Gus Arana won’t let his children play outside of their home in southwest Miami Dade after spotting three stray dogs three weeks ago.
"These dogs are big enough to destroy any little kid," said Arana from the front yard of his home.
He spotted a group of stray dogs in his neighborhood, one with cuts and wounds, and reported it to the County’s 311 service in early February. NBC 6 cameras captured the animals on camera taking cover under partially constructed homes nearby.
Miami Dade County Animal Services responded to Arana’s 311 call. They showed up and left a trap outside. Weeks later, the trap is gone and the animals are still roaming the area.
"Unless the authorities will do something soon, I mean these dogs are hungry, who knows what they’ll do," said Arana.
Thousands of people like Arana call 311 for help about stray animals each year in Miami-Dade County.
Many of the calls come from people who volunteer to feed and rescue stray and abandoned dogs. These volunteers say it’s a growing concern – that pets are being dumped on the side of the road often in more rural areas.
The NBC 6 Investigators spent days following volunteers with the Redland Rock Pit Abandoned Dog Project. NBC 6 cameras captured packs of dogs running alongside traffic, some sitting on the side of the road and others roaming through fields.
"They dump them like garbage," said volunteer Kayla Harris. "The dogs are dying, they can’t survive out here."
While both volunteers and county animal officials share a love of animals, they don’t agree on how big of a problem it is and how to work together to fix it.
VOLUNTEERS: ANIMALS ARE HOMELESS AND HUNGRY
Volunteer Carmen Paredes is a special needs teacher by day. By night, she volunteers to feed hungry animals throughout the county. She drives from place to place, hauling dog food and water from the trunk of her car into wooded areas alongside roads.
“If we didn’t come and feed these dogs, no one else would,” said Paredes.
She is one of several volunteers with the non-profit Redland Rock Pit Abandoned Dog Project. The group is one of at least a half dozen organized, non-profit groups that feeds and rescues stray and abandoned animals.
The volunteers say the number of dogs they have rescued has doubled over the last two years and the area they cover has spread north into more urban areas.
Volunteers say they’re also seeing an alarming number of dead dogs.
“They’re used to living in homes and all of a sudden they have to fend for themselves,” said Paredes.
Volunteers also rescue some of the dogs they feed, if they have lined up a foster family for the animal.
COUNTY'S RESPONSE: NUMBERS GOING DOWN
It’s the job of Miami-Dade Animal Services to respond to stray animals. Director Alex Munoz told NBC 6 Investigators the stray and abandoned animals are no more of an issue in South Florida than anywhere else.
“Everywhere in the United States animals are being abandoned and strays all throughout the United States of America and that’s why animal shelters exist,” said Munoz.
While Director Munoz said there’s no actual proof people are dumping dogs, this month he ordered a dozen signs to be installed throughout the Redland and the Rock Pit area near Okeechobee and the Turnpike. The signs warn that abandoning a pet is a crime and notifies people to call 311 to report it if they see it happening.
“Abandoning an animal is against the law and that’s something that would be very concerning to us,” said Munoz.
He said the number of calls made to the County’s 311 service to pick up stray dogs has actually gone down over the past three years.
County numbers show the number of stray dog calls has decreased by from than 4,000 over the past three years from 13,691 in 2014 to 9,518 in 2016.
Volunteers said it’s a growing problem because dogs can multiply quickly. Many of the animals are not spayed or neutered.
“It’s just a continuous cycle,” Paredes said. “No matter how many dogs we pick up or moms we take care of, it doesn’t matter, it keeps happening.”
WORKING TOGETHER NOT WORKING
Members of the volunteer group said they need help. However, the Director of Animals Services told NBC 6 his department has offered free help. Munoz provided NBC 6 with an email showing last May, his department offered free vetting, micro-chipping and other services for members of the Redland Rock Pit Abandoned Dog Project and other volunteer groups.
“Sadly, none of the groups has taken us up on this free offer,” said Munoz.
Redland Rock Pit Co-founder Yleana Escobar said they’re “hesitant” about taking the help because they don’t want the animals to go to shelter. The volunteers want to find the animals a home.
County officials said they’re also concerned volunteers are taking animals that actually have owners, even though the pets aren’t properly licensed. Escobar said that has happened four times over the past two years. The volunteer group posts pictures of every animal to its Facebook Page. They said if an unlicensed pet owner comes forward they immediately return the animal.
The volunteers group uses a device to scan animals to determine if they have a microchip before rescuing and placing the dog with a foster family.
County officials said they will continue to post more warning signs throughout problem areas and will continue responding to 311 calls. They’ve received more than 35,000 animal related service calls over the past three years.
Meanwhile volunteers will continue feeding hungry animals and do whatever they can to find homes for the ones they can catch.
"I can’t go to bed knowing I’m sitting in my house with my dogs, nice and comfortable, when I know there are dogs fighting just to stay alive,” said Paredes.