I-Team Investigation: Innocent animals paying the price when animal rescues take in too many

Lack of oversight statewide

The pictures reveal what happens when things go wrong at dog rescues: When the person running them takes on more than they can handle and the very animals they’re trying to save become the victims. 

This story exposes a statewide blind spot that is unintentionally enabling animal neglect to fester in secret.

Even those who blew the whistle on Rose Romano are quick to point out she’s a good person with the best intentions.

They say her heart for dogs and habit of taking them in is too big for her St. Petersburg home where last week the animal rescue she operates — “Happy Hounds of Tampa Bay" — made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

"I think what’s really going on here is this particular rescue and the operation had just gotten overwhelmed," says Doug Brightwell, Director of Pinellas County Animal Services. "We found a lot of unsanitary conditions in the home which led to law enforcement being involved as well as the animals being surrendered.

Officers removed 28 dogs from Romano’s home last Friday, a dozen more since January.

The county deemed the home too unsanitary to inhabit.

Documents from animal services detail a troubled history and reveal Rose Romano has a statewide reputation for getting overwhelmed.

Case records and emails obtained by ABC Action news show shelters from all over the state have been sounding the alarm about Happy Hounds and Romano for years, alleging that she neglected some of the dogs she took from their shelters and that  dogs became “sick”, “emaciated”, and in some cases “died.” 

One complaint alleges Romano dumped two dogs on the street right after she picked them up from an animal shelter in Highlands County.

The dogs were later found and taken in by another shelter.

Neighbors say Romano’s dogs routinely run loose.

"In the middle of the day 10, 12 dogs, dozen dogs will be roaming the neighborhood," says Allison Grittani. "I respect what she’s trying to do but I don’t think a home like this is the place to do it."

Doug Brightwell is the Director of Pinellas County Animal Services.

He does not allow Romano to take dogs from his shelter because of her history.

His agency has investigated Rose Romano’s Happy Hounds three times in three years, based on complaints from other counties.

But he can’t stop her from taking dogs from Animal Shelters across the state.

So why can't Pinellas County Animal Services shut her down?

"We don’t have the authority to shut down a nonprofit organization," says Brightwell.

"I believe in this last case this operation should not be continuing," he adds.

Romano didn’t answer the door, but she did answer our call.

She admitted to dumping two dogs.

She says they were fighting so violently in her car that it became a threat to her safety.

She blames the shelter for not telling her the dogs were aggressive and didn’t get along.

As for the allegations of neglect, she strongly denied it.

When we tried to talk to her in person she told us, "How 'bout you leave me alone... I want to get my kids home, that’s what I’m in the process of doing, cleaning crates selling them, getting the hell out of here."

But the bigger picture is that in Florida there is no consistent oversight of dog rescues. It varies from county to county.

In Pinellas County, they only do inspections with the rescues that they work with. Other counties don’t inspect rescues at all.

And some rescues like Happy Hounds take in dogs from Animal Services all over the state and even out of state — meaning those counties would have to drive hundreds of miles, to make sure the dogs are in good shape.

"This isn’t the first time it won’t be the last," says Veterinarian Dr. Christy Layton with Timberlane Pet Hospital in Plant City.

She says the lack of oversight is leaving behind a vacuum of unanswered questions about the final fate of rescue dogs across the state.

She says the only way to ensure the safety of the animals is to hold rescues accountable without any direct consultation from Veterinarians or other animal professionals.

Dr. Layton says it would be helpful if all counties or the state had "someone to call all the rescues, require to know where these animals are going."

"What happened to these animals if they were euthanized... unless we get some sort of requirement in place, this will continue to happen," she says.

Rose Romano told ABC Action News she is shutting down her animal rescue, saying it’s no longer worth it.

Currently, The Happy Hounds website says it has no dogs available to adopt.

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