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Stopping animal cruelty has been her life's work

Lt. Sherry Schlueter, who single-handedly altered how the crimes are

August 16, 2009|Susannah Bryan | Bryan writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Who do you call when the crime victim is a puppy?

For 30 years, it was Broward County Sheriff's Office Lt. Sherry Schlueter, the woman who became a cop solely to stop cruelty to animals.

"It's the only reason I put myself through hell every day of my life," she once told a reporter.

Last month, Schlueter ended a 30-year career at the Sheriff's Office, where she spent her days -- and sometimes nights -- avenging crimes against animals.

Now, Schlueter, 56, is director of the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where 14,000 injured, abandoned or abused native wild animals and exotic domestic animals are rescued each year. The center's goal is to rehabilitate and release native wildlife and find homes for domestic animals, including rabbits, pigs, goats and cows.

"Maybe the Muscovies will have a chance now," said Eunice Siversten, who runs a duck refuge in Margate, Fla.

Schlueter is described as "charismatic, principled and effective" by her new boss, Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, which recently joined forces with the center.

As a teenager, Schlueter volunteered at the center when it opened in 1969 and, more recently, served on the board of directors.

"It's come full circle," said Judy LaRose, senior director of animal services at the center. "She started as a volunteer here, and she's now back as director. She's going to be a voice for the animals."

Schlueter, who founded the Sheriff's Office Animal Abuse Unit in 1982, has been credited with almost single-handedly changing the way law enforcement treats the crime in Florida. Animal abuse became a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine in 1989. Schlueter co-wrote and lobbied for the bill after teens set afire and killed a Doberman pinscher mix named Fame.

Schlueter, the first officer to make an arrest under the felony statute, estimates she has handled or supervised thousands of animal abuse cases in her career. She won't recount the horror stories she's seen, afraid of giving people ideas.

One of her most infamous animal cruelty cases made headlines worldwide in 1995 when a man buried nine puppies alive. The mother dog, a Rottweiler named Sheba, broke free from her chain to dig them up. Schlueter later led the effort to find homes for Sheba and the six puppies that survived. The dogs' owner got four months in jail and was barred from ever owning any dogs or cats.

Schlueter spent six years as an investigator with the Humane Society of Broward County before joining the Sheriff's Office in 1979. She spent two years on road patrol, investigating animal abuse cases on her own time.

In 1982, with the permission of then-Sheriff Bob Butterworth, she created the nation's first law enforcement unit exclusively devoted to investigating crimes against animals. Over the years, she shared her expertise with other jurisdictions.

"If they called her, she dropped what she was doing and went," Sheriff Al Lamberti said.

Schlueter welcomed the calls, even at midnight.

As a child growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Schlueter was the one who saved the spiders and carried the cockroach out of the room to safety.

"I'd tell people off if they didn't treat their animals right," said Schlueter, who became a vegetarian at 19.

Today, she shuns not only cheeseburgers but also leather, fur, silk and wool. Her pink lipstick has not been tested on animals, and her black heels are made of synthetic leather.

Butterworth said he's proud of what Schlueter has done for animals and the agency. "She's the first call most people make when it comes to animal cruelty. That's not going to go away. I think you're going to see her in a higher profile."

Schlueter's legacy, the Special Victims and Family Crimes Section at the Broward Sheriff's Office, now handles animal abuse and abuse cases involving children, the disabled and the elderly, as well as sex crimes and domestic violence.

As for Schlueter's successor, Lamberti says, "We have to find someone, but I can tell you, we're not going to find anyone as dedicated as she was. But the good thing is, she's only going to be a phone call away."

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