home for 10 years always fostering dogs for rescues – labs to chihuahuas – and Bruce even said, ‘Gee, I never knew you were there. In fact, he came by my house not too long ago to put a notice on the door about a pile of mulch and never said anything about the barking dogs - can't touch my door without my guards. I find that very interesting,” she said.
Ms. Barrett told the Gabber that she and her attorney have asked from an appeal but they do not yet have a court date.
“Hopefully those dogs will be adopted. We don’t like to keep over 25 in the rescue as a whole, because we’re not a big rescue.”
She says she currently has nine fosters and her four dogs.
“That’s normal for me,” she says. “I usually have six and 10. There’s two dogs in my house that will probably be adopted next week.” She added that five of the dogs in her care, who came from a hoarder, have heartworm and says she’s currently treating them.
Thursday afternoon, Ms. Barrett said she had no intention of applying for a conditional use permit. Limbo Chihuahuas will change its principal address to Orlando and she says she will remain president of the rescue and a volunteer.
She said she hadn’t applied for one in the past because she didn’t know about the rules.
“The city knew that I had been fostering. They could have said at any time, Megan, maybe you need to look into this,” she said. She’s been fostering dogs at her home for a decade, she says, and “all the council people knew.”
“I have nothing against the city. I love the city of Gulfport. I tried to do everything right,” she said. “I did not do anything on purpose.”