By Jay Meisel
FELLSMERE - When people buy animals, they're supposed to have some assurance their new pets are healthy, a state investigator said last week.
But Lt. Mike Freeman, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement, said it's not uncommon for buyers to later discover the document is just a piece of paper.
Such was the case that involved a Fellsmere woman who authorities believe sold dogs with false animal health certificates, he said.
Cathy Kenyon Hinkle, 45, 14750 101st St., Fellsmere, was arrested June 28 and charged with three counts of forgery or uttering a false animal health certificate and criminal use of identification.
An arrest affidavit said the investigation began after buyers of dogs from Ms. Hinkle showed the health certificates to veterinarians, who told them the documents appeared to be forged or altered.
Investigations of such allegations have become frequent, Lt. Freeman said "We see them fairly regularly," he added.
The motivation for such a violation is that dog breeders/sellers avoid the cost of paying a veterinarian, he said.
Laws regarding health certificates provide assurance to pet buyers that they are getting healthy animals, Lt. Freeman said.
"They get attached to the animals and want to grow old with them," he said.
Another purpose of the law, he said, is help stem the spread of animal disease.
Cathy Scott, a Fort Pierce veterinarian who saw one of the certificates that authorities allege to be false, said she sees such altered or forged certificates too often.
Dr. Scott said she believes the system doesn't have enough safeguards to prevent the crime. But, she said, she doesn't want to disclose publicly the weaknesses in the system and make it easier for more people to provide false certificates.
Buyers of animals can safeguard themselves by checking with veterinarians who issued the certificates to make sure the documents are authentic, she said.
Her office keeps a copy of each certificate, she said.
In some cases, though, the signatures on the certificate are impossible to read, she said.
The investigation regarding Ms. Hinkle began after the state received information from Lisa D. Jutras, a veterinarian at St. Francis Animal Hospital in Vero Beach, about a fraudulent animal health certificate.
After that a state investigator talked with two women who said they bought puppies from Ms. Hinkle at her Fellsmere residence, an arrest affidavit said.
The women told the investigator they took the puppies and health certificates to Sebring Animal Hospital and doctors there told them the documents "appeared to be forged and fraudulent," the arrest affidavit said.
Those doctors then contacted Dr. Jutras, who, upon seeing one of the documents, told them it "was forged without her full knowledge and consent," the arrest affidavit said.
Dr. Jutras told investigators she contacted Ms. Hinkle, who "did apologize and did fully admit to altering, falsifying and/or forging the official certificate of veterinary inspection," the affidavit said.
However, the affidavit said when interviewed by an investigator, Ms. Hinkle denied selling the dogs involved.
Dr. Jutras also told investigators another certificate presented to the Animal Hospital of Fort Pierce, where Dr. Scott is a veterinarian, also was forged, the affidavit said.
She was contacted by the animal hospital about what appeared to be a fraudulent certificate from her office.
Lt. Freeman said his office is not aware of Ms. Hinkle selling other animals with fraudulent certificates.
He urged any other potential victims to contact law enforcement.